1977 was a unique year for me. Every year is unique in one way or another, and I wouln’t ever want to live through a year that was exactly like some other year. But there were some things that will stick with me for as long as I live.
The first thing was that my family had just moved into the “house I grew up in” the previous year. It had weird red carpeting and still smelled of cats from the previous owners, but it was home, and would remain so until I left for college ten years later. It would become familiar in time, but for the time being it was still new and exciting.
Related to the new house was a new baby brother, who had been born the previous year. He was the only “baby” sibling that my brother and sister and I got to have, because the three of us were all close to each other age-wise. So we all had to help take care of the baby, but we also got to have fun with him, too. We never had a dog, but having a baby was probably more fun, anyway.
The third new thing in 1977 was non-Disney movies. Prior to that year, every movie I had ever seen in a theater was a Disney movie like Bambi or Robin Hood. I still remember my Robin Hood metal lunchbox with much fondness. But Star Wars was all the rage that summer, and when my dad took me to see it with him, my eyes opened to a whole other world I had never known before. Talk about a cool experience.
But the new thing I remember most, as usual, was the Chicago Cubs. We had cable television in our new house, and it was not a given to have it back then. I had discovered that WGN carried Cubs games every afternoon, and I embraced the games as I rarely have anything else in life (except for my family, of course). Watching the Cubs play on TV was my entry, of sorts, into the world beyond my house and my school and my neighborhood. It may even explain why I live in Chicago, all these years later.
To the nine-year-old that I was back then, the Cubs had no painful record of losing. That this history had existed throughout my lifetime, and even my father’s lifetime, wasn’t clear to me just yet. But I would learn the truth soon enough.
All I knew was that the Cubs’ team flag flew at the top of the scoreboard’s flagpole. That meant they were in first place, which was where a team wanted to find itself as often as possible and–most importantly of all–at the end of the regular season.
The 1977 Cubs, including the previously-unknown Bruce Sutter, occupied first place in their division from Memorial Day until early August. At the end of the first half of the season, the team was at 51-30 and cruising along. And then the air started to hiss from out of their balloon.
By early August, the Cubs’ lead in the National League East was gone. And so, in an attempt to stem the tide, the Cubs purchased the contract of veteran pitcher Dave Giusti, who was in his fifteenth (and, ultimately, his final) season in the big leagues. Giusti joined the club, not really to save games (that was Bruce Sutter’s job), but to provide some stability to the pitching staff. But the drop from first place, and finally out of contention altogether, was swift and complete, as the team finished in fourth place, 20 games behind the division-winning Phillies.
It still doesn’t seem possible for a team that was 25 games over .500 at one point to miss the playoffs. But that’s how it went down, and whatever the Cubs had hoped to accomplish would have to wait until the next decade. Giusti didn’t pitch badly, but his job appeared to be closing out the games that the Cubs were behind in. If they were ahead they used Sutter, and if they were behind they went with Giusti.
Giusti retired at the end of the season, and the Cubs didn’t get another whiff of first place until the breakthrough season of 1984. And by that time, I was well aware of the good thing that the Cubs had going in the first half of the 1977 season. I should have enjoyed it more, since it has been all too rare in the years since then.