Any team can have a bad century.
Jack Brickhouse, former Chicago Cubs WGN radio announcer
It had been a long dry spell, a very, very long dry spell. One hundred and eight years to be exact. One hundred and eight years since the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series. One hundred and eight years of many really bad teams. One hundred and eight years of good teams that never quite made it. One hundred and eight years of “just wait until next year.” One hundred and eight years of disappointment with moments of profound heartbreak thrown in for good measure. But as former Cubs WGN radio announcer Jack Brickhouse famously commented, “Any team can have a bad century.”
Just during my lifetime alone, there is the 1969 team which counted four future hall-of-famers on its roster and lost an 8-1/2 game lead in August to the Miracle Mets. As a 13-year-old who worshiped the team’s third baseman Ron Santo and loved the Cubs, them collapsing at the end of the season was devastating. Even today, some 47 years later, I still cannot read or watch anything about that team and their monumental breakdown.
The next moment of extreme disappointment came in 1984 when, after a number of years of hapless results with a few competitive years to keep it interesting, the Cubs held a 2–0 lead in the best-of-five series with the San Diego Padres in the National League Championship Series (NLCS), only to lose three straight games and once again come up short of a World Series appearance. I remember getting a call from my brother-in-law after the Cubs had lost the series and him making a choking sound on the other in of the line. Five years later it would be another California team, the San Francisco Giants, which would just about sweep the Cubs out of the NLCS, four games to one.
The team’s next shot at a World Series berth was in 2003 when the Cubs would blow a 3-1 series advantage over the Florida Marlins in the NCLS and once again go home early. If you will recall, Game 6 of this series is now known as the “Bartman Game,” after an unfortunate fan named Steve Bartman who inadvertently interfered with a foul ball down the left field line, thus apparently “causing” the Cubs to lose a 3-0 lead with only five outs remaining in the game, and then to subsequently drop Game 7 as well. At least that is what some Cubs fans would have you believe. I was at both Games 6 and 7 and remember the utter shock of them losing Game 6 in particular. To be cruising as they were, to be up as they were, it was a given that they were going to win the game and go to the World Series and I was going to be there to witness the pure exuberance of that moment. But it was not to be. As I exited the park after the game a local TV crew asked me what I was feeling at that moment. I did not say a word, but instead simply slowly shook my head from side to side and just kept walking.
Fast forward to the 2015 season and a young Cubs team that once again made it to the NLCS, but once again came up short, being swept by the New York Mets. However, there was something different about this team. They were not supposed to be in this position given the team’s rebuilding program, but someone forgot to tell the players that they were not supposed to win yet. Like young, unbridled horses they just wanted to run, and run they did from start to finish in the historical 2016 season.
There will not be a 109th year without a title, because as you very likely know unless you have been in a coma, running radio silent deep in a jungle, or really do not like sports, at exactly 12:30 a.m. EST on November 3, 2016, the Chicago Cubs ended a 108-year drought and became World Series Champions. Laura and I were there in Cleveland for that blessed event sitting about 25 rows behind the Cubs dugout and alternating between screaming wildly and wiping tears out of our eyes after the last out.
I had waited 50 years for this day, ever since the Cubs became my team at age 10 when I was playing little league baseball during the summer in Chenoa. For most who live in central Illinois you either root for the Cubs, the St. Louis Cardinals or the other Chicago baseball team. My team of choice was the Cubs, primarily because I could watch them on Sunday afternoons on WCIA and listen to play-by-play of their games by Jack Brickhouse on WGN radio. Many of my Sundays were spent lying on the floor of our farmhouse outside of Chenoa and scoring their games using a scorecard that I had drawn out and then had my father copy.
At the same time that I started following the team, I also adopted the Cubs Ron Santo as my favorite ballplayer because he was a perennial all-star, and like Santo, I played third base. My admiration for him would not diminish with the years and I always enjoyed listening to him and Pat Hughes call Cubs games together on WGN up until Santo’s death in 2010. Over the years I have acquired over 600 pieces of Santo memorabilia, and when he died, I attended both his visitation and then his funeral service the next day. Laura, Claire and I were also in attendance when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York a little over a year after his death.
Yes, for me it has pretty much been a lifelong love affair with the Cubs and its players. Since I lived in the Chicagoland area for 25 years before we launched on this odyssey, I was able to get to many games, including numerous opening days. For the 15 openers prior to leaving Chicago, I was always there for the first pitch with the same two friends toasting the beginning of a new season with an Old Style beer and loudly proclaiming that, “This is the year!” As noted, I did not get to attend opening day at Wrigley this year, but Laura and I were in Arizona visiting Jim Kelleher, a childhood friend from Chenoa, and his wife, Jean, and were able to catch the Cubs spring training opener at their home field, Sloan Park. While I did not have my usual opening day beverage, Old Style, we did get to see the Cubs win the game and after the last out I was once again able to exclaim, “This is the year!” Little did I know at that time just how prophetic this refrain would finally be.
Depending on how one looks at it, it is either a gift or a curse that I passed along my love of baseball and the Cubs to my daughter, Claire, who attended her first game at Wrigley Field when she was four months old, some 26 years ago. I still remember holding her up above my head and swaying back and forth during the seventh inning stretch while singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and later learning that we had been on WGN and that folks in Chenoa had called my mother to tell her that her son and granddaughter were on TV. Claire and I have gone to many games at Wrigley since that first one, always grabbing a hotdog and a soft drink or beer, and then sitting and watching the game, and hopefully seeing the Cubs win, but win or lose, always sharing a very special time together. Just as we did this last season when the day after she and Kyle were married, we hosted 100 of the wedding guests at a Cubs game. Yes, if the Cubs were to make it to the World Series, I knew that I would want to share the experience with Claire and Kyle, and of course, Laura.
* * *
As the baseball season drew to a close, we planned our travels around the possibility that the Cubs might actually make it to the World Series and that we had to be back in Chicago if that were to occur. I also knew that if they were to make it to the “Big Show,” that I wanted to be there if they won it all. As it turned out, we watched them clinch the National League pennant in a campground in Kansas as we made our way back to the Midwest from Colorado. Late in this game, I started looking for tickets for Games 4 and 5 at Wrigley, and then Games 6 and 7 in Cleveland. The tickets were easy to find on internet ticket sites, but far from cheap. I figured that when you amortized the cost of the tickets over the 50 years that I had been waiting for the Cubs to get to the World Series, then the price tag was more palatable. When I told Claire that we wanted to take her and Kyle to Game 4, but that her future inheritance would be less as a result, she thanked me and said that she and Kyle would repay us with grandchildren. I also told Kyle, who grew up in Ohio and is an Indians fan, that he could attend the game under one condition: he could not wear any Indians attire. He honored my request, but good naturedly did sport a red Chicago Blackhawks hat to show support for his Tribe.
Even though I know better, I like to think that it was really the mustard that I dropped on my pants that won the World Series for the Cubs. More on that later…
We did not go to Games 1, 2 or 3 of the World Series, but were back in the Midwest when they were played. The important thing for us was to be back in the Chicago area by the time that Game 4 rolled around, as we were going to that one. So we listened to the Cubs lose the first game on the radio, and then at my brother Tim’s farm watched them win the second game. Not a bad start to get out of Cleveland with a split and go back to Chicago for a three-game series. But Game 3 would not turn out well for the Cubs as they failed to score a run and wasted strong pitching performances by Kyle Hendricks and the bullpen. In Michigan by this time, Laura and I sat in Charley and listened to the game on the radio, since we could not get it on TV. For the last couple of innings we turned off the lights and listened in the dark. It took me back to times on the farm when I was supposed to be asleep, but would lie in bed and listen to Jack Brickhouse call Cubs games on my transistor radio.
As we walked the mile and a half from Claire and Kyle’s apartment to Wrigley Field for Game 4, we passed one window after another that had a “Fly the W” sign in it. The closer that we got to the park we also started to see more and more Cubs fans coming down every side street and primary avenue headed toward Wrigley. It was like many small streams flowing into a great river that was pooling at the corner of Clark and Addison. And then we were in the mass of blue looking up at the red marquee above the main entrance that read: “Indians VS. Cubs, World Series Game 4/7:00 PM.” All around us people moved, most in some shade of blue, but many others in other strange outfits like the two men dressed as ghostly, turn-of-the century, Cubs baseball players; and a guy dressed like the Pope. Being down 2-1 in the series, we would take all of the help that we could get.
As it turned out, the Pontiff was not much assistance and the Cubs dropped Game 4, 7-2, and were now behind in the series 3-1 and facing elimination in Game 5. Regardless, it was somewhat surreal just being there and seeing “World Series” constantly scrolling on the scoreboards and the Cubs announcer actually saying “World Series” over the PA system. In my own case, it had been a 50-year wait and the Cubs were finally in a World Series and I was at a bona fide World Series game with my wife, daughter, and at this juncture, pretty darn happy son-in-law. I will say this about Kyle, in deference to myself and the other Cubs fans in our section, he was really quite restrained in his rooting for the Indians.
Game 5 is where the mustard turned the whole thing around. You see, before the game started I had gotten myself a bratwurst onto which I slathered a large amount of bright yellow mustard. Back in my seat I took a big bite and felt something plop onto my right knee. I attempted to wipe the mustard off of my jeans, but it was going to take more than water and a napkin to remove the resulting yellow stain. In the game the Cubs came back from a 1-0 deficit to win 3-2 on the hitting of Kris Bryant and the strong pitching of John Lester and reliever, Aroldis Chapman. How incredible to be there and to see the Cubs get the win. To cheer loudly, to clap and to high-five. I do not think we sat down after the sixth inning. I’m not generally a superstitious guy, but clearly the mustard on my pants had something to do with the Cubs win. It was the Cubs first World Series victory at Wrigley Field since 1945, and the boys were going back to Cleveland trailing the Indians three games to two, but still alive in this thing for at least one more game, and we planned to be there for it.
* * *
Early the morning of November 1st we left for Cleveland and Game 6, and hopefully Game 7, of the World Series. Since we had attended Games 4 and 5 at Wrigley Field, we wondered how the experience might be different at Progressive Field in Cleveland. We stopped at a rest area about 60 miles from Cleveland and were surprised to see many cars filled with fans wearing Cubbie blue. This would not be your typical road game.
As you now know, the Cubs won Game 6 quite handedly outscoring the Indians 9-3. It somewhat surprised me how many Cubs fans were in attendance. For the games at Wrigley, Cleveland fans were only marginally represented. Here, there were Cubs fans everywhere, including around where we were seated in the lower level just beyond first base. Consequently, it was easy to find someone with whom to “high-five” or clasp a hand when the Cubs scored or made an important out. Given what transpired in the game, there were plenty of opportunities to celebrate for Cubs fans. And of course, the mustard came through again, as I bought another bratwurst adorned with mustard and then proceeded to dab some on my right knee to go along with the mustard that was deposited in the same location by accident at Game 5. Again, I do not consider myself terribly superstitious, but still…. We hung around a bit after the game, just wishing to stay in the moment and left the park after midnight.
The best word to describe Game 7 is…well, raucous. Yes, raucous. Granted, it was incredibly exciting, and well played, and nerve racking, and emotional, and stressful, and, well, there are many other adjectives that fit the bill, but first and foremost, Game 7 was raucous. It seemed that almost half of the crowd were Cubs fans, and in fact, StubHub, the online ticket site, said that around 80% of the tickets sold for this game went to buyers in the Chicagoland area. Walking though the main bar area near the park before the game it appeared that Cubs fans actually outnumbered their Indian counterparts. One Cubs fan was holding a sign where he had crossed out Progressive Field and written in, “Wrigley Field East.”
During the entire game we only sat down between innings and hung on every pitch. Cubs fans brazenly started chanting, “Let’s Go Cubbies!” one time after another throughout the entire game, which was answered just as vocally by Indians fans yelling back, “Let’s Go Tribe! Let’s Go Tribe!” Back and forth we went until the chants would die out only to be started up again a short time later. It was like being at a high school basketball game between two arch rivals in a small gym, only on a much, much larger scale. Both sets of fans wanted it so very badly. It was as if each of the fan bases thought their cheers could push their particular team to victory.
On it went, back and forth, with almost everyone in the stadium on their feet, with the Cubs fans having more to cheer about through 7-2/3 innings and the Cubs up 5-3. Then the Indians delivered a right cross in the form of a two-run homer that tied the score and put the Cubs flat on the canvas. The stadium literally shook from the Indians fans stomping their feet, and the reverberated screaming and wild clapping was deafening. It was a devastating blow not only to the Cubs, but to the fans as well. But that young team got back up and would not quit. A somewhat surprising thing happened with the fans as well. Unlike in prior years, we did not give up on the team or their chances of winning. I remember saying, “Hey, it’s only tied, why not us?!” A bit later the game was stopped because of rain, and when play subsequently resumed, the chanting started anew, “Let’s Go Cubbies! Let’s Go Cubbies!” Then, with the Cubs leading 8-7 with two outs in the bottom of the tenth inning, a slow roller was hit to Kris Bryant at third, who cleanly fielded the ball and smiled as he threw it to Anthony Rizzo at first base for the final out. It was then the Cubs fans turn to scream, clap wildly and stomp their feet. I did all of the above, and cried as well.
After the last out we worked our way down to within a few rows behind the Cubs dugout to watch the celebration taking place on the field. Laura and I climbed up and stood in seats to see better and slowly moved our gaze across the field and around the stadium. The field and the lower level of the stadium were a sea of blue. A moment later Claire called and it was so wonderful sharing this with her. I also received a call from one of my oldest friends and lifelong Cubs fan, as well, Marshall Johnson, and about all each of us could muster was, “Can you believe it?! Can you believe it?!”
As we took it all in, I noticed a boy of about 10 years of age standing with his father. Both were wearing Cubs jerseys and hats, and it occurred to me that this young boy would already know the Cubs as World Series Champions. And because the Cubs pulled out Game 7, he would only think of the experience fondly and not have to block it out of his mind like I did I still did the ‘69 Cubs.
Oh, and no, I did not forget about the necessity to “spill” mustard on my unwashed jeans. Before the game began I purchased the requisite bratwurst with yellow mustard, and dabbed it on five different places on my right knee. I also wore the same unwashed Cubs t-shirt, long-sleeved t-shirt and Cubs hat that I had worn for the Cubs wins in Games 5 and 6. You’re welcome, Cubs Nation.
We were shooed out of the park at two o’clock in the morning by a Cleveland police officer and walked to our car in a steady rain. Knowing that win or lose I would not be able to sleep, we got in the car and I started driving while Laura slept. On the radio I searched for coverage of the game and found that I could actually pick up WGN with a signal that faded in and out as I drove west. After a few stops along the way, we arrived back at our Michigan rental home at 7:30 a.m. There would be no sleep on this day as I sat in front of the TV switching from one show to the next watching as much World Series coverage as I could find.
On the Friday after the game the city of Chicago hosted one of the largest victory celebrations ever, with some estimates putting the attending crowd at around five million people. Laura and I took the train into the city from Michigan to attend the festivities, but when Laura saw the crowd, she caught the next train back. Way too many people. I stood in the mass of blue near the parade route and when the team buses finally passed, I walked to the L and headed north to Wrigley Field to meet up with Claire. We both hugged each other and looked up at the red marquee on Wrigley that simply read: “World Series Champions.” Walking down Clark Street we found a dive bar near the park and toasted the Cubs World Series Title, Ernie and Ronnie and the other Cubs who never saw this, and my 50 years of waiting for this moment, with the perfect beverage, an ice cold Old Style beer. There would be no more, “wait until next year.”
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THE CUBS WIN IT ALL!!! FINALLY!!!