Steve Garvey and the Most Iconic Moment in San Diego Sports History

This article was written by Kevin Mills

This article was published in the The National Pastime: Pacific Ghosts (San Diego, 2019)


Steve Garvey’s game-winning two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning against Lee Smith of the Chicago Cubs in Game 4 of the 1984 National League Championship Series was ranked as the greatest sports moment in San Diego history.The San Diego Padres have retired the uniform numbers of five of their players. Three are Hall of Famers: Tony Gwynn (number 19), Dave Winfield (31), and Trevor Hoffman (51). The fourth was the franchise’s first star player and a fan favorite, Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones (35). The fifth? He played only four full seasons for the Padres. He accumulated 1.4 WAR in 605 games, batting .275 with 61 home runs, adding up to an OPS+ of exactly 100. He also hit the most important home run in franchise history.

Steve GarveyDecades later, Steve Garvey’s game-winning two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning against Lee Smith of the Chicago Cubs in Game 4 of the 1984 National League Championship Series was ranked as the greatest sports moment in San Diego history.1 For the game, Garvey had four run-scoring hits and five RBIs. Padres Manager Dick Williams called it the best single-game performance he had ever seen — this from the man who managed Carl Yastrzemski during his Triple Crown season in 1967 and the Oakland A’s first two World Series winners in 1972 and ’73.2

Garvey retired from baseball after an injury-filled 1987 season, and his uniform number (6) was retired by the Padres the very next April. Even years later, this surprises some baseball fans. Many remember Garvey as a Dodger — his best years were in Los Angeles — that his tenure in San Diego was short, and that his hitting statistics with the Padres were average.3 But Garvey also helped elevate the franchise into a contender for the first time and his home run led the Padres to their first pennant. As Garvey said at the time, there’s only one first. Of course, the Game 4 win tied the best-of-five series at 2-2, so the Padres still had to win Game Five to make the home run truly iconic. They did.

Garvey played the first 14 seasons of his career for the rival Los Angeles Dodgers. He was the team’s biggest star and the fan-favorite face of the franchise. After a few tours at third base and corner outfield, Garvey became the starting first baseman for the Dodgers in 1974. Later that summer he made his first of 10 All-Star teams and was named All-Star Game MVP. At the end of the season, he added Gold Glove and National League MVP awards. From 1974–81, Garvey made eight consecutive All-Star Game appearances and averaged 191 hits, 21 home runs and 99 RBIs, with a slash line of .309/.346/.474 and an average OPS+ of 128.

Garvey established a reputation as a clutch hitter and was even better in the playoffs. In 45 playoff games for the Dodgers, Garvey amassed a .346 batting average, hammered 10 home runs and drove in 22 runs, slugging .571 for an OPS of .942. Garvey and the Dodgers were models of consistency 1974–81, averaging 89 wins and playing in four World Series, winning one. The infield of Garvey at first, Davey Lopes at second, Bill Russell at shortstop, and Ron Cey at third played more than eight seasons together — still a major-league record. Following the Dodgers’ victory over the Yankees in the 1981 World Series, Garvey was widely regarded as one of the premier players in baseball.

Meanwhile, down Interstate 5 in San Diego, the Padres were better known for their owner’s fast-food restaurants (McDonald’s), their mascot (the San Diego Chicken), and their taco-colored uniforms (brown and yellow) than their play on the field. Over their first 15 seasons (1969–83), the Padres had exactly one winning season, and they never finished higher than fourth place in the six-team NL West or closer than eight games behind the division winner. In the early seasons, more San Diegans were visiting the zoo and Sea World than the ballpark.

Ray Kroc purchased the Padres in 1974 for $11 million to keep them in San Diego. Frustrated that the Padres had not become a winner on the field, Kroc promoted Jack McKeon to general manager in 1980. Trader Jack was the architect of the 1984 pennant winners. He reshaped the roster by trades, the amateur draft, and free agency. In his first trade, after the 1980 season, he engineered an 11-player deal that brought future All-Star catcher Terry Kennedy from the St. Louis Cardinals. In the 1981 amateur draft, he selected Gwynn in the third round. After the 1981 season, he made a six-player deal that sent Ozzie Smith to the  Cardinals for shortstop Garry Templeton.

In 1982, Garvey earned $317,000 in the final season of a six-year, $1.9 million contract he’d signed with the Dodgers in 1977. Garvey had a disappointing season in 1982 on and off the field. He got off to a terrible start and sensed that the Dodgers did not really want him. His home life was in turmoil, and his marriage ended in a messy divorce. After the season he turned 34 and became a free agent. Dodgers fans could not imagine Garvey in another uniform, but the Dodgers’ front office did not have a history of signing their own free agents. The team was starting to rebuild with younger prospects. The Dodgers reportedly offered Garvey $5 million for four years. Disillusioned by the club’s business decision, Garvey didn’t sign. McKeon was in the midst of his five-year plan to build a contender in San Diego, and he outbid several other teams. He signed Garvey for $6.6 million for five years.4 While those salaries seem quaint now, it was one of the most lucrative deals at the time. Garvey’s production had started to decline, but he’d still played in all 162 games for the Dodgers in 1982 (starting 154) and took his iron-man streak to San Diego.

Garvey tied, then broke, the National League record for consecutive games played in a rousing homecoming at Dodger Stadium in April 1983, but in July he broke his thumb in a home-plate collision as he tried to score on a wild pitch. The play ended his season and his consecutive-game streak at 1,207 — still a National League record. The Padres finished 1983 with a second consecutive 81–81 record under irascible old-school manager Williams. In the offseason, Trader Jack and the Padres signed free-agent reliever Goose Gossage, 32, and acquired 39-year-old third baseman Graig Nettles in a trade, both escaping the Bronx Zoo for a fresh start. Gossage and Nettles were key members of the Yankees clubs that had faced Garvey and the Dodgers in some epic World Series.

Following these player moves, Sports Illustrated predicted in its 1984 season preview that the Padres could have a “whale of a season.”5 Prophetic — except the Padres had to compete with land animals in 1984: Cubs and Tigers. The Padres started the season 10–2, were tied for first place at the end of May, took over first place on June 9 for the rest of the season, and clinched their first West Division crown on September 20.

Along the way, Garvey carried the Olympic torch through San Diego in the lead up to the Los Angeles Games — organized by Peter Ueberroth, who replaced Bowie Kuhn as baseball commissioner during the playoffs in October 1984. In August, the first-place Padres and second-place Atlanta Braves were involved in one of the worst “bean-brawl” games in major-league history. The final tally included two bench-clearing brawls, multiple mini-brawls, over a dozen ejections and at least five fan arrests. Williams was suspended 10 games. Padres bench player Tim Flannery later called it a rallying point for the team. San Diego finished 92–70 record, 12 games ahead of the Braves. Gwynn, in his third year, batted .351 to capture the first of his eight batting average titles. Gossage finished 10–6 with a 2.90 ERA and 25 saves; he pitched 102 innings in a bygone era of multi-inning firemen. Garvey led the team with 86 RBIs.

In the East Division that season, the Cubs won 96 games and beat the New York Mets by 6½ games. The Cubs were led by their own third-year star, second baseman Ryne Sandberg, the eventual NL MVP and one of the bestL second baseman of the 1980s. Before the season started, the Cubs traded young players Carmelo Martinez and Craig Lefferts to the Padres — and both turned out to be major contributors in 1984. In May, in order to make room for Bob Dernier and Gary Mathews in the outfield, the Cubs traded Bill Buckner to the Boston Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley and kept Leon Durham at first base — a coincidental connection that would not reveal itself until after Durham’s and Buckner’s misplays in the 1984 NLCS and the 1986 World Series. Cey, Garvey’s longtime Dodgers teammate, had been traded to the Cubs before the 1983 season. Cey recommended Rick Sutcliffe, a former Los Angeles teammate, to Cubs management. After he was acquired in a trade in June, Sutcliffe won 16 games and the NL Cy Young award.

The Padres and Cubs were the last two National League teams to make it to the League Championship Series, which began when division play started in 1969. They’d split 12 games during the 1984 regular season, but the Cubs were favored to win the series. The Cubs had 15 players with playoff experience — the Padres just five. The Cubs led the National League in runs scored, played in a stronger division, and had the majors’ best record against good teams. The 1984 season was the last with a five-game LCS. Home field was still determined on a rotation system, with the first two games in the NL East park and the final three games in the NL West park. So the Cubs hosted the first two games at Wrigley Field.

ABC broadcast the NLCS with announcers Don Drysdale, Reggie Jackson, and Earl Weaver. Ernie Banks was named an honorary member of the 1984 Cubs and threw the ceremonial first pitch before Game One. “Mr. Cub” saluted the crowd and threw the pitch into the ground 10 feet in front of the mound. It bounced straight to Cubs catcher Jody Davis — perhaps a good omen. Center fielder Dernier hit a lead-off home run against the Padres’ ace, Eric Show. Four home runs later, including one by Sutcliffe that flew out of Wrigley Field, the Cubs had a shutout and the franchise’s first postseason win since 1945. After taking Game Two by a score of 4–2, the Cubs had an 84 percent chance of winning the series and returning to the World Series against the Detroit Tigers — the team that beat the Cubs 4–3 in the 1945 World Series.6

Even though no National League club had ever come back from a 2–0 deficit in a five-game series, thousands of fans were waiting for the Padres players for a rally at Jack Murphy Stadium when the team arrived from the airport after the two losses in Chicago.7 Before Game 3, the normally reticent Templeton got the crowd fired up by waving his cap during player introductions.8 During the game, the stadium played “Cub-Busters,” a parody of the theme song from the 1984 movie Ghostbusters. The fans donned Cub-Busters T-shirts and sang “We ain’t ‘fraid o’ no Cubs.” Second-year player Kevin McReynolds hit a home run and Ed Whitson pitched the Padres to a 7–1 win, the franchise’s first playoff victory. After the Game Three win, Williams acknowledged the fans for rallying his club.9 Whitson predicted if they could win Game Four they had a real shot at winning the series.10

Game Four, on Saturday, October 6, started at twilight on the West Coast. With two outs in the third inning, Garvey pulled a double down the left-field line, scoring leadoff man Alan Wiggins from first for a 2–0 lead. After the Cubs took a 3–2 lead on homers by Davis and Durham, Garvey singled home the tying run in the fifth inning, again with two outs. In the seventh, with two outs and a runner on second base, the Cubs intentionally walked Gwynn to get to Garvey, who promptly lined a single to left field for another two-out RBI. Gwynn later scored to put the Padres ahead 5-3.

The Padres brought in Gossage in the eighth inning to close out the game. In the regular season Gossage had gotten at least six outs in 28 of his 62 outings. But on this day, he surrendered three hits and two runs in the eighth to tie the game at 5–5. The Cubs called on their own closer, Smith, to pitch the bottom of the eighth. The Padres pinch-hit for Gossage and did not hit the ball out of the infield. In the top of the ninth, the Cubs loaded the bases off Lefferts but could not score. Smith was back on the mound to face the top of the Padres’ lineup in the bottom of the ninth.

Wiggins, a prolific bunter, led off and bunted foul on strike three for the first out. In his second inning of work, Smith’s fastball was still touching 99 mph. No problem for the league leader in batting average — Gwynn reached base on a line-drive single, bringing up Garvey, who was hitless in eight at-bats against Smith lifetime. He was looking for a pitch out over the plate. The first pitch was high and away for ball one. Garvey read the speed of the pitch. Smith threw to first to check on Gwynn. The next pitch to Garvey was a high fastball over the plate. Drysdale had the live call on ABC: “Deep right field, way back. Cotto going back to the wall. It’s gone! Home Run Garvey! And there will be tomorrow!”

Garvey, normally undemonstrative, rounded the bases with his right arm raised, saluting the crowd and signifying victory. His delirious teammates met him at home plate. In his postgame interview with ABC, Garvey was asked by Tim McCarver how he came through every time — three two-out, run-scoring hits plus a game-winning home run. Garvey, in his typical understated style, said simply: “It was my pleasure.” Later, Garvey was a little less modest, calling it one of his top two or three games.11

In the decisive Game Five Sunday afternoon in San Diego, the Cubs turned to Sutcliffe, their ace and the winner of Game One. The Cubs knocked Padres starter Show out of the game in the second inning and had a 3–0 lead through five, giving the Cubs an 88 percent win probability.12 The Padres plated two runs in the sixth on sacrifice flies to make it 3–2.

In the seventh, the Padres bunted baserunner Martinez — the tying run — to​ second. Padres reserve Flannery came up to pinch hit. As he stepped into the batter’s box, he saw Cubs catcher Davis’s shadow and knew he was setting up inside. Flannery looked for a first-pitch inside fastball and hit a sharp grounder to first base.13 Drysdale had the call: “Groundball hit to Durham — right through his legs! Here comes Martinez. We’re tied at three.”

Before the inning ended, Wiggins singled, Gwynn doubled in two more runs, and Garvey singled in Gwynn. Gossage closed out the 6–3 win, and the Padres reached the World Series for the first time. Legendary Padres announcer Jerry Coleman had the call on the final out: “One hopper to Nettles. To Wiggins. And the Padres have the National League pennant! Oh, Doctor! You can hang a star on that baby!”

Of course, the Cubs did not return to the World Series against the Tigers. Leon Durham’s Bill Buckner moment just added to the legend of Cubs postseason goats, ghosts, and other demons (not exorcised until their victory in the 2016 World Series). For the Padres, the comeback against the Cubs was the highlight of the season, as they fell to the heavily favored Tigers in five games in the World Series. Owner Ray Kroc had passed away in January 1984, and the team had dedicated the season to his memory. Interviewed before Game One of the World Series, his widow, Joan Kroc, said both teams were winners and she was sure Ray was smiling down.14

Garvey finished the NLCS batting .400 with seven RBIs and was named the series MVP. Although he played less than five full seasons for the Padres, his was the first number the club retired, signifying his outsized impact for the also-ran franchise. Gossage, who was on the mound for the final pitch of the 1984 NLCS and the decisive pitch of the World Series, captured the defining spirit of the moment. “To turn a city on for the first time like that, that was the most special part of the San Diego experience, to see the city turn upside-down when we beat the Cubs.”15

In an interview years later, Bob Costas summed up Garvey’s baseball legacy nicely: “Garvey is a guy who came up big in a lot of big moments — All-Star Games, World Series, and LCS. . . . I guess he will never be in the Hall of Fame, but in the prime of his career, he was a more significant player than some who are in Cooperstown.”16 Of his many big baseball moments, his Game Four home run remains the most iconic single moment in 50 seasons of Padres baseball.

KEVIN MILLS is a new member of SABR since 2018 and this is his first article for The National Pastime. During Kevin’s Little League days, he became a fan of Steve Garvey and watched Game 4 of the NLCS at home on a black-and-white television during his senior year of high school. As a young baseball fan, Kevin collected baseball cards with his brother and recently rediscovered his Steve Garvey Topps rookie card (1971). Kevin is a lawyer in Washington, DC, and has had the opportunity to represent ownership groups in bids to purchase MLB franchises and media rights.

 

Notes

1 Bryce Miller, “Garvey’s Sweet Swing Delivers No. 1 Moment in San Diego Sports History,” San Diego Union-Tribune, December 25, 2016.

2 Dick Williams interview on “MLB 1984 Baseball Greatest Hits — World Series Highlights,” ESPN, October 6, 1985.

3 “Garvey’s No. 6 Should Be Unretired,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 12, 2012; Jeff Sanders, “Friar talk: The Padres’ Franchise Four,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 23, 2015. The Dodgers have not retired Garvey’s number. Though it made an exception for the late Jim Gilliam, the team’s policy is to only retire the jersey numbers of Hall of Fame players.

4 “Garvey Signs Padres Contract,” New York Times, December 22, 1982. “Garvey’s a Padre: $6 Million Man,” San Diego Union-Tribune, December 21, 1982.

5 Ivan Maisel, “Scouting Reports — San Diego Padres,” Sports Illustrated, April 2, 1984.

6 Neil Paine, “The Cubs Curse is Now More Likely to End Than Continue,” FiveThirtyEight, October 21, 2016.

7 Tim Flannery interview on “We Know Postseason — Tim Flannery Remembers Padres Victory,” MLB Network, October 23, 2017.

8 Garry Templeton interview, Game Four pregame show, ABC, October 6, 1984. Although some player recollections include Templeton waving a towel, video shows it was his cap that he waved while firing up the crowd during player introductions.

9 Dick Williams interview, Game Four pregame show, KFMB-TV San Diego, October 6, 1984.

10 Ed Whitson interview, Game Four pregame show, KFMB-TV San Diego, October 6, 1984.

11 Steve Garvey interview on “MLB 1984 Baseball Greatest Hits.”

12 Baseball-Reference.com.

13 Tim Flannery interview, MLB Network.

14 Joan Kroc interview World Series Game One pregame show, KNSD-TV San Diego, October 9, 1984.

15 Chris Jenkins, “Padres First World Series So Meaningful, San Diego Union-Tribune, October 20, 2014.

16 Bryce Miller, “San Diego Propels Garvey into All-Star Spotlight,” San Diego Union-Tribune, July 7, 2016. Steve Garvey’s highest vote total for the National Baseball Hall of Fame was 42 percent.

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