Apr 1, 2021

The 10 biggest Opening Day moments for the Cubs

The 10 biggest Opening Day moments for the Cubs

1. Billy Williams winning homer breaks 10th-inning tie between Fergie Jenkins and Bob Gibson — April 6, 1971

This was just poetry. Cubs and Cardinals, Opening Day at Wrigley Field. Fergie Jenkins dueling Bob Gibson into the 10th inning and Billy Williams — a third future Hall of Famer — walks it off with a solo homer to send Wrigley (and the WGN broadcast) into outer space (which meant something in those days):

Jenkins allowed three hits and no walks to go with seven strikeouts over 10 innings, the only run coming on a solo shot by Joe Torre. Gibson allowed two runs, seven hits and four walks to go with five strikeouts.

2. Tuffy Rhodes hits three dingers against Dwight Gooden — April 4, 1994

There's an old saying that maybe you've heard: Nobody cares about your fantasy team. Midway Minute is testing that theory right now because in my long-ago rotisserie league, I paid $25 for Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes after he hit three home runs on Opening Day against Doc Gooden and the Mets. An early fantasy league custom, especially in the $260-cap/23-slot auction format, was to draft the first weekend after Opening Day in order to give everyone a chance to study the rosters in the newspaper. How quaint!

So Tuffy, a former Astros prospect who was a Sabrmetric darling and sleeper before the '94 season, goes off on Gooden with the second three-homer opener in MLB history. What a great day at the ballpark. Hey, did you know the Cubs lost this game 12-8?

"We made him a legend today" — Mets manager Dallas Green on Tuffy Rhodes.

Tell me about it. Come draft day, I just dived in as a true believer. Ten dollars? Maybe. But $25? That's almost 10 percent of the budget. Hey, I was buying three homers for sure! Well, he finished the season with eight homers, six steals and slashed .234/.318/.387 in 308 plate appearances. Not a great ROI on the $25 — for me or the Cubs. Eventually, Tuffy figured it out when found his way to Japan Profesional Baseball, where he was one of that league's best hitters ever.

3. Mitch Williams sets, extinguishes fire — April 4, 1989

Lots of fans remember the tightrope act of closer Mitch Williams. They don't necessarily love to remember, but they remember. Mark Grace often gets credit for coining the phrase about Williams, that he "pitches like a man with his hair on fire." That's because Williams' whirling left-handed delivery was so violent that he usually fell off the mound as he pitched the ball toward (hopefully) home plate. Like if Happy Gilmore was a left-handed pitcher. Williams could strike 'em out, but he also could walk them. And walk them some more. People called Williams the "Wild Thing," and he was guilty as charged.

Take his first-ever opportunity with the Cubs: Opening Day, 1989, against the Phillies at Wrigley Field. Williams entered with one out in the top of the eighth inning and the Cubs leading by a run. Curt Ford flied out for the second out. Everything going into getting the final out was pure hilarity. Williams walked Dickie Thon and balked him to second as potential tying run. Ricky Jordan walked to put the go-ahead run at first. Steve Lake, possibly wearing a bird on his shoulder, filed out to left. Phew! Still had three outs to go, though.

In the ninth, the Phillies didn't wait for Williams to walk anybody. Bob Dernier blooped a single that Ryan Sandberg couldn't track in the sun; Tommy Herr lined a single just out of Shawon Dunston's reach; Von Hayes, after half-heartedly trying a bunt, hit a single off the end of the bat in the hole to load the bases with nobody out. Better get Jeff Pico warm in the bullpen, Zim!

It's true that basically none of the drama in the ninth was Williams' fault. Still, like the fireman he was, he got to work against Mike Schmidt, Chris James and John Kruk impersonator Mark Ryal:

Hey, why are they throwing a John Kruk Party?!

1) Schmidt: Strikeout
2) James: Strikeout
3) Kruk, err, Ryal: Strikeout

Holy cow! It was the first day of an NL East championship season for the Cubs, with Mitch Williams setting and putting out fires on the field and on his head. Here's more "Wild Thing" video from that game for context and your enjoyment:

4. Cubs open season against Mets in Japan — March 29, 2000

It was a first for Major League Baseball, playing official games in the Land of the Rising Sun. At a sold-out Tokyo Dome, Shane Andrews hit a two-run homer, Mark Grace (in his last Cubs opener) hit a solo shot and right-hander Jon Lieber allowed a run and five hits over seven innings to pick up the victory. Cubs batters drew 10 walks, including nine against Mets starter Mike Hampton.

5.  Cubs take first home opener at Wrigley Field — April 20, 1916

Wrigley Field was built as Weeghman Park in 1914 for Chicago's Federal League team, the Whales. But when the Federal League went belly up, the Cubs took advantage, moved in, and have never left. In their first game on the North Side, the hometown squatters rallied against the Reds for two runs in the eighth, one in the ninth to tie and one in the 11th to send themselves home happy with a 7-6 victory. Gene Packard got the win with three scoreless relief innings. Johnny Beall of the Reds hit the first MLB home run in Wrigley history.

Here's how the Chicago Tribune wrote up the opener in its game preview:

Whatever the Kaiser has to say to Woodrow Wilson today doesn't go on the north side in Chicago, because this is the day when the new Cubs have their grand home opening at Weeghman park, and all who live north of the Chicago river have a little fight of their own to settle with Garry Herrmann's tribe of Reds from Cincinnati. No one except the weather man has the power to quiet the baseball enthusiasm.
With every box seat sold and thousands turned away, and a gang of carpenters constructing a row of seats on the field in front of the stand, it looks as if Chicago's Cubs are to experience the greatest opening they ever had in Chicago. Indications are that the north side park will be packed to the limit of its capacity on its very first day as the home of the Cubs.

Did every baseball story reference Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany in 1916? The question, really, was how to avoid it?

6. Cubs plant championship flag at Wrigley Field — April 10, 2017

The Cubs won the World Series, finally at long last, in 2016. But the championship wasn't complete until they could raise the banner and receive their rings at Wrigley Field the following spring. The Cubs beat the Dodgers 3-2 in the opener, with Anthony Rizzo dribbling in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

7. Willie Smith's winning homer starts '69 season off nicely — April 8, 1969

By all accounts the '69 Cubs were a rolicking good time (for at least five of the six months it took for the Mets to win the NL East). Things couldn't have started out better than Willie Smith hitting a walk-off home run to beat the Phillies 7-6.

Smith's heroics ensured that Ernie Banks' monster game — two homers and five RBIs, with his father watching in the stands — went for a good cause. It also meant Fergie Jenkins could feel a little better about having allowed a tying homer to Don Money in the ninth. This is why there's no "I" in team, gentle reader. The Cubs started off '69 with 11 wins in 12 games, including three walk-offs. They built a nine-game lead in the division as late as Aug. 16 but the Mets were not to be stopped and the Cubs finished eight games out of first place.

8. Ian Happ makes first pitch of MLB season go bye-bye — March 29, 2018

The low-key best part of this sequence was the predictive nature of analyst Jim Deshaies, who basically called this shot like he had arrived at Marlins Park in a DeLorean Motor Car. Not since Dwight Evans taking Jack Morris deep in 1986 had the first pitch of a season gone over the fence. It also was, to that point, the earliest the MLB season had opened, aside from foreign games. The Cubs won 8-4.

9. Billy Herman goes 5 for 5 to help squish Dizzy Dean and the Cardinals — April 14, 1936

Any time you can get Billy Herman and Dizzy Dean into a post, you do it. Herman hit three doubles and a home run. He also scored four times and the Cubs pounded 18 hits overall, including 14 against Dean, to win 12-7. On the other side, future Cubs manager Leo Durocher went 4 for 4 with three doubles off Lon Warneke. The Cubs went 87-67 and finished second in the NL. The late '20s and '30s were a roaring time for the Cubs. They made the World Series four times between '29 and '38. Billy Herman is the best Cubs second baseman ever (except for Ryne Sandberg).

10. Kyle Hendricks shuts out Brewers amid COVID— July 24, 2020

Sixty years from now, when baseball nerds are looking up Opening Day historical records for their space blogs and implant newsletters and see an opener that happened the last week of July instead of March or April, will they remember what the heck it was about? Sure, if they subscribe to Midway Minute! In his first career Opening Day start, right-hander Kyle Hendricks fired a three-hitter with nine strikeouts and no walks at the Brewers in a 3-0 victory. No fans in the stands at Wrigley Field. Vaccines for COVID-19 were still months away. There was a DH in the National League for the first time. How weird do you like your Major League Baseball?

David Brown
Longtime Chicago guy. A professional writer and editor since 1998. Member of Baseball Writers Association of America since 2013.

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