CLEVELAND – The End could have only happened like this, with a heart-pounding, jaw-dropping, head-spinning World Series Game 7 that left generations of Cubs fans rejoicing around the globe.
The waves of emotions rippled around Progressive Field after an 8-7 instant classic that began on Wednesday night in front of a sellout crowd of 38,104 and ended here early Thursday morning, the drama building for a massive TV audience watching the last great quest left in professional sports. The heartbreak would be felt throughout Cleveland, which had waited 68 years for this title shot, its fans sitting through 10 innings of motion sickness, false hope and the game at its unpredictable best.
The joyous celebration continued 350 miles away in Wrigleyville and wherever Cubs fans grew up listening to Harry Caray and watching games on WGN and worshipping all the great players who never got to experience euphoria like this, everyone from Ernie Banks to Ron Santo to Billy Williams to Ryne Sandberg to Andre Dawson.
This has always been the intoxicating lure of the Cubs, selling losing to alpha males and convincing all these highly skilled independent contractors/individual corporations that together they could someday be part of the team that makes history and lives forever in all those hearts and minds.
“I know there are so many people that are thinking of their grandfathers and their fathers right now in Chicago, and that’s what it’s all about,” general manager Jed Hoyer said inside a raucous visiting clubhouse filled with the sounds of clanking bottles and the awful smell of beer mixed with champagne. “It’s bigger than these 25 guys. It’s bigger than the organization. It’s about the city that stuck with the team forever.”
What else could draw rock stars (Eddie Vedder, Billy Corgan) and movie stars (Bill Murray, John Cusack, Charlie Sheen) and LeBron James’ Cavaliers into the same spot off Lake Erie? It had been 39,466 days since the Cubs won the 1908 World Series, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and 24,859 days since the Indians won the 1948 World Series.
So what’s another 17-minute rain delay after waiting more than a century?
Hoyer actually described it as “divine intervention,” because the Cubs had been four outs away from their coronation when manager Joe Maddon walked out toward the mound and took the ball from Jon Lester, a $155 million middle reliever in this winner-take-all thriller. In came Aroldis Chapman, the high-speed, high-maintenance rental closer who began to change his reputation by getting 12 outs and throwing 62 pitches in Games 5 and 6 combined.
But that effort appeared to sap Chapman, who threw 14 straight fastballs to Brandon Guyer and Rajai Davis, with only one above 100 mph. Guyer’s RBI double made it 6-4 before Davis smashed another fastball onto the left-field patio just inside the foul pole for a game-tying two-run homer in the eighth inning.
The Indians wouldn’t just roll over, not with a Cy Young Award winner pitching three times in nine days (Corey Kluber), a bullpen that blew up the idea of conventional usage and a future Hall of Fame manager in Terry Francona. The Indians notched 94 wins and then contained two explosive offenses to get here, sweeping the Boston Red Sox, eliminating the Toronto Blue Jays in five games and running out to a 3-1 lead in the World Series.
No team had come back from that deficit since the 1985 Kansas City Royals, but there was nothing fluky or random about this. Theo Epstein’s front office built the best team in baseball, an Ivy League graduate acing clubhouse chemistry with a mixture of bonus babies, big-money free agents and players overlooked or undervalued in other organizations.
Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” press conference on Oct. 25, 2011 – when the Cubs put his name up in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee – would essentially become the Before and After points in franchise history.
On his last night as a big-league player, David Ross brought out a Game 7 lineup card that featured seven players between the ages of 22 and 27, plus Kyle Hendricks (26), this year’s ERA leader, as the starting pitcher, a dazzling array of young talent.
“It felt like June, May, the way that guys conducted themselves before the game,” said Ben Zobrist, who would become the World Series MVP. “Very similar, very light-hearted, everybody just going about their business, talking the game with each other.
“That, to me, said, you know what, this team’s fine. We’re going to let the talent and the ability take over and stay focused, because no one in here is treating this situation any different than we have all year. And that’s how championships are won.”
Though it remained a pop-culture shorthand and the backdrop to all those TV postcards from Wrigleyville, the Cubs killed that “Lovable Loser” image years ago, with the 2003 team in particular raising the bar after finishing five agonizing outs away from the World Series.
The Cubs finally did it with a hipster manager who enjoys drinking red wine and eating dark chocolate after games, never losing his cool in front of reporters or getting defensive about the second-guessing over how he handled Chapman. Instead of panicking in the face of all this pressure or pretending those immense expectations didn’t exist, Maddon set the tone with “Embrace The Target” T-shirts that literally put bull’s-eyes on their chest.
That’s how Maddon rolls, turning spring training and road trips into made-for-social-media moments, welcoming zoo animals, mimes, magicians and pajama parties. No, the players didn’t universally love all these stunts, but Hollywood couldn’t have invented a better ringmaster for this circus.
For all of Maddon’s camera-friendly charm, the groovy manager still believes in old-school concepts, the hard-hat lessons he learned while growing up in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region. Maddon just gives it a verbal flourish, from “Respect 90” to “the relentless execution of fundamentals and technique.”
Above all, the 2016 team created an environment where you could be yourself and make mistakes and move on from the wacky stuff that usually spelled Cubbie doom. Like Javier Baez committing two careless errors at second base and then leading off the fifth inning by driving a Kluber slider over the centerfield wall and knocking out Cleveland’s No. 1 starter.
Or Lester’s wild pitch bouncing into the dirt and ricocheting off Ross’ mask out toward the on-deck circle and allowing the Indians to score two runs in the fifth inning. “Grandpa Rossy” shook it off and drilled Andrew Miller’s 94-mph fastball out to center field in the sixth inning, touching home plate and bumping crotches with Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler on his way back into the dugout.
So by the time that storm rolled into Cleveland, the Cubs needed that break to regroup and reset a 6-6 game heading into the 10th inning. Kyle Schwarber walked to home plate less than seven months removed from reconstructive surgery on his left knee. The man-child they call “Schwarbs” singled off Bryan Shaw through the shift into right field and the Cubs were off once again.
With pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr. on second base, the Indians intentionally walked Anthony Rizzo to get to Zobrist, who knocked an RBI double down the left-field line for the go-ahead run. Third catcher Miguel Montero – who wondered if he would get released this summer – added the insurance run the Cubs needed with an RBI single to make it 8-6.
In the end, this team wore down the Indians and the rest of Major League Baseball, the fans singing “Go, Cubs, Go!” on a wacky, rainy, totally unforgettable night in Cleveland, where no one believes in curses anymore.
“We killed it,” Montero said. “It’s done. It’s over.”
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