They toasted first the long, hard history of the 2016 Chicago Cubs, all seven months of it, all 178 games of it. They drank to 103 regular-season wins, and to a three-game winning streak at the end that made them, on a warm and exceedingly tense Wednesday night here, a night that bled into 10 innings and then early Thursday morning, World Series champions.
They hugged the men in front of them, the ones they’d played alongside and who’d fought the same fights and dreamt the same dream, the ones who’d stood with them lastly in Game 7 in the most important baseball game they’d ever played, that they would ever play.
They will be remembered as slayers of goats and cats and handsy fans, lauded as makers of history, or erasers of history, depending on the view. They will be praised for taming the crankiest of the old ghosts, of seasons lost, and men who slipped at the end, and promises not kept, and just a whole lot of miserable, misdirected, rightfully scorned baseball.
A hundred and eight years is a hell of a long time to wait. So much went wrong. So much mattered, until it didn’t anymore.
The Cubs became the first team since 1985 to come back from a 3-1 deficit and win the World Series. (USA Today)
So all of that would have to wait again. Mike Montgomery threw the curveball that Cleveland Indians batter Michael Martinez topped toward third base, and Kris Bryant gathered the ball that would finish their season. He threw to Anthony Rizzo at first base. The Cubs had beaten the Indians, 8-7, and they rushed the field and scattered everywhere and laughed until they cried and waved those W flags while thousands of Cubs fans sang from the upper deck at Progressive Field, and this was not about the hundreds upon hundreds who had come before them and failed, but the 25 or so who had come together and succeeded. The others? They’d get to them. Meanwhile, their immediate history, the one that counted, was 4½ hours old, across a game played to the very last inches of their psyches, on wobbly legs and with rising and falling chests wrapped around jumpy hearts fed by heavy breaths. They’d finished maybe 90 feet better than the Indians, 90 feet ahead of where anyone could recall a Cubs team finishing, on a 10th-inning hit by a 35-year-old super-utility man – Ben Zobrist, who would be the series’ MVP – and another by the third-string catcher – Miguel Montero, in just his fourth at-bat of the series.
They’d won around a 17-minute rain delay between the ninth and 10th innings, during which the soft-spoken Jason Heyward, the outfielder who’d signed for $184 million and immediately endured his most dreadful season, gathered teammates in a dank weight room and told them, in so many words, we don’t quit. They’d won in their two-run 10th inning, by allowing only one back to the Indians in the bottom of the 10th. They’d won with Carl Edwards Jr., who had two career saves, taking first crack at the final out, followed by Montgomery, who had none.
They’d won amid the irony of Joe Maddon, managing at the end with his deceased father’s baseball cap stuffed into his pants, slow-playing the series over seven games, betting on his four healthy starting pitchers would outlast the Indians’ three, only to come to the end, four outs from the end, dragging an exhausted Aroldis Chapman, the closer who blew every bit of a three-run lead in the eighth inning. Chapman by then had thrown 97 pitches over the final three games of the series, and so a Cubs lead that had been 5-1 in the fifth inning and 6-3 when Chapman arrived in the eighth, was gone when Rajai Davis homered 15 feet right of the left-field foul pole, five feet over the left-field fence, and straight into the bloodstream of a game that would not let go.
They’d won because the 39-year-old catcher, David Ross, while he could not block a wild curveball from emergency reliever Jon Lester, a play that cost the Cubs two runs, did homer off the previously untouchable Andrew Miller in the sixth inning. A couple of hours later, Rizzo hoisted one of Ross’ legs, Heyward the other, and they paraded the popular Ross across the field and, as is his intent, into retirement.
The Cubs carry catcher David Ross off the field and into retirement. (USA Today)
So many had come before them. So many men from so many other times. From so many other places. They were young or old, talented or not so talented, short-timers and career Cubbies. None had seen anything like this. Wrigley Field, some 350 miles away, was surrounded by fans. Here, the stadium held more than 38,000, and the streets outside were crowded with thousands more. The Indians had not raised a World Series banner since 1948, and the notion of the Cubs and Indians on the same patch of grass, sharing such similar upbringings, carrying all the same scars, nine innings – or 10 – to sort it out, was too much to ignore, and then they played the game that did it all justice.
The world had tried for those seven months, during their summer, and especially in their fall, to make these Cubs about the past 107 years of Cubs. Just as last year’s Cubs were about the previous 106. You can keep counting backward with the seasons. It is the burden of being a Cub, one’s signature on the bottom of the contract brings a steady paycheck along with the responsibility for what came before. The burden was unfair. Of course it was. The Cubs always had the better stories. The latest would be about the baseball, however, because they made it so. These 25 or so, they managed to play for the man beside them, not all of the men behind them.
“If you just want to carry the burden with you all the time,” Maddon said, “tonight would never happen.
“So, for me, it was about in spring training trying to define this whole thing, and that’s where running toward expectations and running toward pressure was really important. As opposed to running away from it. My perception, and again I might be wrong, but … everybody’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’ve got to expect something good to happen as opposed to that. … The burden has been lifted. It should have never been there in the first place, I don’t think. But now we can move forward.”
The party raged in the Cubs’ clubhouse. Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor walked past, heard the racket, and smiled sadly. He continued down the hall. A few minutes later, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff, then men who’d built Cleveland’s roster, walked the same hall. They’d come so close. They, too, continued along. They, too, know the burden.
“You can just control today,” Heyward was saying in that clubhouse. His beard dripped with Champagne. “We could not think about what we could not control. We’ve done the best job of that I’ve ever seen any group of people do.”
Nearby, Montero cackled at the mention of a busted curse. He’d just come off a hug from Bill Murray, the actor and lifetime Cubs fan who roamed the room and laughed from somewhere deep in him. He told everyone how great this was, how pleased he was, and then he laughed some more.
“We killed that curse,” Montero said with amusement. “We killed it. It’s done.”
Then he added, a little too late, “You can’t really believe in that.”
Lester, who threw 55 pitches in relief of starter Kyle Hendricks, and who two years ago signed that Cubs oath of money and history and burden, said, “This is why I came here, to break the goat or the black cat or whatever it is.”
“The curse for me was an excuse,” he said. “The curse for me was a way out.”
Together, they burst open green bottles, and they shouted in each other’s faces, and they held onto hugs well into morning. The Cubs – these Cubs – were world champions. They would be so forever. They would be the ones. So they celebrated that. They celebrated what they’d done. They celebrated a game no one had ever seen before, one of the great games ever played.
They celebrated their summer together. First and foremost, they celebrated that one summer, and the 25 or so men who made it, and the moment it became. They celebrated today.