The text messages were still coming more than twelve hours after I watched Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo stuff the baseball into his left rear pocket. An instant earlier, third baseman Kris Bryant fielded a weak ground ball near the mound, then tossed it to Rizzo for the final out of the 2016 World Series. The two embraced briefly before fusing together with the rest of their team in arguably the most emotional — and meaningful — championship celebration in history. 108 years of pain and suffering in the Windy City was over; the Cubs were champions of the world for the first time since 1908.
But the pinging that had rattled my phone constantly since the first pitch of NLDS — and that which I expected to mark the death of the curse and its billy goat mascot — suddenly fell eerily silent as the final out was recorded. What was everyone doing, I wondered? I imagined my 84-year-old father’s eyes, squinting as they do when happiness clutches him with both arms; the embrace of my sister Michele and her son Peter, who loves and considers and frets over sports more than anyone I’ve ever known; the tears of my brother Mike, whose mercurial ability to watch the series was dictated by the score, the result of three decades of heartbreak; and despite his utter exhaustion, I thought of my brother Dan toasting the Cubs and hugging both friend and stranger — anyone within reach.
Ten minutes later, the dam finally broke.
“They did it. They really did it.”
“… the most incredible season, NLDS, NLCS, World Series and Game 7 I’ve ever seen.”
“Uncle Mike, can you believe it?”
“One of the most incredible things I’ve ever watched.”
“Would have given anything to be there, or in Chicago. Electric!”
“IT’S FINALLY OVER. THEY’VE DONE IT!”
Reading from my phone, I could hear the quiver in their voices and see the tears streaming down their elated faces. It was over. Finally. Within our lifetimes, the Cubs had won the World Series.
When Rizzo jammed the ball into his pocket, he snuffed out a flame of Cubs disappointment that had burned since 1908, the last time the club won a world championship. To lend perspective, Cleveland Indians fans, who have been waiting since 1948 — 68 years — for a World Series title, would have to throw their torn ticket stubs to the concrete for another forty years before they could fully know the pain of being a Cubs fan. By then, Cubs catcher David Ross will be about to celebrate his 80th birthday.
There are, I’ve noticed, three things that the average man thinks he can do better than anyone else: drive a car, build a fire, and manage a baseball team. When Cubs manager Joe Maddon used closer Aroldis Chapman to get the final out of the seventh inning in Game 6 — with a 6-run lead and just two days after the Cuban flame thrower used 42 pitches to preserve a 3-2 win in Game 5 — the glossy view of Maddon held by Cubs fans had instantly tarnished. As the loquacious and unathletic Joe Buck argued against the move from the Fox broadcast booth, Cubs fans everywhere — including those connected, via text, to my cell phone — railed against the light-hearted savior that Theo Epstein had hired away from Rays in 2015.
“Chapman just threw two days ago.”
“If the rest of your bullpen cant hold a 6-run lead, they don’t belong in the Majors.”
“Chapman never throws in games like this.”
All true. Especially the last one. In fact, the one thing that that Aroldis Chapman, Joe Maddon, and all the Cubs fans who had suddenly turned on their manager had in common was the fact that none of them — not a single one — had ever been this close to a World Series championship.
With Mike Montgomery on the mound, the seventh inning did indeed start with a 6-run lead. But after a laser beam was caught in centerfield, a walk, a flyout and a single to right, the Indians were beginning to build momentum — a swing away from cutting the lead in half. Instead of making any change, Maddon, went for the hammer: Aroldis Chapman, who recorded four outs, killed the Tribe’s momentum, and gave the offense time to add two more runs to pad their lead. I, for one, was grateful that Joe wasn’t screwing around when — let’s tell the truth — all Cubs fans were growing just a bit uneasy.
The ground ball to Bryant was hit so weakly, one must remember that it was actually hit by a grown man. An easy play for a Big Leaguer, right? However, Bryant, who charged the ball aggressively, slipped on the wet grass as he prepared to throw the ball to Rizzo, an event that went unnoticed by some. Of course, Bryant threw a strike to Rizzo that ended the game, but throwing from poor footing often results in the ball flying past its target. Had that happened, the Indians would have tied the game, and been left hitting probably with the winning run on second base. The point is this: winning is hard — really hard — even when the rest of us think it’s a piece of cake.
That’s why Maddon called on Chapman for a third time in four days. The most dominant arm in Major League Baseball was still throwing fastballs north of 100 MPH when Rajai Davis homered to tie Game 7 in the bottom of ninth. Perhaps the question is not whether Chapman had a good fastball — he clearly did — but why he threw Davis seven straight heaters, never once giving an adrenaline-high Major League hitter another pitch to worry about. The overpowering left-hander has a good breaking ball that he can throw for strikes. Why not show it, at least?
“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
The Chicago Cubs had lost for 52 straight years when Harper Lee wrote those words in 1960. Only a handful of men know what it’s like to manage in the World Series. Fewer know what it’s like to manage in Game 7. But only one man knows what it’s like to manage a team to a Game 7 victory, on the road, after 108 years of Chicago Cubs futility. 56 years after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Joe Maddon was not only wearing his own skin, but that of legions of Cubs fans who’d spent their entire lives praying for a World Series championship. The Cubs manager knew his team better than any of us ever could. He was the one in the dugout, in the clubhouse, and in one-on-one conversations with the players he had spent a year or two grooming for this moment. Who are we to pretend we’re in the trenches with him? Who are we to condemn Joe Maddon for making the decisions that brought the city of Chicago, and the fans who questioned him, their first World Series title in more than a century?
Shame on us.
At this point, there are really only two things left to say to Joe Maddon: First, thank you, sir. Thank you for being everything we hoped you would be; for creating a culture of belief (aided heavily by the deep, deep pockets of Tom Ricketts), and allowing us to finally stab that damn goat through the neck.
And second, why in the hell did you give Javier Baez the squeeze sign with a 3-2 count?
© Chris Sperry, Baseball/Life, LLC