A Look at Cubs’ Opening Day History: 1981: The Ugly, the Dreadful and the Horrid.
During the course of researching 105 years of Cubs’ futility, I was amazed at the amount of futility I was able to cultivate. No matter the premise, category, or idea that I was investigating…Cubs’ history never disappointed in providing disappointing results. For this week’s entry, I decided to revisit some of my research methods and apply them to a timely theme…opening day!
Every new baseball season provides opening day line-ups for each team that are over scrutinized by their collective fan bases. The 2014 Cubs’ version, in my opinion, offers a palpable improvement over the 2013 model. I see versatility, youth, and more upside than I saw last year.
Nevertheless, when viewing the “ghosts of Cubs’ opening day line-ups past”…the last few seasons appear positively accomplished.
The year was 1981, and I was a twelve-year old lad in my prime Cubbie rooting period. It would be years still before my Cubs’ soul would be crushed into a bloody mess of cynicism and discontent. That process would begin in earnest in just three short years with the crushing defeat that was 1984. Still in my state of Cubs naiveté, I viewed 1981 with unlimited faith. 1981 would be an eventful year in Major league baseball as it would “Fernandomania” with the emergence of Fernando Valenzuela. A players’ strike would wipe out June and July of the 1981 season…mercifully in the Cubs’ case. Nineteen Hundred and Eighty One correspondingly was a year the Chicago Cubs composed a truly putrid opening day line-up. Let’s examine the line-up the Cubs rolled out on Thursday, April 9, 1981, against the New York Mets:
Leading off, and playing shortstop was Ivan De Jesus. De Jesus was one of my favorite players during this period, as he was one of the only Cubs’ who could steal bases. (… a big part of the game in the late 70’s and early 1980’s.) From 1977-1980, De Jesus was a productive lead-off hitter for the Cubs…reaching base at a respectable .342 clip. DeJesus’ batting average would plummet to .194 in 1981, and his OBP plunged to a dismal .233. 1981 would be DeJesus’ last year with the Cubs. (The Phillies obviously did not think DeJesus was done as they would trade Larry Bowa and one Ryne Sandberg for him during the offseason…thank you, Dallas Green!)
Batting second for the Cubs that day was newly acquired second baseman Joe Strain. Strain was acquired from the Giants for outfielder Jerry Martin in December of 1980. Strain went 2 for 3 on Opening day 1981! Regrettably, Strain would garner only 12 more hits out of 71 at bats for a .189 average…and was gone for good by June 2.
First baseman Bill Buckner was in the third hole on that April day. Buckner was coming off of winning the NL batting title (.324) in 1980, and I cannot say a disparaging word about him. One of my beloved players, Billy “Buck” would amass over 2700 career hits, yet is best known for his error in the 1986 World Series.(Question for you Boston fans: What about Bob Stanley? He threw the wild pitch that tied the game?) Buckner further cemented his place in my personal “Hall of Fame” by appearing in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Buckner would go on to hit .311 and lead the league in doubles in 1981.
The fourth and fifth slots were manned by leftfielder Steve Henderson, and rookie right fielder Leon Durham respectively. Henderson hit .293 with a .382 OBP, but slugged an un-clean-up hitter-like .411. Durham hit .290 with 10 homers and 25 steals during the strike shortened campaign.
Thus ends any decency from the Cubs’ 1981 opening day line-up.
Third baseman Ken Reitz, who was acquired along with Durham for Bruce Sutter, batted sixth on April 9, 1981…and went 3-3! Reitz would not be the Ron Santo replacement the Cubs were chasing; finishing with a .215 batting average and slugging (yes, slugging)percentage of .281. Not surprisingly, 1981 was Reitz’s last year as a starting third baseman in the Major Leagues.
Batting seventh was center fielder Scot Thompson. Poor Scot Thompson, he merits his own reason in my book of 105. Apparently the Cubs were still hoping Thompson would show some of the slight promise he displayed in 1979 when he hit .289. In 127 plate appearances in 1981, Thompson would hit…prepare yourself….165! The .165 average sported by Thompson would have placed him third…amongst the team’s starting pitchers.
If you ever saw switch-hitting catcher Tim Blackwell hit, then you couldn’t help but notice the grapefruit size “chew” in his mouth. Blackwell was one of the rare 1981 opening day starters who would outperform his career average, .234 to .228. With one homer, Blackwell’s .342 slugging percentage put Reitz to shame. 1981 did see the arrival of rookie catcher Jody Davis, forcing Blackwell to the bench.
Rick “Big Daddy” Reuschel would make his fifth straight opening day start for the Cubs in 1981. Reuschel was traded during the 1981 season to the Yankees for Doug Bird (yuck) and Mike Griffin (who?). Reuschel would return to the Cubs in 1983, and the team would cast him aside for good following the 1984 season. Five years later Reuschel would be helping the Giants get past the Cubs in the 1989 NLDS. I guess he wasn’t done.
Now let’s neatly sum up the 1981 Chicago Cubs opening day line-up:
PLAYER COMMENTS/1981 RESULTS
- 1. SS- Ivan DeJesus .193 AVG, .223 OBP, O HRs
- 2. 2B- Joe Strain .189 AVG, .201 SLUG, 1 RBI
- 3. 1B- Bill Buckner 2715 lifetime hits…f&%k off Boston!
- 4. LF- Steve Henderson singles hitter batting clean-up
- 5. RF- Leon Durham .290 as a rookie, no complaints
- 6. 3B-Ken Reitz .541 OPS at age 30=washed up
- 7. CF- Scot Thompson .165…that is all
- 8. C-Tim Blackwell .234 AVG, did hit 1 of 6 career HRs
- 9. P-Rick Reuschel probably should have been hitting 6th
Wow. There is a whole lotta bad in that line-up! To be fair, many of these players were eventually replaced…but to start the season with this load of (fill in own term for excrement)?…amazing.
So, next time you youngsters out there in your 20s and 30s start griping about the current state of the Cubs, take a look back at this inept squad that a young boy attached his hopes and dreams to.
…and yes, I had to walk uphill three miles in the snow to watch the games back then…in non-HD.