The recent passing of Atlanta play-by-play announcer Skip Caray certainly struck a chord with Cubs followers, though it has been more than a decade now since the death of Skip Caray’s father, Cubs announcer Harry Caray. Skip Caray’s passing revived memories of a true benchmark game for two fans.
The equinox afternoon of Sunday, September 21, 1997, in Chicago was one of Indian summer. Some 30,000 people made their way to Wrigley Field, where on this day the Cubs would play their final home game of the 1997 season, opposed by the visiting Phillies.
Among the Wrigley faithful that afternoon were two who had just happened by, driving homeward from Minnesota to Alabama. They were stunned to find themselves on Row 1, at the screen, just behind the home-plate brick wall.
In addition to closing the Cubs' 1997 home season, this game carried the added significance of ending the long Wrigley Field career of Ryne Sandberg, extraordinary second baseman who played on the 1984 and 1989 division-championship teams. Other than Sandberg, only first baseman Mark Grace remained of the 1989 Cubs. And there would be yet another closure this day, an unscheduled one.
The Cubs were challenged by the Phillies' best pitcher, Curt Schilling, 16-10 on the year. Kevin Tapani took the mound for the Cubs to open the game. Schilling is almost always a firm adherent of one of baseball's long-standing superstitions: a pitcher must not step on the dirt of the base path when walking between mound and dugout.
The September sun was on the third base and left field stands when the game began at 1:20, while the first base and right field stands were mostly in shadow. The score was 1-1 when Schilling walked from the mound to the dugout at the close of the fourth inning. Engaged in conversation with the catcher, Schilling did not realize that he stepped directly onto the basepath.
In the middle of the fifth inning, the exact midpoint of the game, the sun had moved to the southwest and was aligned directly behind home plate. The symmetry of the game was matched by the symmetry of the sunlight falling upon portions of the first base stands and the third base stands. There were mirror image patterns of sunlight and shadow.
Just as pitcher Tapani had faced batter Schilling to close the top half of the fifth, now pitcher Schilling faced batter Tapani to begin the bottom half of the fifth. Schilling walked Tapani on four pitches. Alexander then homered, giving the Cubs a lead which they would not relinquish on this day, and bringing Sandburg to the plate.
A sharp single was Ryne Sandberg's final competitive act at Wrigley Field. Standing at first base as his longtime teammate Mark Grace entered the batter's box, Sandberg acknowledged a standing ovation, one of several which he received on this day.
Sandberg was replaced at first base by a runner, and as he trotted to the third base dugout, the ovation reached its crescendo. All the Cubs left the dugout to greet him as he came off that special green diamond for the final time. But the first to take his hand, halfway between third and home, was the batter at the moment, Mark Grace.
After this emotional event had passed, Grace hit Schilling's first pitch into the right field bleachers for one of his rare home runs. No one present that day at Wrigley would have imagined the key roles those two would play years later in the 2001 World Series, soon after the World Trade Center disaster. In Arizona’s Game Seven victory over the Yankees, Schilling would be the starting pitcher, and Grace’s hit would ignite the winning ninth-inning rally.
But on this day in 1997, after Mark Grace’s home run off Schilling, the Cubs never looked back, eventually winning the game 11-3. As the Cubs pulled away, the interest of the fans gradually drifted from the diamond to the WGN booth, where they knew Harry Caray would lead the crowd for the final time of 1997 in baseball’s doxology, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game".
He did just that. As the shadows enveloped the third-base stands and the sunlight blanketed the first-base side, he closed the 1997 home season in good voice. Probably no one at Wrigley Field that golden September afternoon suspected that Harry was also closing a long and storied career with his final rendition.
When the 1998 season rolled around, Harry Caray was at his new station, likely still making his double play calls. But rather than “from Dunston to Sandberg to Grace,” they were -
“ - - from Tinker! - - to Evers! - - to Chance! Holy Cow! Cubs win! Cubs win!”