It wasn’t Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at-bat, and it wasn’t Babe Ruth hitting three homers in one of his final games, with the Boston Braves. It was, however, the most moving event of this quickly passing baseball season, perhaps the most moving event on the Chicago sports scene this year. No other baseball season in our memory has moved so rapidly from spring to fall; we looked up from our scorecard in early September and saw the leaves on the ivy beginning to change color, which reminded us of an excellent catch Dave Martinez made in right-center field back when there wasn’t a leaf to be seen on the Wrigley Field walls. Then, last weekend, we attended Wrigley on three consecutive beautiful days–cloudless, pleasant afternoons that brought with them a familiar slant of sun that reminded us of nothing but two consecutive similar afternoons almost exactly three years ago and plans (soon aborted) to set off for Detroit a week later.
This is the time of year baseball fans treasure, and the three days of last weekend were tinted with an almost instant nostalgia, a sense of history in the making, that typifies the end of baseball season, with our attention heightened by the season’s climax and with our eyes on the scoreboard with its dispatches from faraway fields. The Saint Louis Cardinals came to town last Friday three and a half games ahead of the New York Mets, in the thick of the pennant race, and the Cubs–finding themselves playing games of some import for the first time in months–responded by playing inspired baseball. In the first game of the series, on Friday, Andre Dawson hit a two-run homer, his 46th of the season, in the first inning, and Scott Sanderson–who said, after the game, that he was tired of hearing that the Cubs have only one good pitcher–combined with Frank DiPino to make it stand up. The Mets beat the Pittsburgh Pirates that night to draw within two and a half games.
In Saturday’s second game of the series, the Cubs’ one good pitcher, Rick Sutcliffe, went against the Cards’ sometime ace, John Tudor. Borrowing Jerome Holtzman’s column for a day, Dallas Green had recently accused the team of giving up and said it only played well behind Sutcliffe. In this game, however, the Cubs were flat through five innings; by the time they got going the Cards had the game well in hand. The Cubs came back, but Leon Durham left the tying run on second base in the ninth inning when he was called out on strikes without even taking the bat off his shoulder. The Cards won, 5-3.
For a Cub fan, nothing is quite so infuriating as losing to the Cardinals in Wrigley when the Cards are in the pennant race and the Cubs are not. The low level of interest shown in Chicago allowed the Cardinals’ abundant fans to buy up huge blocks of seats in the upper deck, while down below Saint Louis business executives must have been calling in their Chicago markers all week, because even in the corporate seats the Saint Louis imports were plentiful. I hate the Cardinals with a passion, even more than the Mets; I dislike both teams evenly, but when the Mets come to town they aren’t accompanied by an army of rubes wearing red hats, red shirts, red sweaters, red pants, and sometimes even red shoes. Throughout the ballpark, the Cardinals were well represented, so much so that a person going to the bathroom could not rely on crowd noises to tell him or her how the game was going. A double play was liable to be greeted or booed and usually both depending on which team was turning it and which victimized.
Like Dr. Seuss’s grinch, I hold a hand to my ear after each of the Cardinals’ losses in Chicago and wait for those woeful Cardinals’ boo-hoos that give me such a grinchy grin. When the Cardinals win, however, there is no enduring the long walk down the ramps to the nearest exit. Saturday’s game was made doubly difficult as the Pirates were pasting Dwight Gooden in New York, and with every new Pirate run posted on the scoreboard the Cardinals’ fans cheered and snickered and hyukked their way through the day.
Sunday’s game was the last the Cubs had this year against the Cardinals; it was also the last home game of the season. Some fans–including the person who usually shares the next seat in our pair of season tickets–can’t understand why anyone would want to go see a last-place team on a pleasant day toward the end of September. These people missed the Chicago sports event of the year.
The Cubs sent Lester Lancaster–a rookie who has pitched extremely well of late–against the Cardinals’ Danny Cox, a dependable pitcher who usually ties the Cubs in knots. Through three innings, he had no trouble against eight of the Cubs, but leadoff man Bob Dernier had a homer and a double, and the Cubs led 1-0. The Mets, meanwhile, opened a large lead against the Pirates, so the Cardinals’ fans were subdued. They were also less numerous than they had been the day before; evidently most were home observing the Sabbath or visiting grandparents or spitting off the porch or putting a new coat of white paint on the picket fence or whatever it is the Cardinals’ fans do on Sundays. In the fourth and fifth innings, the Cubs hit the Cards with a pair of two-run rallies and led 5-0 going into the sixth. The Cardinals scrambled back, scoring one in the sixth and two in the seventh. Losing this game by such a comeback would be agonizing. Frank DiPino got the last out in the seventh, however, and Lee Smith came on in the eighth. Allowing the leadoff man to reach base in both the last two innings to make himself feel comfortable, he nevertheless faced the minimum six batters and earned the save.
We were watching the game with Ryne Sandberg’s biggest fan–the one person we knew who would appreciate this last home game of the year–and as he came to the plate to lead off the eighth we realized that this was probably his last Wrigley Field plate appearance of the season. The game, like the season, had passed quickly, so the end came up almost before we were prepared for it. Had Sandberg and Dawson–who followed him two spots later in the order–batted for the last time in the seventh inning, it’s doubtful we would have realized the importance of the occasion. As it was, in the bottom of the eighth, with the Cubs winning handily, it was almost too obvious. Sandberg, however, grounded to third base, and Rafael Palmeiro followed with another groundout.
Now, understand the situation. Two outs in the bottom of the eighth with the Cubs leading in their last home game of the season. Who could possibly come up but Andre Dawson? The Cubs’ fans, realizing this was their last chance to recognize his superb season, undertaken under circumstances we are all familiar with–accepting a pay cut to come to Chicago–gave him a standing ovation. This alone gave the moment its requisite and highly charged charm. Then, on a 3-1 count, Dawson hit the ball hard, with a loud crack of the bat, and it went on that familiar trajectory toward not only the left-field bleachers but the fence and Waveland Avenue beyond. The fans went crazy. Dawson trotted around the bases, was congratulated by his teammates–ignored the outstretched hand of a fan at the corner of the dugout–and disappeared down the steps, walking down along the bench to the stairs in the middle and climbing these to accept the cheers, which continued to pour from the grandstand.
Leon Durham made the last out, and the Cubs and Dawson took the field, again under a standing ovation. In the one small gesture of thanks, Dawson took the salaam of the right-field bleacher fans and turned it upon them. He raised his arms, tipped them quickly, once, in an awkward motion complicated by the size of his shoulders, and went about warming up for the ninth inning.
It is not my pleasure to know Andre Dawson, or rather, for the time being, it is my pleasure not to know him. It has always been the belief of this column that players tell us more–or, rather, more important–things about themselves on the field of play than they ever could in an interview. A player’s carriage, his demeanor, his personality are stated better by his reactions to events on the field than by his responses to questions in the locker room. Dawson typifies this better than any other Cub. He is a consummate professional, doing his job day in and day out, and his care for the details of his job–doing everything the correct way–is noticeable even on the laziest fly ball hit into right field. What possibly needs to be explained about that?
Much has been said about Dawson’s worthiness as most valuable player this year, especially as the last-place Cubs could not have finished any worse than they will this year–with or without Dawson. Quoting a Holtzman column, “The criteria, unchanged since the Baseball Writers Association of America inaugurated the MVP in 1931, are as follows:
“The actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
“Number of games played.
“General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
“Former winners are eligible.
“All players are eligible, including pitchers, both starters and relievers.”
Based on these criteria, Holtzman said Dawson should win; he cited, especially, his defensive contributions. I say the same, but cite the “general character” clause. In this era of collusion and the end of free agency, Dawson was one of the few players who managed to change teams last winter. He did so at great financial cost. His loyalty, however, to the Cubs and their fans has been impeccable. He has had an incredible first season with the Cubs. And like all great athletes, he somehow found a way to overcome his own professionalism with one dramatic gesture at the end of a season–almost against his own desires, it seems. Without doubt, he has had the best season of any player in the league, but he has also been the most important player, the most valuable, for the Cubs and for anyone who has spent any length of time watching baseball in Chicago this year.