A while back in the comments section, a few of us became a little nostalgic about some old Cubs teams. I thought it was a lot of fun, so the four writers here at Cubs Den have decided to collaborate. Each of us will write about that first year when we really became diehard Cubs fans. Sometimes it’s hard to say if there is a specific point or even a year when it happened. Becoming a Cubs fan just sort of sneaks up on you and then holds on to you like grim death, but the point is to try and remember that first special year, even if it wasn’t necessarily the best one.
I’ve been a fan since 1975. I had just missed the Santo/Williams/Jenkins era. Back then, I remember really liking Jose Cardenal and Bill Madlock — a lot. If I had to pin down a first favorite memory, it was when Madlock went 4 for 4 on the final day to wrest the batting title from Ken Griffey, Sr. in 1976. But other than that, many of the memories are hazy.
But then came 1977.
I was 7 years old back then and I was just finishing up the 3rd grade. It was the year when I met my friend Bill, who is still a good friend to this day. Bill was a big piece of the puzzle in my journey as a Cubs fan. Until then, my dad and a couple of my cousins were the only real big Cubs fan I knew. Bill was the first of my friends to love the Cubs as passionately and irrationally as I did. We did what a lot of kids did back then. We would sneak a radio into class as the end of the school year and the start of the baseball season overlapped. With the weather beginning to warm, time stood still inside the classroom until about 1:20 P.M. From there we eagerly awaited updates and opportunities to listen to snippets of the game. It helped pass the time for awhile, but once the school day approached it’s end, the focus turned to the clock. We watched the minutes tick by as the sound of the teacher’s voice faded to an unintelligible drone. And then the 3:30 bell would ring loudly, snapping us out of near catatonia. We bolted from the school like race horses bursting from the gate. We raced home to catch the last couple of innings of each home game. I lived just a block from the school, so Bill and I would watch the games there.
1977 was the year I really fell in love with the Cubs. It didn’t start off that way. The Cubs traded off Bill Madlock days before spring training was to begin and I was livid. I guess you could say that was the moment when I knew I was passionate about this team (why did I care that much?!).
I vowed never to watch them again for doing something so completely ridiculous as trading their best hitter for average (Madlock) and their best power hitter (Rick Monday). I would never warm up to Madlock’s replacement, Steve Ontiveros. Never. I blamed him for everything that went wrong that year. Looking back today, the blame was misplaced. As has been their history, the Cubs were once again victimized by bad ownership, a century long trend that I sincerely trust will end with the Ricketts era.
It didn’t take me long to go back on my vow of Cubs abstinence. Who was I trying to kid? The charade only lasted the few days until spring training started again.
The team wasn’t expected to do much. They’d won just 75 games the year before, but the Cubs made a couple of moves that helped soothe the pain of losing my favorite player. In fact, they did a few things right, The best move turned out to be the trade of 31 year old Rick Monday, who was coming off a career season, for a 27 year old 1B named Bill Buckner and 24 year old SS Ivan DeJesus.
(What? The Cubs traded a player on the wrong side of 30 for an in-prime age hitter and a young shortstop? Theo Epstein was only 3 years old, he could not possibly have engineered that deal, right?)
The team wasn’t exactly loaded with stars, but they had a team stocked with players in their prime years. Slick fielding Manny Trillo was 26, basket-catching Jerry Morales was 28, and even the much reviled Steve Ontiveros was just 25.
And the pitching staff featured more of the same. Rick Reuschel was 28, Ray Burris was 26, Bill Bonham was 28, and Mike Krukow was 25. The bullpen was anchored by 24 year old Bruce Sutter and 22 year lefty set-up man Willie Hernandez, whom the Cubs acquired that year in the Rule 5 draft.
The team also had interesting bench players such as veteran Larry “Hawkeye” Biittner, the 24 year old Greg Gross, and the recently acquired Gene Clines. They would all help fill the OF void as fan favorite Jose Cardenal began a steady decline that year.
Then there was the new manager; the volatile but oddly entertaining Herman Franks. As a kid I was amused by his body language during his frequent arguments. He had this way of shaking his head back from side to side so violently that his cap would inevitably come flying off his head. That image is still ingrained in me, in no small part because another friend, Jeff, made an outstanding impression of Franks. It made me laugh every time, even after a Cubs loss.
The ’77 team was a group patched together with spare parts. They weren’t expected to do much, but it was a young group with many players in that prime range or younger. Sometimes when you have that sort of roster, funny things can happen.
And funny things did indeed happen.
Eventually Opening Day rolled around, just one day before a band called “The Clash” debuted with their first album. The spring of 77 was destined to get off to a good start. And it did….well, not right away.
After two losses to start the season, Rick Reuschel (yes, he was the 3rd starter that year) won the first game for the Cubs, but the team would be streaky early on. They were 7-9 by the end of April, including a 21-3 loss to the hapless New York Mets.
There was no question in my mind that this was all Steve Ontiveros’ fault.
And then things changed.
It would become one of the most exciting times of my childhood. I had just seen what I then officially declared to be the best movie in the history of celluloid: Star Wars. Everyone at school was buzzing about it.
But there was a lot of buzz in Wrigleyville too.
The Cubs had won 21 out of their next 26 games and took over first place on May 28th. The newly acquired tandem of Buckner and DeJesus helped lead the way. Buckner was hitting .348 while DeJesus was hitting .301 and providing a spark with his speed at the top of the lineup. The defensively oriented Trillo was hitting a surprising .361 with 4 HRs and a .991 OPS. Even the bane of my now 8 year existence, Steve Ontiveros, was hitting .317 with an .874 OPS. The player that came with him from the Giants, Bobby Murcer, had hit 7 HRs to help replace the power void left by Rick Monday’s departure. The young closer Sutter was beginning to make quite a name for himself. He picked up his 13th save (with a 0.88 ERA) on the day the Cubs took over first place.
Something magical was happening on the north side. The Cubs continued to rack up wins. Thirty days later, on June 28th, the Cubs won their 8th straight game, an extra inning affair over the Expos that put them 8.5 games ahead in first place. Rick Reuschel moved to 11-2 with a 2.37 ERA while Sutter picked up his 21st save and had actually lowered his ERA to 0.68. Things couldn’t be better. I was 8 years old, it was summer, the Cubs had the best record in baseball at 47-22, and by then I’d seen Star Wars about 4 times.
But you know how this story is going to end, right?
Things slowly began crashing down to earth. The Cubs continued to play exciting, albeit less than championship level baseball. If there is a single game that stands out in my mind, it was July 28th, when the Cubs and Reds took batting practice with the wind blowing out. The game was tied 10-10 — by the end of the 4th inning. By the time the carnage was over, the Cubs had hit 6 HRs and had triumphed over the defending champion Cincinnati Reds 16-15 in 13 innings.
All in all, the Cubs managed to win enough games to keep 1st place for the entire month of July, but the lead had shrunk to just two games by July 31st. Both the Mike Schmidt/Greg Luzinski/Steve Carlton led Phillies and the Dave Parker/John Candelaria led Pirates were charging hard.
Meanwhile, the Cubs wilted in their usual heart-wrenching fashion. They went 20-40 from that point forward and officially fell out of first place for good on August 7th. The last highlight of the season was Rick Reuschel winning his 20th game on September 22nd. The Cubs would lose 8 of their next 9 games, including their last 5 of the season, to finish 81-81 — 20 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies.
Such was my first true experience with the love and hearbreak that has defined my life as a Cubs fan.
As for Steve Ontiveros, I have forgiven him. I still deplore the idea that ownership traded Madlock because he was “insolent” enough to ask for a modest raise, but that wasn’t Ontiveros’ fault. And besides, he actually outperformed the two-time batting champion that year. Madlock hit .302/.360/.426 (.343 wOBA, 111 RC+, 1.2 WAR) while Ontiveros hit .299/.390/.423 (.365 wOBA, 114 RC+, 3.2 WAR).
Filed under: Cubs History