He knew what moves to make

Not a baseball card blog. This is NOT a baseball card blog.

I’ve said that once before, and yet here is a baseball card. But it’s only there because it ties into a point that I want to make. Just bear with me for a few minutes.

Dick Williams died recently. His was a name I had either forgotten about, or never really known in the first place. His obituary was on the Sports page, and he was a baseball guy, so I started to give it a read. And I learned a few things, which is why anybody reads in the first place, right?

What I zeroed in on was the fact that he was the manager of the San Diego Padres in 1984, which is a seminal year for me. Every Cubs fan can tell you about 1984. It was the year that the Cubs won their division–for the first time ever– but then lost in the most heartbreaking way imaginable in the playoffs. Dick Williams and Craig Lefferts each had something to do with that.

There was only one round of the playoffs back then, and it was a best-of-five series. The Cubs won the first two games against the Padres in Chicago, and went out west needing to win just one of three games to get to their first World Series in many fans’ (like mine) lifetimes. I was absolutely giddy at the prospect, as much as any 16 year old could be.

The Cubs lost game 3 in San Diego, but no matter. There were still two more games to go. It’s in the bag, I told myself. And, after eight innings of Game 4, the Cubs were knocking on the door. They had tied the game with a pair of runs off of San Diego’s ace reliever, Goose Gossage. The Cubs had essentially knocked Gossage out, and only needed a run in the ninth to get to the World Series. It was theirs for the taking.

That’s when Dick Williams called on Craig Lefferts, whose card you see above. Lefferts had come up with the Cubs in 1983, and was on the team when the 1984 Topps baseball cards were released (that’s why he’s shown in a Cubs uniform). And then, just like that, he got traded to the Padres. This was Lefferts’ chance to show the Cubs what a mistake they had made in letting him go.

In real life, when somebody dumps you, or you get fired from a job, you are not likely to have a chance to redeem yourself directly against the person who rejected you. Life doesn’t work like that, but sports does. You let a pitcher go, and chances are, at some point, that pitcher can face his old team. And don’t think they don’t hold grudges about things like that, either. That’s only human nature.

So Lefferts came in to face his old teammates with his new team’s fate hanging in the balance. The Cubs went hard after him, too, loading the bases with two outs. But Lefferts got Ron Cey to ground out to end the inning, and Cey’s old Dodger teammate, the evil Steve Garvey, hit a walkoff home run in the bottom of the ninth to win it for the Padres. That fist pumping thing he did as he rounded the bases haunts me  to this day.

Not only did Lefferts get the job done, but he picked up the win, too. He must have felt as vindicated as could be after the game. But there was still a Game 5 to be played. And the Cubs were throwing the invincible (for that year, anyway) Rick Sutcliffe at the Padres. I still liked their chances.

The Cubs got out to a 3-0 lead in the second inning of Game 5, and the Cubs had their pitcher on base and the top of the order coming up. The World Series couldn’t have seemed any closer than that.

But it never did get any closer than that. Dick Williams came out to the mound and replaced the Padres’ starter, Eric Show. I’m certain that Show didn’t want to come out, that he wanted to keep plugging away and right the ship. Real competitors want to do that in every game, but this was the postseason, for crying out loud.  But teams have a manager for a reason, and Williams understood what his job was: Diagnose the problem and get it fixed. So Show came out, and the Padre bullpen took over much earlier than it wanted to.

The Padres got out of the inning without any further damage, and proceeded to shut down the Cubs in a way that Show could not. First Andy Hawkins, and then Dave Dravecky, and the bleeding had been stopped (thank goodness for Retrosheet, because so much of this has been blocked out of my memory for the past quarter century). And then, in the 6th inning, Williams turned to Craig Lefferts, again.

A day after shutting down the Cubs with the game on the line, Lefferts again got the job done, going 1-2-3 in the sixth and the seventh innings. And then, in the bottom of the 7th, the Padres come back and took the lead after Sutcliffe was gassed. Lefferts again got the win, because this time Goose Gossage shut the Cubs down in the 8th and the 9th innings. Lefferts was again vindicated against his old team, and Williams looked like a genius for going to his bullpen when he did. He laughed all the way to the World Series.

The Detroit Tigers were a fearsome bunch in 1984, and I have no illusions that they couldn’t have beaten the Cubs rather handily in the World Series. But I never did get to find out, because Dick Williams somehow knew what pitchers to turn to, and the ones that he did turn to, like Craig Lefferts, answered the call when they got it. And all these years later, I still don’t know what that must feel like. And I wonder if I ever will.

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