The fall guys

Any of the other 29 major league teams would love something as festive and popular as the annual midwinter Cubs Convention. This January, some 15,000 fans of all ages and from all over the Midwest descended upon the Sheraton in the middle of a blizzard to show their allegiance.

They listened to state of the franchise addresses by Epstein, President of Business Operations Crane Kenney and Chairman Tom Ricketts. At one point, a fan voiced this sentiment to Ricketts: "Last night, I met Rick Renteria, and I'm very impressed with him. ... I just hope that we can hurry it up and put some players on our field so that he doesn't get broken down."

Therein lies another dilemma. Like outfielders baffled by the wind at Wrigley, Cubs fans don't know whether to go back to the "glory" of Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, run forward to thoughts of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and C.J. Edwards, or stay right where they are and root for Renteria to keep his job. Or, they can go sideways and concentrate on Clark the Cub, the rooftop bars across the street that are holding up the stadium renovation or the sacrilege of a giant "Get Well" card to the late Santo (he died in 2010) being found in the trash this past October.

Their gluttony for punishment was on full display the first night of the convention when the Cubs held a reunion for the '84 team, the group who won the first two of a five-game NLCS against the San Diego Padres and then lost the next three. Among those who came back were Rick Sutcliffe, Lee Smith, Scott Sanderson, Jay Johnstone and Gary Matthews. In a panel discussion, Matthews said he recently asked new Phillies manager and Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg how often he thought about the loss in '84. "Every day," Sandberg told him.

They also discussed Durham's costly error at first base in Game 5, when a ground ball went under his glove shortly after someone had spilled Gatorade on it. But the real scapegoat was manager Jim Frey, who had decided not to use his ace, Sutcliffe, for Game 4, thinking he could start Game 1 of the World Series or Game 5 of the NLCS if it came to that. Matthews said he asked Frey about the decision on the flight to San Diego. "He looked at me as if I had just opened the door to a plane at 40,000 feet. I just turned around."

Then Johnstone asked Matthews, "Why didn't you push him out?"

A funny line, yes, but one that's patently unfair to Frey and, by extension, every manager. For one thing, we too often take for granted the hours that managers put in, the prima donnas they have to soothe, the fools in the media and the seats they have to tolerate, the responsibility for the coaches and players under their command, and the stress of being judged on a daily basis by the standings. As for being the Cubs manager, well, to quote Nigel Tufnel from "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984), "The numbers all go to 11."

For another thing, I was there in '84.


IT WAS A Sunday -- Oct. 7, 1984 -- so long ago that I had flown to San Diego on Pan Am and transmitted my stories to Sports Illustrated from a gray, plastic box called a Portabubble. To further date it, the crew doing the game for ABC included Don Drysdale, Earl Weaver, Reggie Jackson and, roving through the stands, the young Tim McCarver.

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