Rozner: 30 years later, '89 Chicago Cubs opener a wild memory

  • Chicago Cubs pitcher Mitch Williams flies off the mound during the ninth inning of Friday's game against the New York Mets at Chicago's Wrigley Field, July 29, 1989. Williams got the last four Mets out for his 26th save, tops in the major league. The Cubs defeated the Mets 6-5.

    Chicago Cubs pitcher Mitch Williams flies off the mound during the ninth inning of Friday's game against the New York Mets at Chicago's Wrigley Field, July 29, 1989. Williams got the last four Mets out for his 26th save, tops in the major league. The Cubs defeated the Mets 6-5.

 
 
Updated 4/2/2019 8:11 PM

It might not be quite the Willie Smith home run to end the game in 1969, but as Opening Day hysterics go, the Chicago Cubs' 1989 opener was one of the all-timers.

And it set the tone for what would become a wild 1989 season.

 

Consider that the Cubs came out of spring training with the worst record in baseball (9-23) and there was enormous pressure on GM Jim Frey and manager Don Zimmer to turn it around after an ugly 1988 season.

Albeit with the presence of Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Mark Grace, Shawon Dunston and Rick Sutcliffe, the team would have to rely on youngsters Greg Maddux, Joe Girardi, Damon Berryhill, Rick Wrona and Dwight Smith, and the hard-traveled Mike Bielecki.

In short, there was little optimism.

The Cubs' blockbuster trade of the winter sent Rafael Palmeiro, Jamie Moyer and Drew Hall to Texas for closer Mitch Williams, infielder Curtis Wilkerson and pitchers Steve Wilson and Paul Kilgus.

Williams was the key to the deal because of how bad the Cubs were late in games in '88, and Frey was torched for moving Palmeiro.

The burden was on Williams, who had to be great for the deal to work, but even Frey told Zimmer as they headed back to Chicago from Arizona that they would throw a party after the season if the club could finish .500.

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"Zim told me at the end of spring training that he thought he might be fishing in Florida by the all-star break," said Ryne Sandberg, who led the Cubs in 1989 with 30 homers and a 6.1 WAR. "But sometimes we had great seasons after terrible spring trainings. That happened in 1984."

It was 30 years ago Thursday that the Cubs took the field against the Phillies for the opener at Wrigley Field, starting two players in Walton and Girardi who had played their 1988 season in Double-A.

"Spring training was a disaster," Sutcliffe laughed. "Then, Berryhill gets hurt right at the end and the news kept getting worse.

"So the day of the opener they give me a Double-A catcher in Joe Girardi. I don't think I even met him before that day. We have a meeting before the game.

"I say, 'I'll call the game. I'll give you the signs. All you need to know about Bob Dernier leading off is he'll take the first pitch. I'm throwing a fastball down the middle.'

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"So Joe nods. Fastball down the middle and Dernier swings at the first pitch of the game and hits a line drive right past my head into center field."

Girardi had 2 hits in his first major-league game, but his most vivid memory is of seeing Mike Schmidt stroll to home plate.

"I stared at him the whole way from the on-deck circle to the plate, and I stood up and watched him walk around the umpire," Girardi chuckled. "I don't know if I was more in awe or just angry for all the pain he caused me and my family.

"I was really nervous. It was a dream come true to play for your hometown team. My dad was a salesman and I used to ride in the car with him listening to the Cubs on the radio.

"It was remarkable to get drafted by them, to make it to the bigs and then to be there on Opening Day. That night, I got engaged to Kim. So, yeah, pretty good day."

It was Sutcliffe's fifth straight opener -- pitching with a torn labrum all season -- and he allowed 3 runs on 5 hits in 5⅔ innings, and was in line for the victory with the home team leading 5-4 in the top of the eighth when Williams entered for the first time in a Cubs uniform.

"I'm sitting in the dugout as he's warming up and a ball comes whistling in the dugout and hit the wall just behind Zim's head," Sutcliffe said. "It was a ball that got away from Mitch in the bullpen. It was so appropriate."

In the eighth and protecting a 1-run lead, Williams issued a walk, a balk and another walk before getting the Phillies' Steve Lake to fly to left to end the inning.

The faithful were loud and uneasy in the ninth with the game still 5-4. "Wild Thing," with hair flying and arms and legs going every direction, allowed Philadelphia to load the bases on 3 infield singles before Williams struck out Schmidt on a 2-2 slider that broke far inside.

"Bases loaded, nobody out, 2-0 count on Mike Schmidt? On my best day I'm not getting out of that because I couldn't get Mike Schmidt out," Sutcliffe said. "I hit him. I threw behind him. Nothing I could do.

"But of all people, you don't think Mitch Williams is getting out of that."

There were boos when Williams went to 2-0 on Chris James, but on a 3-2 count Williams struck out James with a fastball in the high 90s, and the Cubs were one out away from victory.

"It's my first game in the big leagues," Girardi said. "I never played in front of a crowd like that. My entire family is there. Mitch is throwing from the sun into the shadows. He's falling off the mound. All I'm thinking is, 'Please don't let me mess this up. Don't miss the baseball.'

"My first recollection of Mitch in spring training was he was pitching to Phil Stephenson and he says, 'Curveball. Watch out.' This was on my mind."

But now, Williams had the fans on his side and on their feet.

Mark Ryal worked an 0-2 count to 2-2 and then Williams finished him, Ryal flailing at a high fastball, Williams' third straight strikeout to end the game.

"We mobbed him on the mound and I just remember how excited Zim was," Sandberg said. "I mean, it was thrilling. We hadn't felt anything like that since 1984."

It was 52 pitches to get five outs, and that was something Cubs fans would get used to, but Williams had gone from villain to folk hero in a single day, and the Cubs had gone from a joke to having hope in three hours and six minutes.

But it was hardly easy.

"Our Opening Day outfield was Dawson, Walton and (Mitch) Webster, and eventually all of them were hurt and out of the lineup, and it was Doug Dascenzo and Dwight Smith and Lloyd McClendon," Sutcliffe said. "But it was just a magical year where we plugged guys in and it worked. That season was about as much fun as you can have playing baseball.

"Zim did everything; bases-loaded hit-and-run, stealing home, playing crazy defense. It was a circus. In all my years, like 50 years in the game, I've never seen a manager have more of an impact on a team.

"One time Zim called me in and aired me out, telling me he could call a better game than me. I said, 'Fine, you call the next game.' We didn't talk for four days. He calls me in before my next start and tells me to call the game. I said, 'No, you're so smart, you do it.'

"Well, don't you know, Zim calls the game and I'm throwing a shutout late in the game, but I'm in trouble. Bases loaded or something. Zim comes running out and he looks at me all serious and he says, 'I got one thing to tell you. You're on your (bleeping) own.' And he turns and runs off the mound before anyone can say anything.

"We're all standing there laughing. From that point on, it became our thing. 'You're on your (bleeping) own' was the answer to everything."

Walton and Smith finished 1-2 in Rookie of the Year voting, Maddux won 19 games, Bielecki 18 and Sutcliffe 16. Williams had 36 saves and the Cubs won the N.L. East, only to fall in five games to the Giants in the NLCS, the final 3 defeats by 4 runs.

"After we lost, Zim had a meeting in San Francisco and cried like a baby," Sutcliffe remembered. "He said it was the greatest year he ever had in baseball, and talked about how they ran him out of Boston and he couldn't even have his family at the games. They told him he would never manage again.

"Even after all the World Series he won with the Yankees as a coach, he said 1989 was the best baseball year of his life."

The ending was painful and abrupt, but it was a wildly entertaining season that began with Mitch Williams on Opening Day.

Ultimately, and despite their failure to reach the World Series, that surprising 1989 team would be fondly remembered.

And always as the "Boys of Zimmer."

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