Since Opening Day for Major League Baseball officially begins in a few hours, I was wondering what everyone's favorite Opening Day is involving the Chicago Cubs. Mine is April 4, 1989 against the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field. It was the very first game of the season between the two teams. I was a junior in high school at the time and couldn't wait to go home from school to watch the game on WGN.
Let's go back a bit. The Cubs were 77-85 in 1988 which was the fourth consecutive year in a row they had a losing record. This was really tough for me at the time because I was spoiled in 1984, my first year as a Cubs fan. Chicago won the NL East in 1984 and came oh-so-close to winning a pennant against San Diego, but finished 77-84 in 1985, 70-90 in 1986, 76-85 in 1987 and 77-85 in 1988. Unlike most of you, I was a Cubs newbie back then and I expected the team to do better after 1984. But then came a couple of puzzling trades made by then-GM Jim Frey who managed the Cubs in 1984. On December 8, 1987, Frey traded Lee Smith to the Boston Red Sox for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. This left a gaping hole at closer and Frey apparently tried to fill in by trading Keith Moreland and Mike Brumley to the Padres for Rich "Goose" Gossage on February 12, 1988. The problem was that Gossage was past his prime and wound up with only 13 saves in 1988.
However, not all of Frey's deals were bad ones. On May 19, 1988 the Cubs traded longtime first baseman Leon Durham to the Reds for lefty reliever Pat Perry. This move allowed Mark Grace to play full-time at first base which he did for the next 12 years. On July 14, 1988 Chicago traded outfielder Dave Martinez to the Montreal Expos for outfielder Mitch Webster. But it was a trade made on December 5, 1988 that is probably Frey's most well-known trade as Cubs GM. The Cubs traded Rafael Palmeiro, Jamie Moyer and Drew Hall to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Mitch Williams, Paul Kilgus, Steve Wilson, Curtis Wilkerson, Luis Benitez and Pablo Delgado. The deal was heavily criticized by fans at the time because both Palmeiro and Moyer were burgeoning stars. However, Williams, Kilgus, Wilson and Wilkerson would all wind up playing roles in the success of the 1989 Cubs team.
So I finally got home from school, turned on the TV and it was the top of the 9th inning with the Cubs leading 5-4. New Cubs closer, Mitch Williams, was on the mound and he promptly gave up singles to former Cub Bob Dernier, Tommy Herr and Von Hayes to load the bases. Bases loaded, nobody out and guess who was coming up? Future Hall of Famer and notorious Cub killer, Mike Schmidt. At this point, I remember many Cubs fans in the ballpark booing Mitch Williams. Williams was already not a popular guy because of the trade Frey made with Texas and his performance in this game so far was not helping him any. So what does he do? He strikes out Schmidt. One out. The crowd slowly but surely gets back into the game, but it ain't over yet. Next up is Chris James. He strikes out. Two outs. Suddenly, the crowd gets into it even more and they're now standing on their feet as left-handed first baseman Mike Ryal steps up to the plate. Ryal strikes out! Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win! At that moment I remember the camera panned to someone in the stands with a sign that read "1-0 and 161 more to go!" I remember thinking to myself, "This could be special for the Cubs this year." I still get chills when I think about it. Because that game seemed to be a foreshadowing of the rest of that season. Tight games, thrilling performances, Mitch Williams driving you crazy with his wildness yet somehow found his way out of a jam most of the time. As former Cubs GM Dallas Green would call it, "tightrope baseball at its best".
And, speaking of Green, some of the young guys on this team were drafted by the Cubs under his management. Mark Grace, Shawon Dunston, Dwight Smith, Jerome Walton, Damon Berryhill, Joe Girardi, Doug Dascenzo and Greg Maddux were all homegrown Cubs that contributed so much the 1989 team. And, last but not least, let's not forget Cubs manager, Don Zimmer. Zimmer was third-base coach of the Cubs under Jim Frey in 1984 and he was hired back as manager for the 1988 season. Zimmer had a very young Chicago Cubs team in 1989 that didn't have a lot of power hitters like they had back in 1984. So, this meant that the Cubs had to play more "small ball" which they did. They bunted, hit-and-ran, stole bases and ran aggressively from first to third with almost reckless abandon. Not only that, but Zimmer had them using the hit-and-run with the bases loaded which I hadn't seen before that and haven't seen it since. I remember one game where the Cubs had the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth and won it on a squeeze play. If you weren't around then and you dig the longball, you probably wouldn't have been a big fan of the 1989 Cubs offense. But I was and it was some of the most exciting baseball I've ever seen. Chicago went on to win the NL East in 1989, but they lost four games to one in the NLCS against the Giants that year. Another sad ending for the Cubs, but an unforgettable and unbelievable season that began with an unforgettable and unbelievable Opening Day.