A fleeting Cub’s story

It’s Opening Day, 1973 at Wrigley Field. Baseball has returned from a long winter’s nap, but it’s still in a daze. During the offseason, one of its brightest stars, Roberto Clemente, was lost in a plane crash in Puerto Rico. The Pirates came within three outs of the 1972 World Series, but that seems less than important when matters of life and death are involved.

The Cubs are coming off a winning season in 1972, and a distant second-place finish to the Pirates. But hope springs eternal, particularly on the North side of Chicago, and 40,000+ fans have come out to Wrigley Field to see if Whitey Lockman’s team can do something that Leo Durocher’s teams never could: win the division title and make it to the the postseason.

The day’s opponent is the Montreal Expos, who send Mike Torrez to the mound to face off against Ferguson Jenkins. The game starts off with a bang, with the Expos scoring two in the first, and the Cubs answering with a run of their own in the bottom of the inning. It looks as though the season will begin with a fair amount of offense.

But the starters find their respective grooves, and nobody else crosses the plate until the ninth inning. The Cubs are coming up to bat, needing one run to tie and two to send their fans home happy. Torrez again takes the mound, in this pre-closer era of baseball. There’s just three more outs that  he needs to get.

The Cubs’ Joe Pepitone leads off the ninth with a single, which brings Ron Santo to the plate as the winning run. Santo is 2-for-3 and has the Cubs’ only RBI on the day, so there’s reason to like the Cubs’ chances. But when Santo hits the ball to Ron Hunt at second base, it creates a moment of anxiety for the Cubs faithful, until Hunt boots the ball and gives the Cubs a new lease on life.

Cleo Jones had already come in to run for Pepitone, and Lockman sends in a pinch runner for Santo, as well. The Cubs are going for the win to open up their season. Torrez then walks Glenn Beckert, and is lifted from the game in favor of Mike Marshall. Marshall has emerged as one of the best “firemen” in the game by 1973. With the bases loaded and no outs, and the home team batting, things look very bleak for the Expos. But relievers are supposed to put out the fire, right?

Marshall walks Randy Hundley to force in the tying run, to the delight of the home crowd. Now there there’s no margin for error, as the winning run is at third base. Marshall then retires the next two Cubs batters. Now there are two outs, and Marshall only needs to get a ground ball at somebody, or a fly ball that stays  in the ball park, or a strikeout in order to escape the threat. But he walks Rick Monday instead, which allows the Cubs to start off  the new  season with a walk-off win, in a literal sense.

I doubt that anyone in the ballpark that day thought to snap a picture of the Cubs’ winning runner as he was making his way around the bases, entirely on the basis of charity from the Expos’ pitchers. The fans in the park that day had no way of knowing that it would be the only game he would ever appear in a Cubs uniform, or that he would never again appear in any major league game. He was sent down to the minors for the remainder of the season, and continued to bounce around until he retired as a player in 1977.

If you or I were the player who scored the winning run on Opening Day some thirty-nine years ago, we might consider that to be a career-making accomplishment, a story worth telling to anyone who wanted to hear it, and a moment that every little kid dreams about. But if you’re Tony LaRussa, I doubt that one run scored in 1973 registers very high on the career highlight reel. He certainly went on to bigger and better things after that day.

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