Prelude: A Void
I grew up in the shadows of greatness, as if it once resided here but now was gone, long gone. The rot and decay we sensed throughout the tumult of the ‘70s was echoed in the rot and decay we experienced firsthand with our baseball team. Chicago itself seemed to be folding in on itself. As a child I had some idea that incredible things once happened in my hometown. Chicago was created by dreamers and makers and builders. These were people who, by sheer force of will and often because they had no other options, compelled, and seemingly conjured, a modern city to rise from a remote backwater swamp. And all they needed was a single lifetime.
When sixteen year old Gurdon Hubbard stepped off that John Jacob Astor fur trapping boat in 1818, Chicago had only a handful of buildings; Perhaps three for rotting log cabins, one of which was called the “Kinzie Mansion,” a trading depot, and one army fort that had been the site of a terrible massacre a mere six years prior. By the time Hubbard’s life came to an end in 1886, Chicago was a metropolitan city with a population approaching one million.
In the span of that single lifetime, Chicago had gone from a pathetically tiny and virtually unknown collection of hovels to a world famous metropolitan city. The city’s ability to fix problems and move forward was legendary. In the 1850s, when city needed a sewer system but was prevented from digging because of the clay that laid just below the surface, Chicago’s solution was to build up. The city simply ran sewage pipes thought the streets and raised the street grade by one story.
Instead of quitting when the city burned down in 1871, it simply rebuilt itself anew. Better, taller…and with alleys to provide for better access in the event of future fires. And when the city, boxed in by lake, river, and rail lines, outgrew itself in the 1880s it simply innovated again and invented the modern skyscraper so it could continue to build upwards.
The city became the mail order capital of the world, the meat packing capital of the world, the confectionary capital of the world. It was the nation’s railroad hub. Trains didn’t pass through Chicago; they stopped at Chicago. Chicago was the destination, not a waystation.
And Chicago became the fastest growing city in the world.
So complete was the rebuilding of the post-fire city that a few short years following the death of Hubbard, Chicago hosted a grand party to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus stumbling upon the Americas in 1492. Due to political fighting and squabbling, the Columbian Exposition occurred in 1893, one year late. Despite the loss of most of the grand buildings from that summer long extravaganza, Chicago retained two magnificent buildings still in use today: the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry.
And within another generation following the death of Hubbard, Chicago had reversed the flow of its river, invented the movie industry, fixed a World Series, and invented the Twinkie.
As a child of the 1970s, I saw the carcasses of what those great dreamers built every time we ventured downtown. I saw the empty buildings that once housed businesses that employed people and made products that served a nation. And the world. But those people, products, and eras where now long forgotten by the time I arrived.
I was driven through the world of “what once was before and now nevermore” many times as a child. This was called skid row and the thoroughly intimidating figure who ran our house and provide for us, sternly pointed out that if we messed around and didn’t study, if we didn’t build and produce, we might end up here. The clarion call of “you can be anything you want, nothing is limiting you…” was counterbalanced by the frightening refrain of, “…but nothing is guaranteed in our system.”
Chicago had numerous skid rows. All once had been thriving neighborhoods and now they were terrifying and puzzling childhood lessons delivered by a determined and driven man who grew up in the Great Depression and built himself up from nothing. “I grew up in a house where children were neither seen nor heard,” he said countless times. “So you’re lucky I let you be seen,” he added countless more, only half joking.
But what he meant was, “Listen to me and pay no attention to the destroyers and the levelers, to the naysayers and the complainers. I know a better way. Hard work, persistence, creativity, ingenuity, belief in self, confidence, those are your tickets to a better tomorrow.”
Except for our comfortable suburban enclave, the rot seemed to be everywhere. The rot was endemic. We were buttressed from that era’s turmoil by virtue of geography. But I could see the glare of the city of “what once was before and now nevermore” simply by standing on our driveway at night and peering at the amber glow emanating from the east. I found it fascinating and scary all at the same time.
Those childhood lessons of hard work, persistence, creativity, ingenuity, belief in self, and confidence were taught by an intimidating and unyielding, but surprising fair and compassionate, person. Naturally, we failed at every turn. We were indifferent children who were spoiled beyond belief simply by the virtue of three home cooked meals every day and a color television with six channels. Those modest luxuries alone made us among the richest people to ever walk the face of the earth.
Whining, self-pity – and rock and roll – were verboten. Sarcasm, as long as it was delivered creatively and intelligently, was encouraged. Holding your ground, as long as you calmly and logically argued your point of view, was rewarded. Objectivity and reason were the watchwords. We were never hit nor spanked. Instead, we received a far worse fate when we failed: The withering lecture.
We lived our life shielded from the harshness of life and the disappointments of the world. With one notable exception: Our baseball team.
Our baseball team was the Cubs and not that other team, you know, the one that threw a World Series. We easily found every game on one of the tony channels with good reception, WGN-channel 9. This was the television cousin to the squaresville radio station WGN-AM 720. Except when broadcasting a Cubs game, only mothers listened to that radio station. Well, when they were not doing what mothers of the 1970s did everyday: yelling at their kids, using the new-fangled microwave, and smoking Benson & Hedges.
Being Cub fans meant we were never subjected to scrounging and searching for our games on the strange end of the TV dial. The Cubs were firmly part of the VHF world, the good channels, in other words. The quality, wholesome channels. Searching for a White Sox game meant risking electrical shock from over adjusting the TV’s rabbit ears as we plumbed the depths of the known broadcast universe by digging deep into the land of Ultra-High Frequency TV.
Ultra-High Frequency. What a joke. Everyone knew this is where trouble lurked. UHF was the land of the religious nut job, the foreign language show, soft porn, and the White Sox. Yes, channel 44 in the ‘70s and the ‘80s had it all.
Like I said, we were spoiled. We had the good life. We were sheltered from the strangeness and ugliness of life because we were right thinking people who followed the Cubs. We happily and blithely spent our days in the safety and security of VHF channels. Well, except when the Monkees, the Three Stooges, or the Little Rascals were on channel 32. Then we strayed. But we always came home.
Only one problem with this stratagem: Our beloved team wasn’t good. In fact, the Cubs were terrible. But as with our city, we knew the Cubs once were good. Or so we thought. Rumor and innuendo, typically delivered in unconvincing fashion by older kids, was all you got in those days. We never knew when we were being told the truth or when we were being subjected to a myth. We heard whispers; we saw nothing.
These were the dark ages. The days before cable and satellite TV was ubiquitous and long before the Internet, email, and texting.
You didn’t know unless you witnessed. Witnessing was difficult during the school year because the games were played during the day. By the summer when we were free, the witnessing was difficult because the on field performance was so terrible.
Sport is the only real drama. Sport is the only entertainment activity where the ending is not already scripted. Movies and plays are great, but enjoyment of those art forms is tempered by the knowledge that the ending has already been written. With sport, the ending is unknown until it happens.
Sport is important. Living and dying by your team, going through emotional hell, being tested, and coming out the other side intact makes you feel alive. The problem for Cub fans in the 1970s was simple…the Cubs gave us no drama. Our teams always seemed to finish in last place. A good year was when we finished second to last. For a long time in my life, the high-water mark of my experience with Cubs was 1977 when the team finished with a .500 record.
We didn’t even have crushing disappointments, you know, like the Red Sox frequently experienced. As painful as the Red Sox failings must have been, at least their fans were teased with the fleeting moments of, “maybe,” and “what if,” and “oh my god, is this really happening, are we really about to win!?”
Us Cubs fans, we had nothing. A void. Absence of everything. And this was our test. Having to endure years, decades, then a century of nothing.
Ghosts & Goats
I wasn’t alive when the Cubs played in the 1945 World Series. A bar owner and his pet goat were kicked out Wrigley Field, thus starting the so called “Curse of the Billy Goat.” Supposedly, this curse would prevent the Cubs from ever winning the World Series again.
I was alive in 1969, but far too young to pay attention and understand the game. I have no direct memory of that historic collapse. Throughout my childhood, that near miss was the only thing good I knew about the Cubs. A second place finish that I didn’t remember.
Like I said, nothing. A void. Our baseball experiences were completely empty.
The scary guy who provided for us and hated rock and roll took the family to some games and taught me to read the box scores and the standings. I loved it. I was hooked. I loved the Cubs. I hoped against hope that the Cubs would finally win it all. My youthful naiveté told me they couldn’t be bad forever but I was checked at every turn. First, by the scary guy who hated rock and roll who told me, over and over, “They’ll rip your heart out, kid, they’ll always collapse,” and then by their actual play on the field, where in fact, they ripped my heart out. Over and over and over.
The first rip was in 1984, that magical season that I didn’t get to see. We had been banished to a provincial backwater, Pittsburgh they called it, because someone in the family must have done something wrong. The scary guy who hated rock and roll claimed it was career related. “You want to eat, son, doncha?” he barked at me before asking me when I was leaving.
In those dark ages before the Internet, you didn’t know what went on, sport-wise, in other cities. You got a glimpse of it, perhaps, if the local paper gave you a box score and a brief recap. But that was about it. So all I knew that summer of 1984 was the Cubs were winning. But I often didn’t see Tuesday’s score until I checked Wednesday’s paper and I often didn’t get a chance to do that until Wednesday evening. That meant Wednesday’s game was already in the bag and I wouldn’t know that result until after Thursday’s game was done.
Talk about a disjointed way to follow a team. And you millennials, constantly walking while looking at your phones, you think you have it tough? Constantly texting and constantly in constant communication with all of your pals, constantly knowing what is going on with everything…you would not have survived the 1980s. Your heads would have imploded from lack of sensory overload.
Until that 1984 season, I never had heard of the term “magic number.” The scary guy who hated rock and roll explained it to me. Until 1984, I never had any reason to be exposed to the magic number concept, but the scary guy who hated rock and roll knew all about it. How he knew, I could only guess. Then again, he was old. He remembered Pearl Harbor and had first-hand knowledge of Cubs last World Series appearance. He knew things! I probably should have listened to him more often.
The first two games of the 1984 playoffs were at Wrigley Field. That meant they were day games. I was a senior in high school and I didn’t see the games. I only heard rumors and whispers. I think the second game was already over by the time I heard the score of the first game. 13 to nothing! We are on our way to the World Series!
After the Cubs won the second game by a more traditional baseball score of 4 to 2, I figured this was it, we were about to go to the World Series! One win out of three games was all we needed! My long suffering existence as a Cubs fan was going to end! I had been through so much, experienced so much defeat and loss, I was due. I was overdue. I was 17.
As we all know, the Cubs lost the next three games. I watched those games with the scary guy who hated rock and roll. He simply shook his head after each bad bounce, after each misplay, after each ball rolled through the first baseman’s legs, and said, “What did I tell you, kid, they’ll rip your heart out. Every time. Oh, and when are you leaving?”
The Cubs quickly returned to nothingness. A calm, Zen-like aura passed over me and I was able to focus on other things. Leaving home, for example. High school graduation finally meant an answer to the most pressing mystery of my childhood and on September 7, 1985 the answer to that mystery was finally provided. I left the nest and returned home to Chicago. And for protective measure, my parents quickly and quietly moved from Pittsburgh, PA to Columbus, OH, clearly hoping to throw me off their trail.
After a few blissful years of nothingness, the Cubs decided to tease us again, and for some inexplicable reason, they decided 1989 was a good year to win the division and return to the playoffs. Fortunately for those of us with feeble cardiac systems, the Cubs made a mercifully quick exit from the playoffs, losing to the Giants four games to one. The Cubs were out of the playoffs before they even began. Or at least that’s what it felt like to me.
More nothingness ensured. We occasionally got our hopes up with a free agent signing, only to have them dashed when the free agent invariably spent most of his time on injured reserve and in the clubhouse hot tub.
1998 was a fun year because of the steroid induced homerun mania that infected baseball. The Cubs finished the season tied with the Giants, the same Giants who knocked us out of the playoffs nine years earlier. Baseball demanded the two teams play an extra regular season game to decide who would be fodder for the mighty Atlanta Braves.
This game, commonly called the 163rd game of the season, was not an official playoff game. But it sure felt like it. The Cubs prevailed and such is the pathetic existence of our beloved team that a single regular season victory felt like a playoff win. That is how starved we were for anything positive. Atlanta, that lousy team who stole our best pitcher following the 1992 season, mercifully dispatched the Cubs three games to nil.
The Cubs resumed nothingness until a strange thing happened in 2003. The Cubs had a good year. Even better, they won their division. And even better, the Cubs actually won an actual baseball playoff series by exacting revenge on those hated Atlanta Braves. We moved on to the face the Florida Marlins.
The Marlins. What a joke. That stupid team had no business winning a World Series a few years earlier. No one cared about the Marlins. No one went to their games. Their history was about as thick as the lint that collects in the trap of your dryer. I watched that game seven in 1997 with a friend who was a diehard Cleveland fan. I was rooting for Cleveland, too, and I figured if my beloved Cubs were incapable of winning a championship, at least a good friend should be able to enjoy that magic. I wanted to be there, to support my friend and to see the cathartic joy that must result from finally seeing your team make it to the top.
I sat in stunned silence with my friend as we watched Cleveland blow a lead in the ninth inning. By the time the Marlins won the game in extra innings, my friend simply looked at me and said, “The scary guy who provided for me when I was a kid always told me, ‘They’ll rip your heart out, kid.’”
In 2003, the Cubs took a three games to one lead against the Marlins. The Cubs only needed to win once in three tries to advance to the holy land: The World Series. Dropping game five in south Florida was of no concern to Cub fans. We were excited about the prospects of clinching the National League Pennant at home in game six. And if we failed, for some incomprehensible reason, we had a backup plan: We had one of these “if necessary” games in our back pocket. We had our two best pitchers lined up and ready to go.
So, with our best pitcher on the mound in game six of the 2003 National League Championship Series, I sat alone and quiet. Even the dog knew not to make a sound. Our best pitcher looked like a guy who was going to be a future first ballot hall of famer and he pitched great for seven plus innings that evening. The Cubs were winning 3 to nil. After getting the first out in the eighth inning the Cubs were now a mere five outs from the World Series. I almost called the scary guy who hates rock and roll right then and there. But I decided I should wait until the game was done.
I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to breathe. I didn’t want to inadvertently set in a motion a chain reaction that would somehow result in, oh, I don’t know, a Cubs player missing a catch or booting an easy grounder or serving up fat pitches over the middle of the plate. So I didn’t move. I only allowed myself the thought of calling the scary guy who was not so scary any more but who still hated rock and roll, and rubbing his nose in it! I even imagined what I’d say: “You always told me they’d never win, never make it to a World Series. Well, what do you think of this?” Instead, I held my breath and lived and died with every single pitch. Every. Single. Pitch.
I saw the ball come off the bat and instantly realized it was going foul. Along the third base line. A foul ball, I thought to myself, nothing bad can come of this. I could tell the ball would either be caught or would drift harmlessly into the stands. No harm no foul. I exhaled a little bit.
I often think of the fan who was stupidly blamed for what happened next. I won’t repeat his name, not because I curse him, but because I don’t want to cause him any more distress. He is not to blame for what transpired. He did nothing to deserve the blame and scorn heaped upon him. He did nothing to deserve his name becoming part of Cub lore. Nothing.
That poor guy. As he made his way to the ballpark for game six he must have been filled with excitement and anticipation and hope, you know, like the rest of us. And as that foul ball came plummeting down in his general direction, he must have thought, “Well lookie here, not only do I have a great seats, front row along the third base line, not only are my beloved Cubs on the edge of a World Series appearance, the event we were told would never happen, I might get a foul ball, too! This is going to be the greatest day of my life. What possibly could go wrong? All I have to do is reach out and…”
That edge turned out to be a treacherous precipice as we watched our hopes and dreams tumble into the abyss, just as that ball tumbled through his hands and through the glove of the defender. Just as a later ball tumbled out of the glove of a defender perfectly positioned to turn a routine double play. Just as countless balls sprayed from the bats of the enemy, ruining our chances and condemning our hopes to the bottomless pit of nothingness. The abyss. The void was back and the childhood refrain we all heard, in one form or another, reared its ugly head again: They’ll rip your heart out, kid.
In watching our Cubs come so close, we momentarily forgot about the darkness. That emptiness and hopelessness we tried to put out of our minds, turned out to be a lot closer than we dared imagine. It returned to us. With a vengeance.
Nothingness resumed its rightful throne as the overlord of Cub fans. Those who take glee in the failings of others, the naysayers, reemerged and feasted upon yet another heaping pile of disaster coughed up by the Cubs. “As predicted,” they said. “The Cubs will never win,” they mocked. “Who can root for such a team?” they taunted.
Players came and went. Injuries cut short the careers of the pitchers and age and illicit serums and a corked bat the reputation of the slugger. Brief glimmers of hope popped up in 2007 and 2008, but those were quickly dashed, each year, but the same result, three games to nil, by the same team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The void resettled upon the streets of Chicago. The team that threw the 1919 World Series flared up and won the title in 2005, providing further taunts from those who root for the failure of others. Dark days had retuned and the hope we had as children of the 1970s was replaced with the fears of our own mortality. Might we not ever see our beloved Cubs win the World Series? How did this happen? Where did the years go? And gosh darn it, what channel is showing the Cubs game? Where did all these channels come from?!
Aim For the Tree
Then something exciting happened. We hired the young genius who resurrected another moribund franchise, our kindred spirit in despair, the Boston Red Sox. Not only did the young genius bring a championship to Boston’s long suffering fans, he did it epic style. In the 2004 playoffs, one mere year removed from the Cubs’ historic collapse, the Red Sox fell behind their hated rival, the New York Yankees, three games to none, only to roar back to life and win four straight games. The Red Sox thus exorcised the countless demons, and in a rather anticlimactic fashion, bested the St. Louis Cardinals four games to nil in the World Series.
And now the Cubs had this young genius! And he had a plan! He told us we were going to be bad. Very bad. On purpose. Historically bad. Terrible. Mind numbing awful. Charles Barkley swinging a golf club bad. Shaquille O’Neal shooting free throws bad.
“Will we be ‘Joe Buck calling a game’ bad?” we asked, suddenly terrified of what this plan meant.
No, we were told, things won’t be that bad, but prepare yourselves, the darkness is about to get worse. The void, we were told, is about to grow exponentially.
But Cub fans are contrarians, after all, we hope for the best despite years, decades, and now a century of despair and disappointment. If one group of people on the face of the planet could make this plan work, it’s us!
We were excited. Nothingness with a purpose. Wow, this was new! You see, the Cubs mostly had been bad despite their attempts to be good. So maybe this reverse psychology ploy would work. We’ll aim to be bad and maybe the opposite will happen. Those who play golf know the strategy. If you try to hit the tree you’ll never succeed, but when you try to miss the tree, you always hit it. So all golfers know the strategy…aim for the tree!
We stoically endured, like we always endured, the dark ages that were foretold by our young genius. These were years filled with snickers and abasement and frustration and terrible, non-descript play. For crying out loud, our best player shared a name with that stupid kid’s dinosaur we all want to punch.
But by late’14, something was stirring and the first warning shot was sounded. One of the highly touted prospects of The Plan was called up in late August and he promptly hit two homeruns against the Cardinals. He got under the first one a slight bit, but given his great strength, inured by his faith in The Plan, he managed to hit that pop up over the center field wall. The second one, however, made a sound that reduced the smugly faithful at Busch Stadium to a puzzled murmur of “what was that?” Now, I am one to never exaggerate, but that second home run easily traveled six miles.
Exorcise: Ghosts and Goats
The 2015 Cubs were fun and they played great. The Cubs finished third in their division, but thanks to the expanded playoff format they made the post season. They met the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team that represents the same city where I toiled during my two year exile from Chicago, in a one game playoff. The Cubs smothered the Pirates with great pitching and hit home-runs that ended up in West Virginia.
Moving on the divisional round, the Cubs were matched up against their hated rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis, smug and secure, won the first game before succumbing to the Cubs’ barrage of pitching and home-runs that ended up in other states. The Cubs prevailed three games to one and advanced to the National League Championship Series.
But, alas and alack, the 2015 version of the Cubs were not destined to advance further. Their march towards history was halted by the New York Mets, the same team that stole the Cubs’ 1969 playoff appearance through sorcery and dark arts. I think that is why I developed such a severe allergy to cats.
But the sun rose anew in 2016 and gazed upon a Cubs team stronger and better than ever. The Cubs sprinted out of the gate, paused only momentary mid-season to catch their breath, and continued to the playoffs, winning their division by a wide margin and posting the best record in baseball.
And now, gentle reader, this is where the young genius of the Cubs proved his mettle as a master of his own version of baseball’s dark arts. Employing what I can only describe as “reverse conjuring,” the Cubs systemically laid waste to every demon and ghost and goat that had haunted the ball club for over a century.
In the divisional round, the Cubs were told they’d never get past the Giants and their great pitcher. This pitcher was reputed to be the best in the land and had the track record of success to show for it, leading his team to three championships in recent years. The Cubs were reminded ad nauseam about this pitcher’s prowess. They were reminded the Giants were a tested ball club. Worse, the Giants had staked a claim to winning championships only in even years. And 2016 was an even year. A Giant year.
The Cubs won the first two games at home. “Big deal!” the naysayers, extolled, “The Cubs of 1984 did the same thing, only to lose three straight, to a California team.” When the Cubs lost game three in San Francisco, the naysayers started even louder refrains of “choke” as they gleefully issued warnings of impending Cubs doom.
The naysayers were crowing increasingly louder as game four slogged its way towards an apparent Cubs’ loss. The Cubs trailed 5 to 2 in the top of the ninth and happy negativity reigned supreme in the land of the naysayer. But instead of folding, the Cubs rallied for four runs in the ninth. The Cubs took the game and took the series.
And thus, exorcised a demon: No more choking when leading a best of five gave series two games to none.
The Cubs’ march to the National League Championship Series was met by the naysayers gleefully predicting not rain, but crushing disappointment. The Cubs were told they’d never get past the Dodgers and their great pitcher. This pitcher was reputed to be the best in the land and had the track record of success to show for it, winning three Cy Young awards in recent years. The Cubs were reminded ad nauseam about this pitcher’s prowess. The Cubs were reminded the Dodgers were due for a World Series appearance.
And the naysayers looked like they might have a case. After the Cubs won the first game, they promptly lost two straight. Worse, the Cubs failed to score even a single run in those two losses. The naysayers started their chants of “choke” and “we told you so.” The ghosts of countless loved ones no longer with us emoted their familiar refrain of, “They’ll rip your heart out, kid.” The future looked bleak. Or did it?
Instead, these Cubs looked straight into the abyss and when the abyss smiled back, the Cubs responded in kind. With a bunt. A simple, modest little bunt was all this Cubs team needed to stave off the naysayers. Such is the power of the Plan that all the Cubs needed to turn back history was a simple, little bunt. A 10 to 2 thrashing ensued and the Cubs took the game. A second victory in Los Angeles sent the series back to Chicago with the Cubs holding a three games to two lead.
The naysayers pointed out the Cubs had been in this exact place before. 2003, they reminded us, was our Icarus moment. We flew too close to the sun and plummeted to earth, just as that foul ball plummeted into the seats along the third base line with five outs to go.
“Beware the Ides of One Out in the Eighth,” they intoned. “You’re going to fail. The Cubs will never make the World Series.”
Instead, these Cubs took down the latest best pitcher in the game, and shut him down by a score of 5 to nil. The Cubs exorcised the would-be demon of not scoring by visiting that same outcome on their opponent. They obliterated the notion that they couldn’t hit great pitching. Instead, the other team was exposed as unable to hit the Cubs’ great pitching.
The Cubs, spitting in the eye of fate and punching that smiling abyss in the teeth, stopped the game with one out in the eight. The Cubs tempted fate by removing their pitcher at the exact moment the abyss’s witching hour arrived. They made fate wait. They smiled back at the abyss. And they made fate sue for peace when the game was won on a double play started by the Cubs shortstop. As you may recall, a botched double play in the eighth inning in 2003 is what opened the flood gates, thus enabling another team to win.
In the waning innings of that game six against the Dodgers, I recall a foul ball off the bat of a Dodger, heading towards the third base side seats, the same location where that fateful foul ball fell with one out in the eighth in 2003. The 2016 foul ball fell harmlessly to earth, unable to do damage against the Cubs and their young genius.
And thus, more demons exorcised. No more falling apart in the eighth inning. No more booting double play chances. No more failure to advance to the World Series when leading three games to two.
I finally got the make the call I had been waiting to make. For thirteen years, I had been waiting to call the scary guy who hated rock and roll and I knew exactly what I was going to say. But with each passing year I feared I wouldn’t be able to make the call. I desperately wanted to do so, no longer to have some fun by rubbing the old man’s nose in it, but because I feared we would run out of time.
I heard the kindly woman who raised us say, “It’s your son.” The scary guy who hated rock and roll responded, “So?”
“I think he wants to talk about the Cubs.”
“YELLO!” The scary guy who hated rock and roll always brought his “A game” voice when he spoke on the phone.
“You always told me the Cubs would never make the World Series. Well, how about this!?”
“Oh, no, you have it wrong…I always said they’d never make the World Series in my lifetime, but for you, I felt confident.”
The World Series beckoned. The Cubs faithful were joyous, but cautious. The naysayers were quietly distraught, but deviously optimistic. The Cubs were told they’d never get past the Indians and their great pitcher. This pitcher was reputed to be the best in the land and had the track record of success to show for it, winning a recent Cy Young award and being a favorite to win the Cy Young again. The Cubs were reminded ad nauseam about this pitcher’s prowess. They were reminded the Indians were due for a World Series victory. They were reminded the Indians planned to use this pitcher three times in a seven game series.
The Cubs had no chance.
The Cubs lost the first game. The Indians’ great pitcher shut out the Cubs and the naysayers pounced, proclaiming the series done. The Cubs would never get past this Cleveland team. After winning game two in Cleveland, thus tying the series, the Cubs promptly lost two straight at home, scoring a grand total of two runs in those two losses.
Game four was helmed by the latest greatest pitcher in the league and cries of “we told you so” rained down up the Cubs faithful. The World Series was all over except for the shouting. The naysayers were quick to place a crown of hubris on that Cleveland team, naming them the presumptive winner of 2016 World Series.
Cleveland was up three games to one. One game away! You know, like the 1984 Cubs. Or the 2003 Cubs. One game away. One win in three tries was all that was needed for Cleveland to win a championship, it’s first of the baseball variety since 1948. What possibly could go wrong? Ahem, this is called foreshadowing.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the championship. After winning game five in Chicago, where the Cubs employed their closer for two and two thirds innings, the Cubs also took game six in Cleveland. Now both teams stood on the precipice. To one side was glory, to the other, the abyss.
If you paid careful attention to my story, you’ll know the Cubs are practiced against the dark arts of the abyss. No demons or ghosts or goats were going to get in their way this year. “But you’ve overused your great relief pitcher and you are about to go up against the best pitcher in the league,” the naysayers cried. “He shut you down in his first two games, he’ll shut you down again. You have no chance!”
“Oh, you mean like the greatest pitcher in the league on the Giants? Or the greatest pitcher in the league on the Dodgers?” said the rest of us. And we stared straight at the abyss and we glared at fate and said, “We’ll see about that.”
The Cubs started quickly, hitting a homerun on their first at bat. The Cubs built their lead to 5 to 1 by the fifth inning. But then the Cubs decided to tempt fate. You know, just to mess with it. So out goes the Cubs great pitcher and in comes another great Cubs pitcher. In relief. With one runner on base. The second great Cubs pitcher promptly gave up a hit then uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Cleveland to score twice, cutting the lead to 5 to 3 before finally getting out of the inning.
Just to show fate they meant business, the Cubs sent a senior citizen to the plate and watched as the ageless wonder uncorked his own wild response as he promptly deposited a ball over the wall for a home run, thus building the Cubs lead to 6 to 3.
The Cubs resumed their assault on fate in the eighth inning. With two outs and one on, the Cubs summoned their great relief pitcher, a flamethrower used to working one inning at a time. The flamethrower has been overtaxed in the last few games, pitching far more than he was used to pitching. He promptly gave up a hit, which scored a run, then for the very next better, he lobbed in a pitch that was sent over the wall for a two run home-run. Pandemonium ensued. Fate beckoned. The Abyss smiled. And they naysayers rubbed their hands in anticipation of yet another steaming heap of Cubs disaster.
But the Cubs got out of the inning with no further damage. And the little rally that Cleveland enjoyed would be remembered for nothing more than a slight respite, for that would be the final time Cleveland challenged for a win in 2016.
The game’s regular allotment of innings ended with a six all tie. But before we could settle the set-to, the Sport Gods intervened. Fate and the abyss, cheered on by the naysayers, clearly were embroiled in a furious lobbying effort. So the Sport Gods wailed and sent rain in a great fury. A torrential downpour, actually. Since this was Cleveland, water turning red with flames had already occurred, so we were spared that. After all, water catching fire failed to dislodge the populace decades ago. Darkness had already fallen so plagues of frogs and locusts had to be next.
But such is the power of this Cubs team that they were able to fend off all remaining plagues and play resumed after 17 minutes. And those Cubs, after teasing the naysayers with that game tying home-run in the bottom of the eighth, moved forward. Instead of Cubs fans being teased with victory only to taste bitter, humiliating defeat, the Cubs, those wily Cubs, teased the naysayers with impending Cub doom, drew them in, only to rip away the naysayer’s glee, thus leaving them as inadvertent viewers of the Cubs’ World Series victory. In a delicious twist of irony, the naysayers were the ones who had their hearts ripped out.
Every. Demon. Exorcised.
We needed seven games to win the World Series. Who cares? We needed to wait out a rain delay and then we needed an extra inning to finish our business. So what? What’s a little time? After all, we waited 108 years for this moment. What was one measly, little, extra inning? Nothing except a Cubs victory in the World Series. All ghosts and goats have been exorcised.
You have to suffer to experience joy. You have to go through hell, though indifference and wandering and frustration to truly appreciate the cathartic moment of victory. We were able to build a great city in the span of a single lifetime. We needed well over a lifetime, over a century, in fact, to build a championship baseball team. Turning a swamp into a world class city was an easier job than turning the Cubs into World Series champions.
But that’s the lesson. If you manage to keep yourself intact, through hard work, persistence, creativity, ingenuity, belief in self, and confidence, well, you too just might end up with a ticket to a better tomorrow.