Cubs

Why Cubs fandom was inescapable in covering the greatest story in sports

Why Cubs fandom was inescapable in covering the greatest story in sports

I wished I got punched in the back of the head.

OK, maybe not exactly, but it was more about where and when the punch occurred.

My roommate was among the epic crowd of people outside Wrigley Field after the Cubs put the finishing touches on their World Series championship, and he took a punch or an elbow to the back of the head as people were getting trampled. The most apt comparison I heard likened the mob to Jon Snow nearly suffocating in the "Battle of Bastards" on "Game of Thrones".

Soaked in champagne, I was 350 miles away in Cleveland, living out my lifelong career goal of covering the Cubs team that finally put the 108-year championship drought to an end.

It might seem crazy, but there was a definite internal conflict going on amid the madness. A part of me wished I was back in Wrigleyville for the legendary celebration even though I was witnessing — and had witnessed — history with my own eyes.

Why?

I grew up a Cubs fan.

There is so much weight in those six words, but it at least begins to scratch the surface of why I wanted to be a part of the post-Game 7 celebration mob and why I sat in a dark screening room in downtown Chicago last Wednesday night with a tear in my eye.

********

"To cover the Cubs team that finally ends the drought and wins the World Series."

That was my stock answer whenever anybody asked about where I hoped to be five, 10 years down the road in my career.

Saying nothing about how hard that question is to answer in this field, it really was my main motivation. I couldn't truly think beyond that. It was all I ever wanted from my career in sports journalism.

Baseball and the Cubs have been so prevalent in my 30 years of existence. They're synonymous with oxygen or food. This June will mark the 26th year I've played baseball in some form, and my spring and summer months are still planned around the Cubs schedule, though now it's based on work and covering games instead of attending and watching games.

I don't identify as a Cubs fan now — haven't for years — given my time in the journalism field and the need for objectivity.

But I can safely say I was rooting for the Cubs to win it all last fall. I'm sure 9-year-old Tony was a major contributing factor in that rooting interest, but as much as anything else, I was rooting for the story, as USA TODAY Sports' Erik Brady so aptly put it in his column about Michigan basketball last week.

In a way, this was a tragic career goal in that I had absolutely nothing to do with the product on the field. I couldn't control a thing about the Cubs winning the World Series. All I could do was document it by typing on a laptop.

At the 2016 Cubs Convention, a Chicago reporter saw me talking to my mom and sister, who were all decked out in Cubs garb, having a blast at the convention as lifelong Cubs fans enjoying all the "Embrace the Target" talk and still riding high after the surprise 2015 postseason run.

"Your family is Cubs fans?" the reporter asked.

"Yep," I responded.

"That's kinda f---ed up," he joked.

I laughed and agreed with him, "Yeah it kinda is."

I mean, he's right. How many people covering a baseball team grew up a fan of that squad?

["Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" premieres Monday night at 9:30 p.m.]

How does somebody who grew up a Cubs fan cover the team objectively? To be honest, it was simple at first. When the team loses 100 games, it's easy to be removed and report on what's happening with no clouded judgment. It's not hard to avoid cheering in the press box.

By the time the Cubs started that surprising 2015 run, I had learned how to practice the necessary objectivity, and more than anything, I was stoked just to be covering a Cubs playoff team. I wanted them to advance because it meant more playoffs to cover.

Like Joe Maddon always talks about five stages of a player earning his "big league skin," I was in the stage of "just happy to be here."

I morphed all my personal motivations into an altruistic goal: I wanted the Cubs to win the World Series for my mom and my sister and the rest of my family and friends who lived and died with the Cubs. All the people who felt like weeping or punching through a window in 2003. And 2007. And 2008.

I knew the emotions of the fan base because I had felt them — and lived them — all before.

I had always seen the Cubs and their championship drought through my own lens and those vantage points of people around me: Chicagoans, Cubs fans, people who have had the Cubs ingrained in their lives whether they liked it or not.

Obviously the 2016 Cubs were a perfect blend of youth, hunger and determination that helped them turn a blind eye to the pressure and weight of 108 years.

But I never really thought about the drought any differently because all I ever knew as a Chicago native born into a "Cubs family" was three decades of hearing about the "Lovabale Losers" label.

It wasn't until a conversation with Matt Szczur in the clubhouse in spring training that I realized these Cubs really didn't think of the magnitude of the situation. Certainly not the way I did.

Szczur, for example, has been with the organization longer than any player, but he still had only been fully conscious of the Cubs and the championship drought since 2010, the year he was drafted.

For him, it wasn't 108 years. For Szczur and the other guys — except for maybe World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, the Eureka, Ill., native — the Cubs' drought and much-ballyhooed curse really only mattered to them for a few years. It wasn't a lifestyle.

********

Sitting on a workout bench in a cramped Pasadena hotel gym, hours before the Cubs and Dodgers were to do battle in Game 3 of the 2016 National League Championship Series, I grabbed my phone and started frenetically typing.

I felt the urge to jot down some thoughts that were swimming through my brain as I stared down a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Win or lose, the Cubs were on the precipice of history and here I was, covering the team and tasked with trying to describe and chronicle this momentous event that stretched far beyond just words on a screen.

It wasn't predicting the future. That did not happen. But I just had a feeling a storm might be coming for the 2016 Cubs.

That usually means a harbinger of doom, but storms don't always have to be bad. For example, a storm is a welcome sight during a drought.

Like...say...a 108-year championship drought.

The problem is, even though I started writing this column way back in October, I didn't go back to it until last week. Even after the Cubs won their first pennant in a lifetime, even after they clawed back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series to force a Game 7.

I thought maybe I'd return to it after the surreal parade and rally two days after Game 7 and seeing the five million faces displaying the same emotions I had buried deep inside.

Nope.

Maybe a few weeks later, after some time had passed to gain perspective?

Nope.

OK, well then definitely when we replayed all 11 of the Cubs' postseason wins on CSN around the holidays?

Nope again. Still blocked up.

The Cubs Convention in January didn't help cure my creative constipation. Neither did a two-week trip to Arizona to delve back into the beat and the energy of a new season.

Even seeing my mom's dining room table overflowing with Cubs World Series memorbilia or attempting to describe the experience to family and friends couldn't truly unwrap the words and emotions tucked away.

All those probably helped unclog the writer's block bit by bit, but just like somebody struggling to open a pickle jar, that one last push was still evading me.

That is until last Wednesday night.

After debuting "Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" for the press, CSN employees got an opportunity to see the documentary in a private screening.

Fifty-two minutes and countless goosebumps later, it felt as if a weight had been lifted.

I've seen, heard and read plenty on the Cubs' epic World Series run and even replayed it over and over again in my mind.

But nothing truly took me back to those moments and the magical fall like "Reign Men" did.

Like all sports, baseball is very much driven by an "on to the next one" mindset.

Strike out? Move on. Botch a groundball? Move on.

It works the other way, too: Hitting three homers on a Monday doesn't help bring a win Tuesday night.

There's always another pitch, another at-bat, another game, another season. That's part of the beauty of the game.

But what about when you want to slow things down, take it all in and enjoy the moment?

The game moves too fast for that. Life moves too fast for that.

It took a couple days, but I realized part of what struck me so much with "Reign Men" was it represented a vessel to go back, to relive an event I had been dreaming about for nearly three decades. In so many ways, it still feels like it was all just a dream: My ultimate career goal realized.

I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to truly wrap my head around this World Series and the impact the greatest story in American sports history had.

But for now, it's baseball, so time to jump to the next inning.

"Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" will debut Monday night at 9:30 p.m. (after Blackhawks coverage) on CSN and a special re-air will be shown Thursday night at 7 p.m.

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching for better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto