Cubs Alumni Spotlight with Bobby Dernier
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This week, former Cubs center fielder Bobby Dernier (1984-87) joins to chat about the 1984 Cubs, playing center field at Wrigley Field, trying to defend Keith Hernandez, and more.
Q: Thanks for joining, Bobby! You were acquired by the Cubs via trade from Philadelphia just days before the 1984 season began. What do you recall about your emotions at that point of being traded?
Bobby Dernier: I often tell people that in baseball you have to deal with rejection. You’re going to get released, traded, or in some kind of way baseball will reject you. It’s built in. You have to accept that and know it is part of the game. In Philadelphia, we had so many good outfielders on that roster, and several guys that were certainly capable of playing every day. So, I was just grateful. I was like, ‘OK great, I’m going to get a chance to play’ … for me, it was pretty easy.
Q: What was your excitement level to join the Cubs organization?
BD: The one thing that stands out [about joining the Cubs] is that I knew I was going to a team where I had already played with a number of guys there, not least of which was Ryne Sandberg, of course. Having played three years in the minors with ‘Ryno’ in the Phillies organization, I think we both shared sort of a bit of a chip on our shoulder. He was a 20th round pick, and I was a free agent. I wasn’t even drafted. We weren’t expected to do as much, so we shared that common denominator in what was then one of the best organizations in baseball. As we were coming up, the Phillies had won divisions and were getting ready to win a World Series in 1980. So, the irony is that we both ended up in Chicago in order to really get an opportunity to play every day. So, I looked forward to that opportunity and getting reacquainted with some good old friends and that familiarity at the top of the order.
Q: At what point did you know that the 1984 team could be a special club?
BD: I’d say probably by the end of May, we were looking at each other like, ‘Hey, we’re pretty good here.’ And then Dallas [Green] went out and got us some more pitching, in our rotation in particular. Adding Eckersley and Sutcliffe was what really put us over the top.
Q: What did you know about Sutcliffe prior to the trade and how can you describe the impact he had on that club?
BD: Growing up in Kansas City, I played against Rick in high school, and so I knew Rick and what caliber of pitcher he was and competitor going back to 1974 as a junior in high school. So, I knew who we were getting. I think Rick and I both still cherish that today, a couple of kids from Kansas City teaming up on that 1984 team. He had just an outstanding season as we know, going 16-1 with us and winning the Cy Young Award. Just an outstanding competitor, I loved playing behind Rick.
Q: June 23, 1984, now known as the “Ryne Sandberg Game.” Ryno obviously had the two homers and seven RBI, but you also had a tremendous performance, tying a career-high with four runs scored (including three times being driven in by Sandberg). What are your memories of that day?
BD: I think everyone had a jaw-dropping moment, if not 2 or 3, watching Ryno that day. I think the Sandberg game is still today the only regular season game named after a player. I think I remember Bob Costas saying that, which tells me that’s baseball truth since Costas said it. It really didn’t come about until the bottom of the 10th inning, because St. Louis’ Willie McGee had hit for the cycle and the Cardinals were ahead 11-9. So, we were down to our last out in the bottom of the 10th. I was at the plate and managed to walk ahead of Ryno, giving him the chance to hit again against Sutter, and when he hit it again, tying the game after being down by two, that’s when it became the Sandberg game. I think Whitey Herzog said it best when he said he might be witnessing the best player he’d ever seen. Maybe he was exaggerating I’m sure in his own way, but in some ways Ryne Sandberg certainly was one of the best players to ever play the game and he wasn’t afraid of those moments.
Q: As the team kept winning throughout the season, how did you see the fan passion growing, especially patrolling center field every game and being by the bleachers?
BD: Big time. We witnessed the rooftops beginning. That wasn’t really as much of a phenomenon at that point, but as the games were getting sold out, people wanted to watch the games and fans got innovative. Thus, creating the rooftops.
Q: What was the biggest factor in that 1984 team having such success?
BD: We had balance. We had younger guys like me, Ryno, Leon Durham, Keith Moreland, Jody Davis, and on. But we also had really three solid veterans in that lineup every day in Gary Matthews, Ron Cey and Larry Bowa, who had all the leadership qualities that you would want on a team, mostly by demonstration and how they went about their business. So, those guys were the big reason why we won. We fortunately stayed healthy, and then us younger guys did what we knew how to do and complemented those veterans. We had really good balance on that team.
Q: What was the clubhouse energy like that season?
BD: It was very light. We had every music genre you can imagine. We loved country music, jazz, rock and roll, heart and soul, Motown, you name it. We had every type of music in the locker room then, which I think created great comradery and lots of laughs. Of course, winning breeds that. You don’t have that kind of environment when you’re losing. But when you’re winning, I think everyone’s real personalities come out and we had that for sure.
Q: You hit a leadoff home run in game one of the NLCS that season at Wrigley Field. What was that moment like as you were rounding the bases?
BD: That was a huge climax to a lot of years, and a lot of sweat and tears. I remember not sleeping the night before, maybe an hour nap, because you’re so anxious to go play. But all I could remember in that moment was being really calm and concentrated and ready from pitch one. When I made contact, I can tell you I was the first to clap, and then 40,000-plus erupted. Players will tell you that they don’t really hear the crowd or whatever, but to this day I can tell you in all honesty I heard every clap and that was one of the loudest buildings I was ever in at that moment.
Q: What did that whole day mean with it being such a celebratory atmosphere with the Cubs hosting a postseason game for the first time in decades and then winning the game 13-0?
BD: It had just been so long. It had been nearly 40 years since a postseason game in Chicago. So, Cubs fans were obviously as ready as I was. I was waiting for my first playoff at-bat. I’d been looking for that for a long time since I was in the backyard at 10 years old. You would have those pretend moments, maybe it’s shooting a free throw down one, or you’re going to throw that pass for a touchdown to win the game. We all had those moments, and when they happen in the big leagues, I think it’s just through repetition and a lot of good hard work that you can be fully prepared for those moments. Then, it’s just a matter of concentrating. It’s cliché but you have to be breathing well, to sort of be frozen in time, in that concentrated moment. And then hope you get a good fastball to hit. It was certainly one of those moments I’ll always remember.
Q: You’ve been a big part of the Cubs organization over the years, including frequently appearing at Cubs Convention and singing the seventh inning stretch, among many other things. What does it mean to be such a part of the club still?
BD: I’m one of the lucky guys, to be involved in the organization like I have over the years in a variety of different ways. Anytime I get to come up to Chicago it’s through the good graces of Crane Kenney and Tom Ricketts and everyone in the organization who supports having alumni around. It’s one of the unique relationships in sports. I tell people all the time that Cubs fans are very unique in their love affair with their players and former players. I witnessed it when I was playing, and how they treated Ernie Banks and Randy Hundley and the Glenn Beckert’s of the world. So that relationship is very important to me. I’m not a hall of famer, but I’m on a shelf, we like to call it the second shelf, that I’m proud to be on. The relationship between the organization, former players and fans is like no other in professional sports. I’m really happy to be a part of it.
Q: What was your favorite opposing park?
BD: That’s a tough one, but I’ll go with Busch Stadium. Playing in St. Louis was always a great time, especially with the Cubs because of that great rivalry and the feeling of a packed house with good teams. We had a lot of good battles back in the ‘80s with those teams.
Q: Who were the toughest pitchers you ever went up against?
BD: I could make a list. The ones that gave me the most trouble were probably Dwight Gooden, Mario Soto, Fernando Valenzuela, Steve Carlton, I could keep going… but to balance it out there were some pitchers that I had success against too that I wouldn’t have thought I would have, so it balances out.
Q: As a center fielder, who was the toughest pitcher to try and defend?
BD: I loved playing center field. It’s the most fun position on the field. The most difficult hitter to defend in that timeframe by far was Keith Hernandez, he seemed to be able to move the baseball all over the field, gap to gap, line to line. Whether the pitch was inner half or outer half, he just had a way almost like a great tennis player, he could serve the ball where you weren’t going to be. He had an uncanny ability to do that.
So, it was the guys who knew how to get hits. The power hitters, you might as well just stand on the warning track as it’s not going to matter much, like Mike Schmidt, George Foster, or any of those power hitters. Or at Wrigley Field, especially if it’s blowing out, there’s no need to even play deep. You would just play normal and take away the pop up, because if they get it up in the air medium-deep, it’s going to blow out onto Waveland or Sheffield.
Q: What emotions come to mind when you think about how lucky you were to get to play center field at Wrigley Field for four seasons?
BD: I always tell people that the best seat in Wrigley is playing center field. It’s the best view in the world. When you can see the silhouetted shadows of the fans at the top row of the second deck, and then you look behind you and see the rooftops are full and the bleachers are full. It’s such a wonderful sight. Day time at Wrigley with a packed house and you’re playing center field, it doesn’t get much better.
I had the good fortune of being the first outfielder in Cubs history to be awarded the Gold Glove, which shocked me when I heard that. And then there’s only three of us to this day, with Andre Dawson and of course Jason Heyward, who is the best defensive outfielder I’ve ever watched play. Sharing that honor with that small group over 100-plus years, that’s a great shelf to be on and I’m so proud to be standing beside those two guys. But that success comes from really, really enjoying playing center field at Wrigley and making plays. I was one of those guys that enjoyed making plays because that can inject excitement into the crowd even more than a home run and get your team a lift when you need it.
Q: How disappointed are you to not get to attend Cubs Convention this season and how much are you looking forward to getting back to the ballpark and convention in the future?
BD: I wore 20 with the Cubs and I wore 22 primarily with the Phillies, so I was thinking 2022 has got to be a good year in my book. So as we turn the page into 2022, I was disappointed to hear we’re not going to have the convention, but I certainly understand why. I can tell you as a former player and having been there as a player in 1986 when they started it, that’s one thing that all of us connected with the Cubs look forward to as a reunion. So, when we do get to come back, as a reunion family in what looks like will be 2023, I think that will be a joyous occasion and maybe add a little more emphasis to what’s been a tremendous run for the Cubs Convention. It’s a beautiful thing and I look forward to it.
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