For the first time since 1945, when Harry Truman was president of the United States, the Chicago Cubs have something worthwhile to defend -- the National League East championship. While it's true that the Cubs did revert to form in the '84 National League playoffs, losing three straight games to the San Diego Padres after being within one step of the World Series, they did post 98 victories overall.
Considering the aggressive way Chicago General Manager Dallas Green acquired several good players (including one super pitcher in Rick Sutcliffe) from other teams after the season started, his accomplishments made the Cubs more of a national story than a local one.
Although Green paid a price by trading away several of the Cubs' best young players, suggesting that he may have mortgaged the club's future for one brief moment in the sun, most baseball people polled on this subject support his boldness. Given the same circumstances, they say, they would have done exactly the same thing.
But the fact that Chicago did miss the World Series, after coming so close, has Manager Jim Frey taking extra precautions this year in terms of having everybody ready at all times. While Frey would prefer to go with a set lineup rather than platoon, he is prepared to shake things up if he doesn't get the early intensity he wants from his regulars.
However, there is no reason to believe that the 1985 Cubs won't get away well. This isn't last year, when Jim started the season short on both pitching and defense. This time he was able to name all of his regulars even before the club left for spring training.
The exception to that statement may be at shortstop, where 39-year-old Larry Bowa is being (choose one) challenged? pushed? worried? by the presence of 22-year-old Shawon Dunston.
Bowa, who has been covering shortstop more with his head than his legs for years now, is one of the smartest players in the game. Even though Larry hasn't hit for average for three years, skidding all the way to .224 last season, he can still make an opposing pitcher sweat in the clutch.
Dunston, who gets a ``can't miss eventually label'' on the strength of his arm and his fielding, is still reading his first primer as far as the breaking ball is concerned. Last year, after the Cubs promoted him from Double-A to Triple-A, his batting average dropped 100 points.
The remainder of Frey's infield will have Leon Durham at first base, National League MVP Ryne Sandberg at second, and Ron Cey, who led Chicago in home runs last year with 25, at third.
The catching should take care of itself, provided Jody Davis is again able to work 150 games while driving in 96 runs. But the Cubs will trade for extra experience there if they can, despite the presence of Steve Lake, who has had eight years in the minors.
Chicago will again go with an outfield of three former Philadelphia Phillies -- Gary Matthews in left, Bob Dernier in center, and Keith Moreland in right.
Matthews, who led the league in game-winning hits last year with 19, was also the first Cub since Richie Ashburn in 1960 to draw more than 100 walks. Dernier, who raised his batting average almost 50 points in '84, had the most stolen bases by a Cub (45) since Johnny Evers grabbed 46 in 1906. Moreland, who plays the field better than Reggie Jackson but not as well as Dwight Evans, was one of six Cubbies last year to drive in 80 or more runs.
What has Frey's 1985 confidence equaling that of a Marine from Texas, however, is his pitching staff, which at this time last year consisted mostly of shadowy figures emerging from a London fog. Now Jim has a solid five-man rotation headed by Cy Young Award winner Sutcliffe, plus Dennis Eckersley, Steve Trout, Scott Sanderson, and Dick Ruthven.
In fact, Frey has added a sixth candidate in Ray Fontenot, who started 24 games for the New York Yankees in 1984, but could also be used in long relief. Sutcliffe, of course, was 16-1 for the Cubs after coming over in a midseason trade with the Cleveland Indians, including 14 consecutive victories at a time when Jim really needed that kind of consistency.
It is also not necessary to apologize for the Cubs' bullpen, which got 33 saves last year from Lee Smith (second best in the National League), plus some fine spot performances from George Frazier and Warren Brusstar. During the winter that group acquired another experienced arm in Lary Sorensen, who pitched more than 183 innings last year for the Oakland A's.
Even though Frey's '84 Cubs scored more runs (762) than any National League team since the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, Jim already knows that he is going to be pushed hard this year by the New York Mets, who rose all the way from the cellar to second place a year ago, and who look even stronger now that they have pried all-star catcher Gary Carter away from the Montreal Expos.