Friday, March 19, 2010

A Day of Sweetness and Sorrow

     October 7, 1984, was an unforgettable day for Chicago sports fans. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times (for White Sox fans, it was only the former). At dank, drizzly Soldier Field, Walter Payton became pro football’s all-time leading rusher. At sun-kissed Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, the Cubs suffered one of the most heartbreaking losses in their 109-year history. The weatherman had it backwards.
     At Soldier Field, on the second play of the third quarter, Payton took a pitch from quarterback Jim McMahon and went around the left end for six yards. With this gain, the man who had personified excellence and dedication for a decade’s worth of mediocre Bear teams surpassed Jim Brown’s career total of 12,312 yards, which had stood as the NFL record since 1965. Payton finished the day with 154 yards on 32 carries (it was the 59th time he had gained 100 or more yards in a game, also a record). The Bears defeated the New Orleans Saints 20-6 to advance to 4-2 for the season; they were headed for their first division title in 21 years.
     As he had accepted everything throughout his brilliant career, Payton accepted the record with grace and humility. “The win means everything,” he said after the game. “If we would have lost this game today, the record would just be something in the past. Now, everybody here has something to talk about.” He dedicated his performance to three running backs who had died too soon to have their potential realized—David Overstreet, Joe Delaney, and Brian Piccolo: “What I did out there today is a reflection of those guys, who didn’t get the opportunity, because they made the sacrifices as well.”
     Then the phone rang in the media tent, and it was President Ronald Reagan on the line. “Good luck on your next 12,000 yards,” he told Payton.

     Half a continent away at Jack Murphy Stadium, the Cubs and Padres were engaged in the fifth and deciding game of the National League Championship Series. With one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, a routine ground ball skipped under Cub first baseman Leon Durham’s glove, allowing the tying run to score for San Diego. A check-swing single followed. Then Tony Gwynn hit a hot shot toward second baseman Ryne Sandberg that looked like an inning-ending double play. But the ball took a bad hop and bounded over Sandberg into the gap for a two-run double. A solid single by Steve Garvey scored Gwynn. With that, Cubs manager Jim Frey finally lifted pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, but the train had left the station. The Padres were ahead 6-3, and that proved to be the final score.
     The Cubs had lost three straight in San Diego when winning just one would have given them their first pennant in 39 years. Now the Padres were on their way to the World Series, and the Cubs were left to contemplate how their glorious season had so suddenly and sickeningly ended. Sutcliffe’s loss in the decisive Game 5 was just his second against 17 victories since he'd joined the Cubs in a June trade; he would soon receive the National League Cy Young Award. It was understandable, if regrettable, that Frey had trusted in the towering righthander's invincibility beyond the point of no return.
     A big man not only in stature, Sutcliffe bravely faced the media after the game. He refused to blame Durham for the ball that didn’t come up or Sandberg for the ball that didn’t stay down. “I take the responsibility for this,” he said. “It’s my fault. These guys have been great behind me all year.
     “This will hurt me for a long, long time,” Sutcliffe continued. “It will stay with all of us for a long time. It’s hard to deal with. Very hard.”
     Millions of Cubs fans knew exactly how he felt.

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