CHICAGO — For the first time in four decades, a championship pennant will be hoisted in center field in Wrigley Field and will flap in the breezes off of Lake Michigan for the 1985 season.
The question facing the Chicago Cubs now is whether they can exchange that flag for a league and a World Series pennant.
There appears to be two camps when it comes to the Cubs' surprising--some say miracle--1984 campaign. One will argue the Cubs had the best talent thanks to shrewd dealing by Cubs' General Manager Dallas Green. The other side will say it was a fluke and the Cubs managed to get into the playoffs thanks to a weak year for the rest of the division.
"I suppose that's what we are going to find out," says Cubs' manager Jim Frey. "What did it take to win it last year? Ninety-six wins. Well, I will settle for 120 and take my chances."
Frey isn't predicting a 120-victory season by the Cubs. He prefers to talk in terms of improvement.
"We won 71 games the year before that and improved 25 games. That's something. If we improve half as much as that, it should be good enough to win," Frey says. "But this division isn't a cakewalk. You can down as fast as you go up and I think we realize that."
Actually, there are at least three ways to look at it:
1. The Cubs will be better.
The Cubs start the 1985 season with several players who weren't on the roster at this time last year. Rick Sutcliffe, the 1984 Cy Young award winner who won 16 games after his acquisition June 13, will be the starter on opening day.
"I know it means a lot to me to have a full season with the Cubs," Sutcliffe says. "Being traded in mid-season is never easy. I don't know whether the numbers will be the same but we have some other guys who are going to give us help, too."
Also new from one year ago is Dennis Eckersley, who didn't come aboard until May 25. That is half of the starting rotation, backing up Scott Sanderson and Steve Trout. George Frazier, who came to the Cubs in the Sutcliffe deal, also is on hand for the full year.
Also added is left-hander Ray Fontenot, who gives Frey a second left-handed pitcher on the roster and his first southpaw to look towards in the bullpen.
The Cubs also have a new shortstop in rookie Shawon Dunston, who has been named to start in front of veteran Larry Bowa.
2. The Cubs will be worse.
The Cubs will be without some players they started the year with last year. Bill Buckner didn't play much in two months but he was a force on the bench, something the Cubs don't have this year.
Henry Cotto, one of the surprises off the bench last year, filled in the outfield last year and kept the Cubs surging. Cotto went to the Yanks in the Fontenot deal.
Also gone is Tim Stoddard, the hard-throwing right-hander, who was No. 2 out of the bullpen but who did not re-sign with Chicago.
"We hated to give up on Cotto but in order to get something like a left-hander we had to give up something," Green noted.
Ron Cey and the recently unseated Bowa comprised the left half of Frey's infield and are one year older. Both have slowed down if not at the plate in the field.
Here is a look at the Cubs 1984 averages compared to their career bests. Note, however, that several Cubs had their best power statistics last year.
--Bowa .223, career .261.
--Davis .256 career .262 (career best 94 RBI).
--Cey .240, career .263.
--Dernier .278, career .263.
--Durham .279, career .285 (career best 23 homers, 96 RBI).
--Matthews .291, career .286
--Moreland .283, career .279 (career best 16 homers, 80 RBI).
--Sandberg .314, career .282 (career best 19 homers, 84 RBI.
Fielding may also be a problem in left field where Gary Matthews' bat helped overcome his defensive shortcomings and where Keith Moreland's rifle arm in right helped him mask his problems fielding the ball.
The prevailing argument in this scenario is the players who all had good years at the plate last year aren't likely to duplicate those feats. Cey, catcher Jody Davis, Matthews and especially centerfielder Bob Dernier, who batted over .300 for most of the year, all had career or near career bests.
3. The Cubs will be as good as last year but the rest of the league is better.
Assuming the Cubs duplicate last year's batting and pitching achievements, it is unlikely the rest of the division will sit still.
"Gary Carter makes the Mets a much, much stronger team," Green admits. "I think the Pirates also strengthened themselves with (George) Hendrick and (Steve) Kemp.
The Cubs were able to run roughshod over the Eastern Division with the exception of the Pirates. Pittsburgh gave the Cubs fits last year even though the Bucs were the cellar dwellers.
Chicago dominated the Mets and St. Louis Cardinals and handled Philadelphia down the stretch.