Garvey gave San Diego moment for the ages

SAN DIEGO — Some may disagree, but in my humble opinion Steve Garvey’s walk-off homer — before anyone even called it a walk-off homer — to win Game 4 of the 1984 National League Championship Series for the Padres over the Cubs is the top sports moment in San Diego history.

It put the then 15-year-old Padres on the map and did the same for a city that still hasn’t produced a Major League sports champion.

“It was my greatest game and a great game all the way around,” Garvey said on Friday night as the Padres celebrated the 30th anniversary of that NL championship at Petco Park, only miles from where it actually happened at what is now called Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley.

The greatest game of his career, really?

“Probably, because it affected people the most,” said Garvey, who because of that night alone had his No. 6 rightfully retired by the club.

No doubt. With apologies to those who also remember the 1998 playoffs and World Series here, that week of baseball in 1984 beginning with the final three games against the Cubs in the NLCS and culminating with the first two games against the Tigers in the World Series brought San Diego to a level of euphoria never experienced again.

Nothing is like the first time and it was the maiden voyage into such unknown territory for San Diego fans. What made it special was how unexpectedly it happened. The Padres were spanked at Wrigley Field by the combined score of 17-2 in the first two games of the last of the best-of-five League Championship Series.

They flew home dejected and downtrodden, landing at the airport without much of a peep. In those days the players parked their cars at the stadium and when they approached the old ballpark by bus the players realized that thousands of fans had gathered there to herald their very much unheralded return. It turned into a huge pep rally with various players grabbing a bull horn to tell the crowd that it wasn’t over until they said it was over.

In the year when the first Ghost Busters film had invaded the lexicon, this cry came forward: “Who you going to call? Cub Busters.” Overnight, ingenious fans printed up buttons, posters and bumper stickers that flooded the market place saying just that.

For some reason, the crowd noise in Mission Valley surprised the Cubs, who were set back on their heels and didn’t bother to show up for Game 3, losing 7-1.

Garvey then crawled out of a sick bed to explode in Game 4, a rare postseason Saturday night game in that era.

“The night before I came down with a stomach virus and nobody knew,” Garvey recalled. “I was up all night. I was weak. I tried to hit and take infield before the game and couldn’t do it. I laid down on the training table. Dick Dent, our trainer came in and said, ‘Why don’t you sit out? You could use the day.’ I said, “Are you kidding me? I played in 1,207 straight games. I’m going to play tonight.’”

And that’s how a game for the ages was fashioned. Garvey came off that table to go 4-for-5 with five RBIs, converting every big at bat of the night. In the ninth, with hard-throwing Cubs reliever Lee Smith on the mound, Alan Wiggins opened the inning by striking out swinging. Tony Gwynn followed with a base hit, setting the stage for the Garv.

“It seemed like every time I faced Smith it was in the shadows of Wrigley,” Garvey said, referring to the now 100-year-old ballpark that at that time still had no lights. “I didn’t have a hit off him, but I knew he wasn’t going to fool around in that situation. He wasn’t going to try to get me out on a breaking ball. He threw a 95-mph fastball up and then he checked Tony. So I figured, here it comes again.

“This one was a little bit down and I got a good piece of it. Most of my big hits were right of center. I hit it high and it started to take off. I thought I hit it well enough. It’s almost like everything came to a stop. It was like The Natural when the ball was going up. I get to first base and I look up and I see [center fielder] Henry Cotto leap and I thought, ‘My god, this is going to be the greatest catch in postseason history.’”

Cotto didn’t catch it, of course. The ball kept rising and banged the wall behind the cyclone fence. As Garvey rounded the bases he pumped his right fist repeatedly in the air and the crowd went bonkers. It was his ninth and final home run of the season. In 1983, his NL record 1,207 consecutive-game playing streak came to an end when he dislocated his right thumb sliding into home plate. He never did have power again in that hand.

The next day, the Padres won their first pennant when pinch-hitter Tim Flannery’s grounder shot through the legs of first baseman Leon Durham for an error that still stains Cubs lore. There was a story behind that one, too. Second baseman Ryne Sandberg had inadvertently dumped Gatorade on Durham’s glove. Durham had to take the wet and stiff glove out in the
field with him and missed the ball. Gwynn then smacked a shot that took a wicked hop over Sandberg’s shoulder.

The Padres were on their way. The fact that they lost to the Tigers in the World Series was an afterthought. The Cubs missed a shot to go to the World Series for the first time since 1945. They’re still waiting.

But it all was set up by Garvey, the shot heard ‘round San Diego, the greatest moment in this town’s sports history.

“It’s like Kirk Gibson’s homer in 1988. Everybody remembers it as having won the World Series,” said Garvey, who was there on Friday night with shortstop Gary Templeton, utility man Kurt Bevacqua, catchers Terry Kennedy and Doug Gwosdz and pitching coach Norm Sherry. “But it didn’t. That was Game 1. And this was Game 4, but it got us to Game 5. And then the momentum changed dramatically.”

Addendum: This piece honors the memory of all those from that epic 1984 Padres season who are no longer with us: Owner Joan Kroc. Among the players, Wiggins, pitcher Eric Show, shortstop Mario Ramirez and outfielder Champ Summers. On the staff, manager Dick Williams and coach Jack Krol. Journalists Barry Lorge, Bob Wright and Wayne Lockwood of the San Diego Union. Announcer Jerry Coleman. And all the best to Gwynn, who is stricken with cancer and was unable to attend the ceremony. Our thoughts and prayers are all with you, Tony.

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