The Most Disappointing Season For…The Chicago Cubs
The 1985 Chicago Cubs
Record: 77-84 (4th NL East, tied for 8th out of 12 in NL)
Pythagorean Record: 76-85
Runs Scored: 686 (4th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 729 (11th in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 96-65
Manager: Jim Frey
Hype: The Cubs were one ground ball away from making the World Series. The core of the team is back, and the Cubs made a couple of key spare part additions and had a phenom now starting at short. There was no stopping them.
The Gory Details: You could joke that every season since 1945 has been a disappointment for the Cubs, but in reality, for many of those years they weren’t ready to contend. Here, though, they were just coming off of a playoff appearance and probably should have beaten the Padres in the NLCS.
Everyone was back. Two pitchers, Dennis Eckersley and Rick Sutcliffe, re-signed with the Cubs after becoming free agents. The Cubs traded for Ray Fontenot to add depth to the staff and decided to break camp with rookie Shawon Dunston at shortstop.
What’s more, they had the reigning MVP, Ryne Sandberg. He could do it all – hit, hit with power, run, field, throw. He won the gold glove at second base. He had matinee idol looks.
Women wanted him; men wanted to be him. Harry Caray wanted to be his dad. If he’s healthy – CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN!
Or so everyone thought.
It was a bold move starting a raw rookie in Dunston at short, and at first he did struggle at the plate. He was a much better shortstop than the incumbent Larry Bowa, who had the range of a broken foosball player, but at the dish he was lost. Dunston’s struggles didn’t affect the Cubs in the least. They broke out of the gate strong.
At the beginning of May the Cubs were 12-6. The rotation of Sutcliffe, Eckersley, Scott Sanderson and Steve Trout were dealing. Lee Smith was holding down the bullpen. The Mets and Expos also got off to strong starts, but the Cardinals, who were supposed to contend, came out of the gates slowly. Smart money was still on the Cubs.
The brain trust of the Cubs pulled the plug on Dunston in early May, deciding that they could live with Bowa and pickup Chris Speier at short. Everywhere else the team seemed set, and another veteran pickup, Davey Lopes, was spelling players all around the diamond, especially in center field where Bob Dernier was struggling a bit. Gary Matthews was also slipping a bit, but no one was concerned about Sarge.
The rest of the lineup, Leon Durham, Ron Cey, Keith Moreland, and Jody Davis, all were in good shape. Cey wasn’t hitting for average, but that wasn’t his job. Sandberg was off to his normal slow start in April but really started to scald the ball in May.
Mid-May also saw Matthews hit the DL, giving his slot to Lopes and Thad Bosley. No matter. With Bowa on board and the pitching still being strong, the Cubs were either in first or second all month, fighting the Mets and Expos along the way.
As the calendar turned into June, the Cubs ran into some more nagging problems. Sandberg missed a few games, and Dernier was have injury issues as well. Yet, Chicago started a winning streak when Sandberg was out, and even with Dernier now on the DL, the Cubs beat the Expos in Montreal for their sixth win in a row.
It was June 11th. That streak enabled the Cubs to open up a four game lead on the Mets, with the Expos and Cardinals lagging farther behind.
Winning streaks end, especially on the road. The Cubs dropped the next two games, and then went home for three against St. Louis before going on the road to meet the Mets and the Cards. For June, these were all big series.
Game one against the Cardinals was one of “those” games in Wrigley. The Cardinals won 11-10, wasting a five RBI performance from “Jodeee” Jody Davis. They were shutout the next game by Danny Cox, and then Kurt Kepshire beat them to knock Chicago out of first place.
Then it was off to New York. In four games, the Cubs scored four runs – two off of Sid Fernandez, one one off of Ed Lynch, and one off of Roger McDowell. Ron Darling and Dwight Gooden shut them out. Cubs pitchers gave up 14 runs in the four games, which wasn’t bad but it couldn’t prevent another sweep.
Now the Cubs trudged to St. Louis having lost nine in a row and now in fourth place. They were only 1 ½ games behind, but still – fourth place.
There was no relief in game one, as Kepshire shut the Cubs out until the seventh, and when they scored two in that frame the Cardinals came back and plated four in the bottom of the inning.
Eckersley left with two on and no out, and Jim Frey went right to Smith to try to end all of this nonsense. Smith walked two in a row and gave up a bases clearing triple to Jack Clark and that was loss number 10 in a row.
Smith lost the next game as well, giving up a single to Curt Ford in the bottom of the 10th. The Cards had surged to first on the back of the reeling Cubs. St. Louis finished the sweep the next game behind a John Tudor shutout.
Limping home, the Cubs lost their 13th in a row to the Mets and were now 4 ½ games out in fourth place. Finally, on June 26th, the Cubs broke the streak. Chicago got to Fernandez and McDowell, and Fontenot pitched seven strong innings for the win. Now that the streak was broken, it was time to start winning again.
Except the flesh was week. The Cubs tried rookies Darrin Jackson and Billy Hatcher in center, and they weren’t the answers and Dernier was struggling or injured. Fontenot was added to the rotation full time to replace Dick Ruthven who was running out of career gas.
Then, like dominoes falling, Sanderson, Trout and Sutcliffe all missed starts around the same time frame, only to be replaced by an old Larry Gura, a mediocre Lary Sorenson and unprepared rooks Steve Engel and Derek Botelho.
Through all this the Cubs were keeping their head above the .500 water, somehow. At the end of July they were 52-47, 8 ½ games back in fourth place, but 17-14 since their long losing streak. Another hot streak and they’d be back in it, especially since they started the month facing the Mets, Cardinals and Expos.
It was a hot mess. They lost 10 of 12 to start August. They couldn’t score runs consistently, and when they did their pitchers faltered. Sutcliffe and Trout were still out, and Ruthven and Botelho were not up to it. Yet for the most part their regular lineup was available, Sandberg was hitting well, and they still couldn’t score runs.
That was all she wrote. Sanderson was shut down again. Eckersley missed more time. Trout and Sutcliffe came back, but too late to do any good. The Cubs brought Dunston back up and he started to move the Shawon-o-meter past .200 and to a decent average.
Hatcher played regularly in September, and during the malaise of the second half, Sandberg, Durham and Thad Bosley all kept hitting.
But they had to give starts to pitchers Johnny Abrego and Reggie Patterson, along with whoever else was healthy and able to throw at least five innings. No one’s heart was in it, and they skidded down under .500 and finished a whopping 23 ½ back.
This core, built to win in 1985, had to be split up, and it was. New, younger players were added and they did rise again to win the division in 1989. This season, though, was a bitter pill, and it wasn’t just due to injuries. That’s what hurt the worse.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Sandberg didn’t reach the heights of his 1984 season, and his best months were when the Cubs were throwing in the towel. Still, he compiled a 5.8 WAR and stole 54 bases, which is one skill no one remembers about Sandberg.
Honorable Mention Team: The 1990 Cubs. This could have easily been the main article, but the 1989 Cubs were younger and some of those guys played out of their mind before crashing back to earth in 1990.
Bad Blast from the Past: The Cubs had a great run from 1935-38, winning two NL titles and finishing second twice. In 1939, their pitching staff faltered and the slipped down to fourth, starting a long period of abject mediocrity that was only temporarily halted thanks to the WW2 season of 1945.