Coming off a 98-loss season in 1980 and trading away their biggest power threat, Dave Kingman, the 1981 Cubs didn't figure to be a good team. Only the players' strike prevented them from being the worst team in franchise history; I detailed the worst of the '81 worst in last year's Game From Cubs History article.
Opening Day, though, always brings hope, even if you know your team is going to be bad. 0-0! Tied for first place, at least until the game begins!
Even with Rick Reuschel, the Cubs' best pitcher, on the mound, the team really had no chance in that opener against the Mets. Reuschel gave up only five hits in seven innings, but two of those were home runs, providing the margin of victory in a 2-0 Mets win. The next day, the Cubs won, but then lost 26 of their next 30. No, that's not a typo -- they went from 1-1 to 5-27.
What was most interesting about Opening Day was the unveiling of a giant banner reading "GOD HELP US" in the right-field bleachers. Kasey Ignarski, my co-author for "Cubs By The Numbers," was involved in that unfurling; he wrote me with details:
I remember the sign actually belonged to the guy who created the Citizens United for a Baseball Series group. He had a couple of these signs he brought to the park that day and asked me and my buddy Elliot Mednick to hold it up for him. Got us in the paper that day.
"Citizens United for a Baseball Series" (note clever acronym) was a group formed in 1979 with the express purpose of trying to get the Wrigleys to sell the Cubs. In June 1981, they got their wish, when Tribune Company bought the club. Now, you can say what you want about Tribco's 28 years as the owners of the Cubs, but at the time they bought the team they were viewed as saviors. (Maybe the sign worked after all.)
Kasey also sent me a clipping from the Sun-Times from the day after the game, which included this nugget reported by Joe Goddard:
Newcomer Joe Strain, who had two hits, called his first season-opening start "a good time. It was fun, except for the score."
Strain had been acquired from the Giants in the offseason. He hadn't been very good there and he was even worse for the Cubs. After his 2-for-3 performance on Opening Day, he hit .169 (12-for-71) with one RBI the rest of the season and spent part of that year, and all of the rest, at Triple-A Iowa. Strain was one of the best, or maybe worst, examples of Cubs acquisitions in that era -- guys who really shouldn't have been in the major leagues at all, but were given starting jobs by a team that didn't have anyone else.
The photo at the top of this post is of Dick "Dirtman" Tidrow, who threw the last two innings of the Opening Day game. Tidrow had pitched well for the Cubs in 1979 and 1980, but had a pretty bad year in 1981; after a bounceback year in 1982, he was eventually shipped to the White Sox as part of the deal that brought Steve Trout to the Cubs.
Plus, Tidrow's signature leg kick, which makes his left arm hide his face in this shot, is a perfect metaphor for the 1981 season, which none of us should have been forced to watch.