World Series memories part three

The Chicago Cubs won their last World Series 108 days ago.

If you follow baseball even with mild interest, you will remember last season when baseball announcers were obliged to mention, every fifteen to twenty minutes during every game, that the Cubs had not won a World Series in 108 years. Their last championship was in 1908, setting a record of futility for professional American sports teams that may never be broken. Their last National League pennant and World Series games happened in 1945. Most Cub fans had never seen a World Series game played in Wrigley Field. Year after year, faithful fans supported the team skeptics called “the Lovable Losers.” In some ways, it was more painful to come close in 1969, 1984, and 2003 than it was to accept another losing season and move on to football in the fall.

The climb to a championship began when the Chicago Tribune Company sold the Cubs to Tom Ricketts. Ricketts then hired Theo Epstein to oversee the rebuilding of the Cubs. Epstein concentrated on acquiring young talent. The team in Chicago fared badly at first, while the future Cubs worked their way through the minor leagues. Then, one by one, they began appearing in Chicago. The new leadership traded experienced Cubs for prospects and projects. Epstein brought in manager Joe Maddon. He also signed expensive free agents John Lester and Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. By 2016 the magic was ready to happen.

The Cubs had won the National League wild card in 2015, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one-game play-off and then defeating the St. Louis Cardinals before being swept by the New York Mets. The four embarrassing losses to the Mets may have been one of the best things to happen to the Cubs; they energized them for the next season.

The Cubs roared off to a great start in April and never looked back. More than half their starting lineup was voted onto the All-Star team. The Cubs’ only slump in the season came just before the All-Star break, but they were stronger than ever after that. They coasted through September, using extra pitchers to keep their starters from tiring. Then they met the San Francisco Giants in the playoffs. Giants fans thought that their team should be favored—they had won championships in 2010, 2012, and 2014, so it seemed that it was their turn again. The Cubs denied that destiny. Then they moved on to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers won two of the first three games against the Cubs, causing the Cubs batters to saw at the air chasing pitches the way they had done against the Mets a year earlier. In the fourth game, Zobrist turned the tide by laying down a perfect bunt. Somehow that was the crack in the dam which broke. The Cubs bats awoke, and they easily disposed of the Dodgers.

Their World Series opponent was the Cleveland Indians, who had not won a championship since 1948. The Indians’ manager was Terry Francona, who had managed eight victories in World Series games with the Boston Red Sox without a single loss. The American League had won the All-Star game, giving the Indians a home field advantage. That ended up being an advantage for the Cubs. Their young power hitter, Kyle Schwarber, had been injured on the third game of the season. He missed the rest of the season and the first two rounds of playoffs due to surgery and recovery. Now doctors said he was fit to bat and run the bases; he just could not play a defensive position. American League ballparks allow one batter (called a designated hitter) to bat but not play a position, relieving pitchers of the obligation to bat. Schwarber was that designated hitter four times for the Cubs, helping lead the team to victory.

Even so, the Indians won three of the first four games against the Cubs. They needed only one more victory to become champions; the Cubs needed to win the next three games. Once again, pitchers for the opposition had been fooling the Cubs’ batters, inducing them to swing wildly at bad pitches. But the Cubs had some good pitchers of their own. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta held the Indians’ offense in check while the Cubs recovered their ability to score runs. The fifth game was a 3-2 nailbiter, but in the sixth game the Cubs broke out early and maintained their lead for the victory. Admittedly, Maddon overused his ace reliever, Aroldis Chapman, a pitcher who regularly throws the ball more than one hundred miles an hour. Chapman prefers to pitch just one inning (usually the ninth), but Maddon  brought him in earlier, which would have dramatic consequences in game seven.

Once again the Cubs broke out with an early lead, and all over the world Cub fans prepared to celebrate. Kyle Hendricks was pitching a gem of a game, but Maddon replaced him in the fifth inning to bring in Jon Lester along with catcher David Ross, who planned to retire at the end of the season. After Lester, Maddon brought in Chapman, and the Indians fought back. Chapman surrendered a game-tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, horrifying Cubs fans everywhere. (It was in the eighth inning in 2003 that the Cubs lost a big lead in a key game due to a freak circumstance which does not deserve to be mentioned.) Neither team scored in the ninth, bringing the game to extra innings.

Rain delayed the game, and Jason Heyward called a meeting in the weight room by the visitors’ locker room. There he reminded his teammates that they were talented, that they had won games all year, and that they were capable of winning this game. A string of hits in the top of the tenth inning gave the Cubs a two run lead. They gave up one run in the bottom of the inning, leading Maddon to change pitchers one last time. Mike Montgomery threw two pitches. The second pitch was grounded to third base, where Kris Bryant, wearing a huge grin, captured the ball and threw it to first base. Anthony Rizzo caught the ball, raised his fists into the air in victory, and slipped the ball into his pocket.

One hundred eight days later, the joy has scarcely diminished. The players are gathering for spring training, preparing to battle toward a second championship. Chicago sports fans have high hopes, but also long memories. In the 1980s the Chicago Bears assembled a talented team of great personality who had a marvelous season in 1985, ending with the Bears’ first Superbowl victory. The team should have been a dynasty, but they failed to return to the Superbowl. On the other hand, in the 1990s the Chicago Bulls also assembled a talented team of great personality, centered around Michael Jordan. His team won six championships in eight seasons. Cubs fans hope that the current Cubs will imitate the Bulls and not the Bears. Either way, the names will remain engraved forever in our memories. Bryant, Russell, Baez, Rizzo, Contreras, Schwarber, Fowler, Heyward, Zobrist, Arrieta, Lester, Hendricks, Lackey, Chapman, Montgomery, Edwards, Almora, Montero, and Ross: most of them are young as well as talented. Chapman and Fowler have moved on to other teams and Ross has retired, but the rest of them are back and ready to play again. On behalf of Cubs fans everywhere: Go Cubs, Go! Bring home another trophy! J.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s