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THE GAME I'LL NEVER FORGET BY BOB COSTAS: As told to Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig.

It was a perfect baseball Saturday-sunny skies, late June, Cardinals-Cubs. And that alone makes a difference. If it was the Cubs against most other teams, it might not have resonated as much. But just as you see a lot of Cubs blue at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, you saw a lot of Cardinals red at Wrigley Field that day.

In the bottom of the ninth...

"Into left-center field and deep... This is a tie ballgame!"

And in the bottom of the 10th...

"One-one pitch. He hits it to deep left-center. Look out! Do you believe it? It's gone! Sandberg, in the Cubs' last at-bat, has twice delivered a game-tying home run--a solo shot in the ninth, a two-run blast with two out in the 10th... Tony, not only can I not remember the last time I broadcast a game this good, I can't remember the last time I've seen a game this enjoyable, this entertaining."

That was Bob Costas--then a baby-faced, 32-year-old play-by-play man for NBC Sports--commenting to partner Tony Kubek on Saturday, June 23, 1984, the afternoon of "The Sandberg Game." Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg wowed a national television audience by going 5-for-6, including two game-tying homers off a future Hall of Famer, St. Louis Cardinals relief ace Bruce Sutter. Sandberg finished with seven RBIs as the Cubs shocked the Redbirds, 12-11, in 11 innings.

For both Sandberg and Costas, the game was, arguably, the first step in their own journeys toward baseball's Hall of Fame.

There were no lights at Wrigley Field. (Night baseball didn't come to the North Side of Chicago until August 1988.) So there wasn't anything particularly special about it being a day game. Every game at Wrigley was a day game. But you have to remember the context. The Saturday Game of the Week at that time was a big deal. In much of the country, that really was the only game on television the entire week. Even if you had a local team in your area, few teams televised all of their games. Granted, the Cubs were among those that televised all or nearly all. But in most of the country, you got only a handful of your local team's games.

This, then, was your chance to see a national game. If you lived in Rhode Island, for example, you might not have seen the Dodgers and the Reds that often, except on the Game of the Week. So you'd have to say the Game of the Week had a certain cache. Those Saturday afternoon games often would get ratings comparable to what hit prime-time shows get today in a fractionalized television universe.

Every Saturday, you had a good portion of the baseball world watching the games with Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola and with me and Tony Kubek. Also at that time, the Cubs, surprisingly, were beginning to emerge as a contender. And, of course, as we know, they would come within one game of making it to the World Series that year.

It all seemed to come together that day at Wrigley: The Cubs as a national force--WGN had been taking hold as a superstation, so the Cubs had fans outside Chicagoland--plus the Cubs as a force in the pennant race and Sandberg as an MVP candidate. It all came together in that one game.

A third-year major leaguer, Sandberg entered the game--the Cubs' 68th of that season--hitting .321 with seven homers and 38 RBIs. Over his first two full big-league campaigns, he'd averaged a pedestrian .266, eight homers and 51 RBIs.

As a rookie in 1982, Sandberg had started 0-for-20 and 0-for-32. Any designs he had on trying to hit for power vanished with the rough beginning. Sandberg focused almost entirely on making contact, often to the opposite field. In the spring of 1984, however, new Cubs manager Jim Frey saw someone with the body, physical strength and bat speed to hit home runs and be an impact player. "I just happened to see more ability in him than he probably pictured in himself," said Frey, who encouraged Sandberg to drive the ball when hitting in favorable counts.

Similarly, Frey could thank his boss, Dallas Green, for having made Sandberg a Cub. After leaving the Phillies organization to become the Cubs' general manager in 1981, Green persuaded his former team to include a 22-year-old prospect named Sandberg in a deal that sent Larry Bowa to Chicago for fellow shortstop Ivan DeJesus.

Still, neither Frey nor Green could have envisioned Sandberg victimizing Sutter to the extent that Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog would dub Sandberg "Baby Ruth." The tag would prove only half facetious. Sandberg went on to win league MVP honors that season with a career-best .314 batting average--collecting 200 hits that included 36 doubles, 19 triples and 19 homers. Batting from the No. 2 hole, Sandberg also drove in 84 runs and stole 32 bases.

And that game, before a Wrigley Field crowd of 38,079, clearly was the catalyst. To appreciate Sandberg's feat, consider that Sutter would surrender only nine homers all season in 122.2 innings, spread over a career-high 71 appearances.

Sutter posted a personal-best (and at that time big-league record-tying) 45 saves that year, along with a 1.54 ERA. In his first 27 outings, leading up to "The Sandberg Game," the 31-year-old right-hander had allowed a total of three homers.

Interestingly, Cubs closer Lee Smith, another future Hall of Famer, also had an off day. Though Smith pitched two innings and picked up the victory, he yielded the two 10th-inning runs that put St. Louis ahead, 11-9.

The Cardinals had leads of 7-1 and 9-3 in that game. Then the Cubs catch up and pull within 9-8. And then Sandberg homers in the ninth off Sutter. A former Cub, Sutter was by consensus the premier reliever in the game at that time. In addition, the split-fingered pitch that Sutter threw was a new pitch at the time. People watching at home--who saw shots mostly from the center-field camera--always seemed to wonder, "Why did they swing at it? Can't they tell it's a ball?" Well, not until it gets on top of them, they couldn't!

So Sandberg's homer ties it 9-9 and they go into extra innings. Then Willie McGee's double knocks in one run and sets up a second, making it 11-9 Cardinals. And almost as a footnote, after that double, McGee has now hit for the cycle.

Now we go to the bottom half of the 10th. Two out, nobody on. Bob Dernier draws a walk, and up comes Sandberg again. Sutter is still on the mound, which also is an indication of a different era, because he pitched multiple innings--something many of his contemporary relievers, such as Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers, often did.

Sutter actually had entered with two out in the bottom of the seventh. Indeed, he would pitch 3.1 innings and face 15 batters.

So he's still in the game--same matchup. And Sandberg homers almost to the same spot. It was almost as if the same fan could have caught both balls in the left-field bleachers. And now the game is tied again. I remember saying something to the effect of, "This may be the real Roy Hobbs." The movie The Natural had only recently come out, with Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. The '80s and early '90s were really a golden era of baseball movies--Field of Dreams, The Natural, Eight Men Out, Bull Durham, and even Bob Uecker and company in Major League. And to me, what Sandberg was doing brought Roy Hobbs to mind.

And then the game continued, producing another footnote. Dave Owen, brother of Spike Owen, who had a more accomplished career, got a base hit over the drawn-in infield and the Cubs won the game 12-11.

As for Willie McGee having been named "Player of the Game," here's the story behind that. The "Player of the Game" was sponsored, so you absolutely had to make sure it was mentioned while we were on the air. Keep in mind the game had been going on a long time (it would end seven minutes short of four hours). Games were generally quicker back then, but it still had exceeded the anticipated time limit. NBC also had a show then called SportsWorld. And Marv Albert and "The Fight Doctor," Ferdie Pacheco, were waiting in Panama, I think, for whatever the fight was that was to follow the baseball game. They were actually holding off the opening bell until the game would end. So we were trying to do all the "housekeeping," because as soon as the game ended, we were going to throw it hot to Panama.

Understand that as Dernier made it to first base on the walk--and as Sandberg came up to the plate--we didn't think the game was necessarily over. But it could have been over. And if it was--if Sandberg had made an out--we were going to go immediately to Marv Albert. Which is why we had to make sure we had named a "Player of the Game." At that point, the Cardinals were winning and McGee had hit for the cycle, so he was "Player of the Game"--despite the fact that Sandberg had four hits, one of which was a game-tying home run. But then, low and behold, he hits another game-tying home run. And now, all of a sudden, he's got five hits. When the game eventually ended, we couldn't rescind the offer to Willie McGee, so we named co-players of the game. And that's the way it happened.

An Emmy Award-winning sports-caster and talk-show host, Costas worked for NBC Sports from 1980 through 2018, broadcasting a gamut of events that included 11 Olympics. Baseball, however, always has been his passion. Fittingly, Costas, like Sandberg, is recognized in the game's Hall of Fame, where the sportscaster received the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence in 2018.

Where does "The Sandberg Game" rank among the events I've broadcast? If I made a list, it would be high up there. Because of all the circumstances I've mentioned, it's certainly the most significant regular-season baseball game I've ever been a part of. I remember saying something to the effect of, "Tony, this game is so timeless, it could be 1954 as well as 1984, except the telecast would be in black and white."

People know that I have a certain appreciation for baseball. At that point, I'm in my early 30s, relatively early in my NBC career, and I couldn't think of any place on the planet that I'd rather have been. If I could have pushed a button and been in Paris or Rome, I would have said, "No, thanks, I'm staying right here, at Wrigley Field." And I hope that sense of enjoyment and appreciation was transmitted to the audience.

A couple of years ago, Jim Kaat and I did a game in Boston for the Major League Baseball Network (for which Costas has worked since 2009). You're at Fenway Park, so again you have a classic setting. It was a night game, Cleveland against Boston, and the Red Sox won it 12-10--something very, very close to what happened in "The Sandberg Game." And the game featured one of the greatest outfield catches I've ever seen--(Cleveland's) Austin Jackson running from center field toward right-center and tumbling into the Red Sox bullpen to make an astonishing catch (robbing Hanley Ramirez of a home run).

It was back and forth, a seesawing game. Christian Vazquez, with two out in the bottom of the ninth and the Red Sox trailing 10-9, homers to win the game. An incredible game and a great scene at Fenway Park. But that game is just folded into the long regular season, because it didn't have all the surrounding circumstances, and it didn't have the primacy of the Game of the Week. Yeah, it was on national television. But at the same time, if you were a baseball fan and you had the baseball package, you probably could have watched a half-dozen or more different games.

In that sense, it just didn't stand out. It didn't have that center-stage aspect to it the way "The Sandberg Game" did, even though, if you look at it, it was pretty close to comparable. I guess what pretty much sums it up is this: That Cubs-Cardinals game was a regular-season game that had the title "The Sandberg Game." And everybody knows what you're talking about.

Though it doesn't happen as often as it did in the '80s and '90s, it still happens from time to time, especially when I'm in Chicago. A stranger will begin a conversation with me by simply saying, "Bob--The Sandberg Game." That says it all, doesn't it?

Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig have been covering Major League Baseball for almost a decade longer than Wrigley Field has had lights.
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Author:Levine, Bruce; Bierig, Joel
Publication:Baseball Digest
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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