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Forgotten Cubs Opening Day starting pitchers since 1980

Remember these guys?

Terry Mulholland in 1997
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Credit where credit is due — I adapted this article idea from this article, which lists one “forgotten” Opening Day starting pitcher for each MLB team. You can read that article to find out who that is for the Cubs, but I’m going to include him here as well.

Though it hasn’t been officially announced yet, Kyle Hendricks will almost certainly be the Cubs’ Opening Day starter for the second straight season. But what about others with less acclaim in Cubs history?

Most of these men were Opening Day starting pitchers the year after a really bad season, or beginning a really bad season, which makes sense. Some of them were good pitchers — for teams other than the Cubs.

You might have forgotten them, but today, let’s remember these six guys, who got the honor of a Cubs Opening Day start once each.

1982: Doug Bird

The 1981 Cubs, the final team of the Wrigley ownership, were wretchedly bad. If not for the strike they likely would have set a franchise record for losses.

Rick Reuschel had been the Cubs’ Opening Day starter from 1978-81. Bird had come over from the Yankees when Reuschel was swapped there in mid-1981, and at that point... well, the Cubs didn’t really have anyone else for the OD nod, so Bird got it.

The game was a success. Bird threw seven strong innings, allowing just five hits and one run, and the Cubs won 3-2 in a contest shortened to eight innings by rain.

It was one of Bird’s best games of the year. He wound up with a 5.14 ERA and leading the league in home runs allowed with 26. After the season the Cubs traded him to the Red Sox for Chuck Rainey.

1984: Dick Ruthven

Fergie Jenkins, coming off a very good 1982 season, had been the Opening Day starter in 1983, his seventh OD start. But Fergie’s ‘83 season was poor and he was released during Spring Training in 1984.

So the OD starter for the Cubs’ first playoff season since 1945 was ... the answer to a trivia question. Ruthven had been one of Dallas Green’s “Phillies West” acquisitions when he took over as Cubs GM, and he and the coaching staff had an unnatural “like” for him. Ruthven had some good years for the Braves and Phillies in the 1970s and wasn’t bad for the ‘83 Cubs (12-9, 4.10 ERA, 0.9 bWAR), but his ‘84 season was poor (5.04 ERA, 1.539 WHIP, -0.1 bWAR). Nevertheless, Green kept him on the postseason roster instead of Reuschel, though Ruthven didn’t pitch in the NLCS loss to the Padres.

On Opening Day 1984, though, Ruthven threw pretty well, 7⅓ strong innings against the Giants with no walks and six strikeouts. The Cubs won the game 5-3.

1991: Danny Jackson

Jackson was a highly-touted free-agent signing. Only two years removed from a 23-win season with the Reds when he finished second in Cy Young voting, the Cubs signed him after the 1990 season to a four-year, $10.5 million contract. That might not seem like much now, but that was really big money in the early 1990s.

Jackson was just bad as a Cub. He went 5-14 with a 5.19 ERA and 1.644 WHIP in 36 appearances (33 starts) in 1991 and 1992 before the Cubs managed to dump him on the Pirates in July 1992 for Steve Buechele. Buechele had a couple of decent years for the Cubs, so it wasn’t a total loss. Jackson, meanwhile, recovered from the injuries that ruined his years in Chicago and wound up pitching in the World Series for the Phillies in 1993.

Oh, that Opening Day start in 1991? 7⅓ innings, four runs, six walks, and the Cubs lost to the Cardinals 4-1.

1995: Jim Bullinger

The 1995 Cubs staff didn’t have any big-name pitchers, so the OD start in the strike-delayed season fell to Bullinger, who had made 10 starts the previous year.

The game was a success — Bullinger threw seven shutout innings and the Cubs beat the Reds 7-1.

Bullinger made 24 starts that year, posted a 4.14 ERA, 1.447 WHIP and 0.5 bWAR. The next year he was terrible — 6.54 ERA, -2.4 bWAR — and he left as a free agent, eventually signing with the Montreal Expos.

A converted infielder, Bullinger was still pitching in the minor leagues as late as 2005.

1996: Jaime Navarro

Navarro, who the Cubs had signed as a free agent before the 1995 season, turned into a big success story that year. He posted a 3.28 ERA and 1.248 WHIP, good for 4.1 bWAR. He was by far the best pitcher on the staff in ‘95 and earned the OD start the following spring.

He threw eight good innings that April 1 afternoon at Wrigley Field, but was not around for the decision when the Cubs won 5-4 in 10 innings.

Navarro’s 1996 season was decent, but not quite as good as the previous one: 3.92 ERA, 1.335 WHIP, 1.9 bWAR. The Cubs let him walk as a free agent after the ‘96 season, a decision criticized at the time, but one that turned out to be correct. Navarro signed with the White Sox and had a pretty bad season for them — in fact, over his final four years in MLB (1997-2000) he posted a 6.32 ERA and 1.728 WHIP and a total of -5.2 bWAR.

The Cubs definitely got the best years of Navarro’s career.

1997: Terry Mulholland

It was another April Fool’s Day opener and it’s a bit of a mystery why this start didn’t go to Steve Trachsel, who had posted a solid season in 1996. It wasn’t as if the Cubs would have wanted a lefthander to face the Marlins, who in ‘97 had tons of righthanded power. It was Mulholland’s first game in a Cubs uniform.

Mulholland didn’t finish the fifth inning in this game, allowing seven hits and four runs, and the Cubs lost the game 4-2. (Check out the other pitchers who threw for the Cubs that day, too, a real forgettable bunch.)

Mulholland was having such a nondescript year in ‘97 that the Cubs let him go on a waiver claim to the Giants in August. They re-signed him the following offseason and he had a very good season for the Cubs in their wild-card year of 1998, when he made 70 appearances (six starts) covering 112 innings and posted a 2.98 ERA and 1.8 bWAR. He wasn’t nearly as good in ‘99 and the Cubs let him go to free agency. He was still pitching, at age 43, in 2006.

Kyle Hendricks, who will get the start when the Cubs face the Pirates at Wrigley Field in yet another April Fools Day opener, will certainly be better remembered by Cubs fans than any of the above seven, but all of them got a single Opening Day start in a Cubs uniform.