June 23, 1984, is the date of one of the most famous regular season games in baseball history. Willie McGee hit for the cycle, and was not even close to making the headlines. That's because future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg went 5 for 7 and hit game-tying homers against fellow future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter in back-to-back innings. The final score was 12-11 in 11 innings; Sandberg posted a ridiculous WPA of +1.063, and rode this game and the Cub division title to a well-deserved MVP.
So why the heck is the game of the day Yankees 5, Orioles 4 (11)?
The pitching matchup was solid enough, with New York's Phil Niekro taking on Baltimore's Dennis Martinez. You'd figure if one of the two solid, long-career pitchers would be on the way to posting an ERA over 5, it would be the nearly-done 45-year-old, not the 30-year-old with well over a decade left in his career; in this case, you would be wrong.
Martinez allowed singles to Ken Griffey and Butch Wynegar to start the game. Don Mattingly then hit into one of the strangest double plays imaginable - he grounded to third and Griffey was caught in a rundown and thrown out; Wynegar was then either leaning off of second or trying for third and got thrown out as well. Don Baylor popped up to end the inning, and the Orioles took the game's first lead when Wayne Gross walked, Cal Ripken singled him to third, and Eddie Murray hit into an RBI force. New York tied it in the second, however, when Dave Winfield doubled, advanced on a groundout, and scored on a Roy Smalley sac fly.
The teams mounted at least slight threats just about every inning. Rich Dauer singled in the second, Griffey walked and Wynegar singled in the third, and Gross singled in the bottom of the inning before getting caught stealing as Ripken struck out. Steve Kemp singled in the fourth before being erased on a double play. The Orioles put up a serious rally in the fourth when Murray singled, Ken Singleton walked, and Jim Dwyer singled to load the bases with one out. Dauer then hit into a force at home, and Rick Dempsey also hit into a force to end the inning. Bob Meacham led off the fifth with a single, but Tim Foli hit into a double play behind him, and the Orioles grabbed another lead in the bottom of the inning on a single by Al Bumbry, walks to Gross and Murray, and a Singleton flyout.
New York evened the score once more when Don Baylor homered in the top of the sixth, but Baltimore struck again in the bottom of the inning; Jim Dwyer led off with a double, Bumbry singled him home two outs later, Gross walked, and Ripken reached on a Meacham error to score Bumbry for a 4-2 lead. Ray Fontenot relieved Niekro, and Sammy Stewart replaced Martinez and threw a perfect seventh. Fontenot allowed a single in the bottom of the seventh before inducing a double play, and Stewart did the same in the eighth. Jay Howell tossed a 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth, giving his team one more chance to make up the two-run deficit.
Baylor reached on a Dauer error to start the ninth; one out later, Stewart was yanked for Tippy Martinez , who promptly served up a game-tying homer to Steve Kemp. With two outs, Meacham doubled and took third on a wild pitch before being left on. Murray also hit a two-out double in the bottom of the inning, and was also stranded, sending the game to extras.
Butch Wynegar led off the tenth with a single, Mattingly bunted pinch runner Omar Moreno to second, Baylor was intentionally walked, and Martinez retired the next two hitters. John Lowenstein singled against Jose Rijo in the bottom of the inning, but the Orioles failed to get him past first. Smalley led off the top of the eleventh with a homer to put New York in front; Gross and Murray drew walks in the bottom of the inning, but Clay Christiansen relieved Rijo and struck out Singleton and Matt Young to end the game.
OK, so this is a quality game; it's close, it has a game-tying homer in the ninth and a threat to come back in the bottom of the last inning. But you wouldn't expect it to beat out the best-known regular season game of at least '84, and arguably the entire decade of the '80s.
So why does it? Much as it pains me as a Cub fan, the reason the Sandberg Game loses out it because... it's maybe a little overrated.
Just to be clear, Sandberg's performance itself is magnificent and justly lauded; a 1.063 WPA does not come around all that often, and neither does a 5 for 6, 2 HR, 7 RBI game. And since the contest also came with a cycle on the other team (by Willie McGee, who had 6 RBI while having one of every hit type) and had an extremely dramatic conclusion (the Cubs rallied in both the ninth and tenth before winning in the eleventh), it is extremely well-regarded, and there is some justification for that high regard.
But while it is an excellent game (#50 on the year so far, roughly 95th percentile), it has a weak spot: the Cardinals scored six times in the second to take a 7-1 lead, and remained well ahead until the bottom of the sixth when the Cubs closed within 9-8. The one-run deficit remained in place for two more innings, with the Cubs failing to get a runner into scoring position in either one before Sandberg tied it in the ninth. The last three innings were indeed extraordinary, but there was a great deal of dead time beforehand, and that kind of thing is frowned upon by the WPL system, which prefers games that keep fans riveted throughout.
None of which will matter to Ryne Sandberg, or fans with fond memories of the 1984 Cubs, or really anyone else. But it's still worth explaining the unexpected result.