Sunday, April 02, 2017

World Champion Chicago Cubs

Right now, the 2017 Major League Baseball season is officially underway, and in just hours, the Chicago Cubs will take the field in St. Louis as the defending champions for the first time since William Howard Taft was a new President.

As I have three times written an ode of sorts on this blog to the Chicago Blackhawks after their Stanley Cup victories (and might another one be in the offing?), I have been meaning for some time to write about the Cubs. Last year, as a lifelong fan of the team, was truly an amazing journey, and there is so much that I could say, but thanks to the crazy and unfortunate political landscape, my desire to write on here has lessened. This is worth at least some effort though as the new season gets underway. For years, I have been a proud Republican and a long suffering Cubs fan, and now, after 2016, neither of those labels really apply. I can choose to focus on the positive and just continue to remember how proud I was to see what the Cubs did. After years of heartbreak as a sports fan, despite seeing every professional team I root for win titles, from the Bears when I was a kid too young to really understand football, to the Michael Jordan Bulls dynasty of the '90s to the what the Blackhawks have doen this decade, I still find the Cubs winning it all hard to believe. This is the Holy Grail for me as a sports fan and while I hope to see more championships, for all of the teams mentioned, I can truly never really be upset about sports again, if things do not work out.

I can look back at a post I made on here in 2008, when the Cubs were swept out of a first round playoff series, just another episode of post-season heartbreak and I was pretty despondent that autumn. I wondered if being a fan was still worth it but concluded then, that I would give them another 40 years to win it all before I gave up. Thankfully for me, I did not even have to wait 10 more years. Lifelong Cubs fans, two generations or more ahead of me never got to see what I saw in early November.

Also, I know distinctly that as soon as Theo Epstein was hired as the Cubs Vice President of Baseball Operations in late 2011, that the organization was on the right track. Much praise must go to the Ricketts Family, along with Theo of course, and needless to say Joe Maddon, as manager, despite almost blowing it in Game 7!

In 2012, I specifically predicted the Cubs would win the World Series in 2016. I told this to many, many people. There was a lot of work to do though as Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and their team went about rebuilding a middling franchise into one that could achieve sustained succuess. So, in 2012, they had to suffer through a 102 loss season, even while calling up future cornerstone Anthony Rizzo. Some progress was made in 2013 but the team was still pretty bad. There was more and more promise in 2014 as the team won 73 games and continued optimism about all the prospects in the Minor Leagues, such as Kris Bryant.

In 2015, the Cubs had a great season, in their first year under Maddon, and won 97 games. That was only enough for third place in the NL Central though, but they thrilled their fans by winning a wildcard game on the road and then ousting the division champion rival Cardinals in the NLDS. The magic wore out in the NLCS as the Cubs were swept, but I could not help but feel as enthusiastic about the 2016 season as I have ever about any year. I wondered though if they could truly win it all the next year, despite my long-standing prediction. I just knew that had to get back to the NLCS and win at least one game. If I had to wait 8 years, with them coming one game closer each time, I would.

The 2016 season was magical though from start to finish. The Cubs got off to a blazing start and despite a rough couple weeks towards the middle of the year, coasted to the best record in baseball with 103 victories. For the most part, they dominated teams, but also had some impressive late inning comeback wins as well. I only saw them play one game in person last season, on a Thursday afternoon in Milwaukee in May. The Cubs lost, but the stadium was mostly wearing Cubbie blue.

In October, amid all the turmoil and confusion of the Presidential election, the playoffs began, and it was a very much needed diversion for me away from the horrific choice facing America. The Cubs would be favored in the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, but somehow that team always manages to win the World Series during even number years. The Cubs won the first two games at home, but blew a lead in Game 3 on the West Coast, and even after mounting a comeback to force extra innings, came up short in their chance to wrap up that series. The next night, the Cubs were down, in the 9th inning, and it looked really scary, especially with the starting pitching the Giants would have lined up for the remainder of the series. When it mattered most though, the Cubs turned on a switch and scored runs in the 9th, and closed out San Francisco. This year really had to be different after all.

Then, it was on to the NLCS and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cubs won a thrilling Game 1, after having blown a lead, but then their bats were shut down by Clayton Kershaw in Game 2 at home. In Southern California, the Cubs continued to struggle at the plate, and they now trailed in the series. I was relieved that they were not going to get swept again in the NLCS but obviously wanted more wins. Just when things looked dark, the bats got hot again in Game 4 and Game 5 and amazingly, the Cubs were just one win away from the World Series.

I had seen this before though, as a child in 1984 and a a youngish adult in 2003. I felt confident they could get it done but was still in shock about what was actually happening. They had two chances to win, and Game 6 at Wrigley Field matched Clayton Kershaw against Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks. Behind Hendricks and timely hitting, the game was almost too good to be true. Was it really going to be that easy? Nonetheless, the Cubs were headed to the World Series for the first time since 1945. This was really happening and was not just a video game commercial or a Jim Belushi movie. I felt like even if that was the last win of the year, the "Curse of the Billy Goat" dating back to 1945, was now over and heir time was soon coming, but also had a feeling that they were just not going to be denied winning it all.

The Cleveland Indians were seeking their first title since 1948 as the World Series got underway. Their entire city had felt cursed by sports before the Cavaliers had won the NBA title in June and now their baseball team was looking to follow suit. The Cubs had been waiting since 1908 though and the two longest streaks in baseball would be put to the test.

In Game 1, the Indians Corey Kluber shut the Cubs out. Amazingly though, hitting phenom Kyle Schwarber, who had a great 2015 postseason in his rookie year, was the Designated Hitter for the Cubs in the World Series. This was something out of the movies. Schwarber had suffered a devastating knee injury in the first week of the season, before he could even collect his first hit, and was ruled out for all of 2016. He worked hard to rehab though and there was he playing in the World Series, his first MLB action in months. The dramatic possibilities were endless. While Schwarber did not hit a home run in the series, he did hit over .400 and the team likely would not have won it without him.

Schwarber was a big part of the Cubs Game 2 victory on the road and the series was tied heading back to Chicago. As Wrigley Field hosted its first World Series in 71 years, the atmosphere was electric, but the Cubs bats were not, and they lost a one run pitchers duel. The next night, Kluber continued his post-season mastery as the Cubs meekly went down and now trailed the series 3-1. I have to admit, that I sort of thought the season was soon to be over. Deep down, I kept some home alive, but it looked like the Cubs luck had finally run out and for that weekend at least, it was more depressing than I expected.

How can a team come back from a 3-1 deficit, with Games 6 and 7 on the road? That almost never happens and it would be even more dramatic than Cleveland's basketball team coming back from 3-1 that summer. After trailing early, the Cubs, behind a gutty performance by Cy Young candidate Jon Lester managed to win Game 5, the final game of the year at home (thanks to the All-Star Game result which cemented World Series home field advantage for the AL) and as a matter of pride, I felt good that the Cubs were not going down without a fight and that Wrigleyville could celebrate and sing "Go Cubs Go" for the last time that season.

The reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arietta was going for the Cubs in Game 6 though. If they could win that one, who knows what might happen in Game 7? The Cubs bats had woken up at the right time, as they rolled to a victory in Cleveland. Shortstop Addison Russell hit a Grand Slam and it seemed inevitable that the next day would actually see the Cubs playing for a title. Somehow though, fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman, a trade deadline addition, was called upon to pitch multiple innings in a game that the Cubs probably could have won without him and I was hoping that would not come back to haunt the team the next day.

Wednesday was Game 7 of the World Series. I had no choice but to go to work that day and I knew that win or lose or however many extra innings it took, I had to go to work on Thursday. This was just all so exciting though. The game was epic. Leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler hit a home run. Hendricks was outpitching Kluber and the Cubs had a lead in the middle innings. It was very hard to avoid counting how many outs away they were. Maddon made the move though to bring in Lester from the bullpen, to relieve Hendricks, with it all on the line, and the Indians immediately scored a couple of runs to draw closer. The next inning though, saw Lester's personal catcher, David Ross, the beloved "Grandpa" figure of the team, playing in his final season and his final game, hit a somewhat rare for him homerun. What a moment! It just seemed like destiny was shining on the Cubs.

The call was made though in the 8th inning, as expected, to bring in Chapman, and it did not go well. Dramatically, the Indians hit a home run to tie the game, conjuring up all sorts of unpleasant memories for Cubs fans. My thought though was that the game was tied, just like it was in the first inning, and there was a long way to go. The Cubs failed to score in the 9th, but somehow Chapman, basically pitching on fumes, avoided giving up the losing run in the 9th. I consider that very much an underappreciated aspect of Game 7.

Then, the rains hit Cleveland, and the tarp went on the field. I could not believe it. How many hours might this take? I just wanted the Cubs to take their at bats in the 10th. Fortunately, the rain delay lasted just 17 minutes, akin to a break before Overtime would begin in a playoff hockey game. This was a chance to get everyone to regroup and only after the game would we learn , somewhat, about what went on in the weight room, as Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward, a big-time free agent signee who struggled offensively all year, called a team meeting, Several of the Cubs were said to be crying over what was looking like a lost opportunity, but Heyward reminded them of the success they had and implored them to "fight for their brothers." Heyward earned every dollar of his salary in those moments. As for the short rain delay itself, which may not have even truly seemed necessary? I have to believe that G-d finally gave a gift to Cubs fans, perhaps with some intervention from departed legends Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and generations of departed Cubs fans. 

In the 10th, the Cubs came out swinging the bats. Schwarber led it off with a single and was lifted for a pinch runner, who wisely tagged up and made it to second on a Bryant shot to the outfield. Eventual World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, a native of Illinois, drove in the go ahead run and Miguel Montero, a former starter, who was now less frequently used behind the plate, drove in an extra run for good measure.

The Cubs led by two and were three outs away. Rookie reliever Carl Edwards Jr. quickly got the first two outs and Cubs fans everywhere were beyond ready. Then, he ran into a bit of trouble. A runner got on base and then the Indians scored a run. After about 10 minutes of the Cubs being a pitch away from glory, the championship winning run for the Indians, was now at the plate. Mike Montgomery was called upon to earn what would be his first ever MLB save, and on a somewhat tough defensive play Kris Bryant scooped up a ground ball and fired it across the infield to Anthony Rizzo. At long last, the Cubs had done it. As the song might go, "Hey Chicago, what do say, the Cubs have won the World Series today."

Bedlam ensued in Cleveland, throughout Chicagoland, and everywhere Cubs fans might have been following the moment. I cannot help but think about the stories of people who could have been watching in packed bars or from comfortable couches at home in front of giant HD televisions, but instead would take a radio and a lawn chair to a cemetery so that they could share the moment with a parent or other loved one.

For me, the feeling was disbelief and I do not know if I have even still gotten over it. Friday saw an estimated 5 million fans, one of the largest gatherings in human history, show up to salute the Cubs at a parade through Chicago and a rally. Next week, when the Cubs formally return to Wrigley, a banner will be raised and rings will be given out. Maybe it will feel more real then, but I am still sort of just trying to absorb it all. An unprecedented Presidential election and what would soon be a surprise result to me has only added to the surreal aspect of the year.

I just feel very grateful to have suffered through a relatively young life as a die-hard Cubs fan, and a fan of other Chicago teams. All the ups and downs I have experienced as a fan paled in comparison to the emotions of the 2016 Chicago Cubs World Series Championship season. I am so thankful to everyone associated with the organization and feel a great sense of kinship with all of the other fans, of all ages, who have dreamt about this happening.

If the Cubs go 0-162 this year, I will still be happy that I saw them win it all in 2016. However, the team is pretty damn good and may just do it all again this year.