A Magic Number And A Deer

Now, a first for A Hundred Next Years: a guest column written by California Phil, who is of no relation to, but a great admirer, of Arizona Phil at The Cub Reporter.

23 years. It’s been 23 years since the magical and tragic Cubs season of 1984. That's not exactly a milestone anniversary, but considering the recent Jim Carrey bomb and, more importantly, the uniform number of both Michael Jordan and Ryne Sandberg, it seems appropriate enough. Oh, and did I mention that the famous Sandberg Game was played on June 23rd, my 23rd birthday?

Okay, enough with the numerology crap. I was thinking about the Cubs this morning, which was better than thinking about work, and it occurred to me that back in the day--or at least in 1984--spring training trades seemed to be made more frequently than they are today. I’ll leave it to Rob Neyer to confirm that’s really true. What I do know to be true is that the Cubs won’t make another blockbuster deal before this season starts and that on March 26, 1984 (although I’m sure it was finalized on the 23rd), the Cubs dealt Bill Campbell and Mike Diaz to the Phillies for Bob Dernier, Sarge Matthews and Porfi Altamirano.

Was Dernier to Matthews what Sandberg was to Bowa, a throw-in who turned out to be the real steal of the deal? Not exactly, but in one fell swoop, the Cubs filled in two-thirds of their outfield and the batting order positions before and after Sandberg.

The trade was significant for other reasons. The ’83 Cubs' most frequent outfield alignment featured Leon Durham in left, Mel Hall in center, and (Bobby) Keith Moreland in right. The trade allowed the Cubs to move Durham to first, where he would achieve fame in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and made possible the trade of Buckner to Boston for Dennis Eckersley. Dernier and Matthews joined Moreland in the outfield, facilitating the trade of Hall, who, along with young Joe Carter, would fetch Rick Sutcliffe from Cleveland.

With the Cubs, Dernier was nicknamed “Deer,” a playful if unimaginative take on his speed and last name. He fiddled with his batting gloves when Nomar was just a pup, and the way he would adjust his batting helmet before settling into the box almost seemed to be an homage to a previous Cub leadoff hitter, Don Kessinger.

Dernier was a speedy leadoff man and centerfielder, and, along with Sandberg, he formed the "daily double" atop the Cubs batting order. Make no mistake, the 1984 Cubs won because of Sandberg’s MVP season and a veteran lineup that scored a lot of runs, as well as the pitching of Rick Sutcliffe, Steve Trout, Dennis Eckersley, Lee Smith, et al. Still, one can’t help but think the ’84 Cubs wouldn’t have had the season they had without Bobby D.

Dernier’s OPS was .718, he succeeded on a pedestrian 72% of his stolen base attempts and though I have a memory of him logging a .300+ batting average that season, he only hit .278. Still, Dernier actually garnered MVP votes in '84, the only season in his career he would do so. (For the record, he finished 16 spots behind his MVP teammate, Sandberg.) All in all, it was a magical age 27 season for Dernier.

As a young Cub fan, I grew up with Kessinger, Beckert, Williams, Banks and Santo so set in the lineup that my 8-year-old mind could not even conceive of a day when that lineup would change or those players would age and retire. Dernier, however, seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye. The truth is, he was a Cub from '84 through '87, before he returned to the Phillies as a free agent, eventually ending his career at age 32, his speed and ability to get on base apparently gone. By then, the Cubs had made it to another NL Championship Series, with both the centerfield and leadoff positions manned by Jerome Walton, who ironically, according to Bill James's Similarity Scores, was the player most similar to Dernier at age 27.

Now, Dernier works as a minor league instructor for the Cubs, and he was recently asked to tutor Felix Pie on the art of base stealing. Maybe some day, Pie will play one more game than Dernier, a Cubs' NLCS-clinching victory that will carry the team into a World Series.

I am guessing that if that were to happen, somewhere Dernier would be smiling. Not me. I’d be crying like a baby.

2 Comments:

  1. Cubnut said...
    Great piece, CA Phil. I was never a huge Dernier fan, but in retrospect, he was certainly a contributor to the success of the '84 team, and the trade that brought him to Chicago with Matthews has to rank as one of the Cubs best in the last 25 or 30 years.
    JosephKoek said...
    Interesting bit of Cub history, Ca Phil. I became a Cub fan slightly before you did, but you wrote a lot of information I had forgotten about. Verry interesting. Thanks for the memories.

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