For three years in the late 1970's -- 1977, 1978 and 1979 -- the Cubs teased us by briefly contending each year with a team that really had no business being there.
Seriously. Look at this lineup:
Friday, April 14 dawned sunny and not too cold -- the high that day was 54, warmer than many openers -- and a lot of people decided they'd try to get into the bleachers that day. In those days, all bleacher tickets were still sold on the day of the game. At least 3,000 people were in line to get in at 8 am when some enterprising folks started to climb the walls. It was at that point that the Cubs, worried about a riot starting, opened the gates. That was the last Opening Day that bleacher tickets were sold on the day of the game -- for a couple of years, they even sold OD tickets on a reserved basis (my 1979-1981 OD bleacher tickets have section and row numbers, or more correctly, letters -- section I -- on them).
The Cubs raced out to a 3-0 lead in the first two innings, but blew it and then entered the bottom of the 8th trailing 4-3. They tied it when Manny Trillo led off with a single; in the station-to-station ball so common to Cub teams in those years, he was sacrificed to second and advanced to third on an infield out. After a walk to Steve Ontiveros, Ivan DeJesus doubled Trillo in.
That set up the heroics for Larry Biittner, who, as was common in the early years of Bill Buckner's tenure as Cub 1B, had come in when Buckner's ankle couldn't handle extended play. On this day, Buckner had only one at-bat before he had to leave in the third inning. Biittner slammed a Jim Bibby pitch for a walkoff -- of course, we didn't call them "walkoffs" in those days, just "game-winning home runs".
Biittner had some good, and also wacky, moments in his career. He wasn't a great player, but had a pretty good year in 1977 -- hitting .298/.345/.432 as a backup 1B/outfielder with 12 HR. He had also pitched in the 8th and 9th innings in the second game of a doubleheader on July 4, 1977, coming in with the Cubs trailing 11-2 and immediately allowing a three-run homer to Larry Parrish. He was later warned by the umpires for throwing at Del Unser when what appeared to be a curveball went behind Unser's head. And in this game on September 26, 1979, playing right field, a ball hit by the Mets' Bruce Boisclair went over Larry's head, his cap flying off as he chased it. The ball went under his cap -- searching frantically, Biittner heard us behind him yelling, "Hat! Hat!" Finally locating the ball, he picked it up and threw Boisclair out at third. And, only two other players who once wore a Washington Senators uniform stayed longer in the majors than Biittner, who was done after 1983 -- Jeff Burroughs, who finished with the Blue Jays in 1985, and Toby Harrah, the Last Washington Senator, who retired after the 1986 season.
The 1978 Cubs shouldn't have even come close to contending. Dave Kingman led the club with 28 HR -- no one else hit more than nine. Radio talk show humorists called them "the Rush Street offense -- lots of singles, no action". Rick Reuschel led the team with 14 wins -- but lost 15, and no other pitcher won more than nine games. They managed to hang around the race until September -- after sweeping a doubleheader from the Astros on September 3, they were a mediocre 69-66, but only 3.5 games out of first place. The next day, forced by rainouts to play another doubleheader, this one vs. Montreal, they got swept and finished the year 79-83, 11 games out of first place.
But Larry Biittner, the man with the oddly spelled last name, got his moment in the sun with an Opening Day walkoff homer.