Only after a couple of days can I come to terms with the shocking news that struck baseball fans at the end of last week. Anthony Rizzo traded to the New York Yankees! Javier Baez traded to the New York Mets! Kris Bryant traded to the San Francisco Giants! Relief pitchers sent to other teams, included the hated White Sox, to help them in their quest for post-season glory! The Chicago Cubs, five years after a miraculous championship, reduced to a roster of back-up players and young prospects who might develop into stars in the future—no one can be sure.
I am a life-long Cubs fan. I fondly remember the Cubs of 1969: Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, Randy and Hundley. I remember the Cubs of the 1970s: Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal, Rick Reuschel, Bobby Murcer, Dave Kingman. I remember the Cubs of the 1980s: Ryne Sandberg, Jody Davis, Rick Suttcliffe, Andre Dawson. I could go on, but you get the point. Win or lose, the Cubs were always my team. I loved them when they were almost champions, as in 1984 and 2003. I loved them when they were lovable losers. I listened to games on the radio, watched some on TV, and on a few special occasions saw them play in Wrigley Field. I endured the rebuilding Cubs franchise a decade ago. I celebrated the championship in 2016. I hoped for a Cubs dynasty. Alas, it was not to be. But this sudden, crashing end—who could expect it? Who could be prepared for it? What are we to do, now that it has happened?
The problem, of course, is money. Players want to be paid what they think they are worth. Owners want to make a profit from their investment in a professional sports team. General managers and team vice presidents get involved, as do agents to represent the players. Rules are made about how much money can be spent on player salaries, with penalties for exceeding the arbitrary “salary cap.” Cubs management faced a crew of heroes whose contracts were due to expire at the same time. Management tried to negotiate contract extensions with those heroes and their agents, but none of the players (or their agents) thought they were being offered enough for their services. Rather than seeing these heroes escape as free agents, management chose to trade them away at the last possible moment, bringing in younger and less expensive players who might (or might not) rise to the level of heroes as they mature.
Fans are left, then, seeing the heroes of the recent past playing for other teams. When the season is over, some of them may move on to yet a third team. The party is over. The good times have ended. No one will be able to put the band back together again.
Engraved in memory (and also preserved digitally) is that instant that Kris Bryant scooped up a ground ball and threw it to Anthony Rizzo, who stepped on first base to record the final out of the final game of the 2016 World Series. They joy on both their faces will never be forgotten. The many other hits and runs and defensive plays and wins and celebrations of this group of players remains part of Chicago Cubs history—but now it is only history. It will never happen again—not with these players, not with the same sense of wonder and awe that accompanied their first team championship in more than one hundred years.
Tears well in my eyes, and a lump forms in my throat. I’ve never met these men and probably never will. They don’t know my name or anything about me. I helped, in a small way, to pay their salary, buying team memorabilia and sitting through commercials between innings. For them I am merely part of a cloud of countless fans, people for whom they exhibited their rare athletic talents, people with whom they shared the joy of a championship even those none of us came to bat or took the field or even sat with them in the bullpen.
Maybe history will show that they were not good enough. Maybe a better team can be formed with a new cast of players. Maybe their careers, seen from a distance, will show that the 2016 championship was a fluke, a coincidence of a few moderately talented players all having a good year at the same time. I prefer to believe that something special marked this team. Bryant and Rizzo and Baez—along with Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber and Travis Wood and Dexter Fowler—captured something that transcends even the glory of one championship season in one sport. They were a gift to Chicago, to the sport of baseball, and to the human spirit in us all. J