Green: Star-crossed stars crossed paths in ’84 trade
It was a trade made in ... well, the two involved clubs were aiming to dump a couple of faded stars. In World Series history, it is packed with irony — and for the players in the deal, it was laden with trauma and disappointment. And some bittersweet redemption.
The trade back then had nothing to do with inflated salaries or impending free agency or determining whether to buy or sell in the heat of the various races in July. It was just a trade — in May 1984 — between the Red Sox and the Cubs to shift a couple of worn veterans out of town.
So long, see ya!
This year, Yoenes Cespedes and Johnny Cueto are participating in the World Series, on opposite sides after being shuttled elsewhere by the Tigers and Reds for undeveloped kids. Cueto and Cespedes are major figures in the World Series drama representing different leagues than they were in when the season started.
Both athletes, described as rentals as expectant free agents, have had impacts on their new clubs in winning pennants — Cespedes with the Mets and Cueto with the Royals.
It is the way the system works now.
The Mets qualified for the postseason and then the World Series based on the power shot Cespedes gave them after the Tigers off-loaded him minutes before the trade deadline on July 31.
And Cueto the other night turned in the finest World Series pitching performance in 24 years with his two-hit, complete-game victory for the Royals.
But trades long have been part of the scripts for teams reaching the World Series.
Digging back: Johnny Mize and the Yankees; Cecil Fielder and the Yankees; Guillermo Hernandez and Dave Bergman and the Tigers; and long ago Mickey Cochrane and the Tigers — these were deals that influenced pennant races and impacted the World Series.
But there has never been another trade quite like the deal negotiated early during the 1984 season between the Cubs and the Red Sox.
Who could have predicted the characters in this trade would turn World Series history; how two innocuous ballplayers would be talked about in baseball annals a generation later?
The trade didn’t ruffle up much news interest that day it was made: Dennis Eckersley for Bill Buckner.
They were MLB vagabonds before multiple-club careers became the sport’s norm, playing for two tradition-bound franchises noted then for decades of losing frustrations.
Two ballplayers targeted for destiny; athletes prominent in the often poignant 112-year history of the World Series. Two guys saddled for infamy.
Buckner and Eckersley — protagonists in future World Series for their singular painful moments in otherwise notable careers.
The Cubs had acquired Buckner from the Dodgers. He was a fine fielding first baseman, on his way to collecting 2,715 base hits in his career. In 1980 he won the National League batting championship with a .324 average.
But in ’84, the Cubs yearned to rush him out of Chicago. The Cubs had not won a World Series since 1908 — and still haven’t. They had not played in the World Series since 1945, when the Tigers defeated them in seven games — and still haven’t.
The Cubs swapped Buckner to Boston for Eckersley and Mike Brumley.
Eckersley had been a sometimes brilliant starter for the Indians with a no-hitter on his resume. The Red Sox got Eckersley in a trade with Cleveland. He became the ace of the Red Sox’s pitching staff — for two seasons. In 1979, he was a 20-game winner in Boston. But his fastball had vanished by 1984. He was no longer fit for Boston, a town yearning for a World Series champion.
Funny, that ’84 season the Cubs reached the postseason in a restyled MLB for the first time since that World Series in 1945. Eckersley helped, but the Cubs were beaten for the National League’s pennant by the Padres. He was a bystander when the Tigers defeated the Padres in the World Series.
Baseball was now set for two inglorious moments in World Series history.
The Red Sox won another pennant in 1986 with Buckner powering the ballclub. They had lost their World Series in 1946, 1967 and 1975 — all on the verge of victories — in seven games each time.
Now again in 1986, against the Mets, the Red Sox were on verge of their first championship since 1918 in a World Series. They were about to clinch in Game 6 with a two-run rally in the top of the 11th inning. The Mets tied the score in the bottom of the 11th with three singles with two outs.
It was then that Bill Buckner made his World Series history.
Mookie Wilson, batting for the Mets, hit a slow grounder toward first base. Buckner bent over to field the ball as it trickled toward him. It would be an easy third out and onto the 12th inning.
Alas, the ball rolled right through Buckner’s two legs and into the outfield. Ray Knight rounded third and scored the winning run for the Mets.
And then the Mets won Game 7 — another World Series loss for the Red Sox.
Two years later, the Cubs had traded Eckersley on to the Athletics. Tony La Russa, the inventive Hall of Fame manager of the A’s, saw potential in Eckersley out of the bullpen. Eckersley was converted to a closer — and became the top relief pitcher in baseball.
In Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Eckersley came in to close out a victory for the Athletics. With two outs and a 4-3 lead, Eckersley walked Mike Davis.
A figure in Dodgers blue hobbled forward through the dark tunnel from the clubhouse to the dugout at Dodger Stadium. He was badly injured. He might have been growling. He was grimacing from the pain.
He begged to pinch hit — in what he had long described as his kind of situation.
Eckersley vs. Gibson.
The count was 3-and-2. Eckersley tried his reliable backdoor slider to finish the game.
The video footage is repeated during every World Series now.
Gibson hit the ball into the right field seats and limped around the bases, arms waving in triumph.
That was the World Series storyline. The Dodgers beat the A’s in five games. Gibson batted only that one time, but hit the most dramatic World Series home run ever.
Eckersley would win a Cy Young and most valuable player award for La Russa’s Athletics. Considered baseball’s greatest closer of his era, Eckersley would be voted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
In Boston, Bill Buckner would receive death threats and boisterous boos. He would travel on to other clubs. In 2007, he would return to Fenway Park to throw out the Opening Day first pitch — and be forgiven with a standing ovation.
Before that, in 2004, the Red Sox would win their first World Series since 1918, when a young Babe Ruth was their star. They would win two more World Series in these early years of the 21st Century.
But the Cubs would never win another World Series since their victory over Ty Cobb and the Tigers in 1908. Not this year, when they again fell in the playoffs — swept by the Mets.
And major league baseball would march on to different drummers.
La Russa would last year become front-office boss of the Diamondbacks. At the end of that season, he would fire the Arizona manager — Kirk Gibson.
More baseball irony — and revenge!
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive columns Saturdays at detroitnews.com.