CHICAGO — John Rizzo put his hands on his son Anthony’s shoulders and screamed “Unbelievable!” The Cubs had just eliminated the 100-win Cardinals with a 6–4 Game 4 win; Anthony had hit a home run. (“He’s a good boy,” John said.) And on the subject of unbelievable, we should clarify:
This was not unbelievable.
Heck, Anthony Rizzo predicted something like it publicly in January, when he said the Cubs would win the National League Central. They didn’t win it, but they are heading to the National League Championship Series as the only team left from their division in the playoffs out of the three who entered the postseason.
“Everybody said he was nuts,” John said. “But here we are.”
Here they were, pounding the Cardinals' pitching and generally acting like the Cubs can win the World Series, which was never my interpretation of the Constitution. It’s been 107 years, you know. The Cubs haven’t even played in the World Series since 1945.
The Cubs know about the history. Some know the dirty details. As Rizzo said Tuesday night, “This organization’s never won when we were down 0-1. We’ve never clinched at home. We’re doing things that we shouldn’t be doing this year. But we’re having a great time. These fans deserve it.”
So yeah, they know. Caring is another matter. They have not talked about the drought all year.
“Nope, never,” catcher David Ross said. “We’re trying to win baseball games. I’m not worried about what happened last year or 10 years ago or 100 years ago. I’m here to win ball games. Whatever the history is … it doesn’t matter who was sitting down the leftfield foul pole. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Ross stood just a short throw from where fan Steve Bartman reached for that Marlins foul ball in 2003. Bartman didn’t cost the Cubs the game, but how they reacted to it did; they melted down. It was one of many signs over the years that even when the Cubs were good enough, the pressure of fighting history would overwhelm them.
On the field after Game 4, owner Tom Ricketts said he had been choked up the last couple of days, seeing all the ‘W’ flags around town, feeling the North Side passion that has built up for more than a century.
“This is going to be a great run,” Ricketts said. “We’re going to go all the way.”
As he spoke, the video board in leftfield showed his players spraying champagne all over each other in the clubhouse. In many ways, it was a scene that Chicago never thought it would see.
Kerry Wood threw out the first pitch of Game 4. He was once a symbol of the Cubs’ promise, and then a symbol of that lost promise, thanks mostly to injuries. When Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros in May of 1998, as a 20-year-old, he looked like the next Hall of Fame pitcher from Texas—his generation’s Roger Clemens.
To understand how far the Cubs have come: Attendance at Wrigley on that 1998 day was 15,758. These days, the Cubs could draw that many people to an opening of a new team store.
There used to be a few T-shirt vendors outside Wrigley selling 'WE GOT WOOD' t-shirts to celebrate their ace. These days you can’t walk 10 feet outside Wrigley without somebody hawking something to celebrate all the new stars.
The Cubs used to be America’s lovable losers, failing with spectacular charm. You used to sit at Wrigley, drink a few Old Style beers and understand that the ‘W’ flag probably wouldn’t fly that day. You hoped that maybe the wind would be blowing out and somebody would hit a home run onto Waveland or Sheffield Avenues.
Old Style is a Chicago beer. It is to Chicago what Iron City is to Pittsburgh. When you drink it, you can feel the wind off Lake Michigan and smell the unmistakable scent of political corruption. For decades, it was part of the Wrigley atmosphere.
Now … well, the Cubs signed a licensing deal with St. Louis’s own Budweiser, which is why the bleachers are now the Budweiser Bleachers, there are no Old Style signs anywhere, and it’s virtually impossible to find an Old Style beer anywhere in the park.
Under Ricketts, the Cubs are operating like the big business they are. They are monetizing everything, using the latest technology, hiring smart people, and trying to build a dynasty. Part of Wrigley’s charm is that it’s in a neighborhood where you would never build a ballpark today. When the Cubs started playing night games in 1988, many nearby residents objected, and in the last decade or two there have been fights over the rooftop seats across the street.
The new video boards are controversial too, and they are just the beginning of what the Cubs call the 1060 Project, for 1060 W. Addison, the park’s address. The Cubs are building a new clubhouse to replace the current one, which is basically a walk-in closet. The bullpens will no longer be along the baselines. The Cubs also plan to build new offices and a hotel.
Ricketts showed he was serious about winning when he hired Theo Epstein, arguably the best executive in baseball, away from the Red Sox. It was the kind of smart, expensive move that the Cubs should have made all those years but never did. How many fans of other teams would trade their whole major-league roster for Epstein right now?
“You have to think about how what you do today is going to affect you next year and the year after and the year after,” Ricketts said. “Theo sees the battlefield better than anybody in baseball.”
The Cubs are no longer a quaint Chicago story, and you can forget about any crowds of 15,758 for a long time yet. They are on their way to becoming a powerhouse like the Red Sox or the Yankees. The longtime practice of flying a ‘W’ flag outside Wrigley after wins has become #FlyTheW.
The Cubs could still lose in these playoffs, and it is possible (though extremely unlikely) that the team will fall apart next year. But that lovable-loser label is gone forever. Under Ricketts, the Cubs are doing everything a big-market team should do to win a championship. Rizzo’s bold prediction should not have surprised anybody: This is who the Cubs are now.
When do you start believing the impossible is inevitable? Some people believed it when he hired Epstein four years ago. Even more believed it when the Cubs hired one of baseball’s best managers, Joe Maddon, last winter.
For a Cubs fan named Mike Bryant, the moment came on July 27 of this year. The Cubs blew a 7–4 lead in the ninth inning against Colorado; they trailed, 9-8, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Chicago was one out away from losing for the fifth time in six days and falling 12 1/2 games behind the Cardinals.
But Mike’s son Kris was at the plate. He hit a walk-off two-run homer. Mike Bryant believed.
His son believed before that. Many Cubs are so young that they don’t know what it means to suffer on the major league level. They don’t have scars. It takes the veterans to appreciate what is happening here. Backup catcher Ross is literally a graybeard, a 38-year-old who doesn’t hide the baseball truth about himself: “I am old.” Recently, he heard the theme song from the TV show “Green Acres” on a ballpark sound system. He was humming along. So was the umpire. Nobody else on his team seemed to know it.
“You know, it’s like … time passes by,” Ross said. “Times change and … Rizz!”
Rizzo turned around and smiled. There seemed to be no reason for Ross to call for his young teammate in that moment, except that he wanted to see him.
Ace Jake Arrieta, who took years to figure out how to use his impressive natural talent, says his young teammates “make it look way easier than it is … it’s so hard to be good at this game, and to be good on a consistent basis is even harder.”
To the victors go the on-field interviews, and there was Maddon, the last Cub on the field after the initial celebration. In the Cardinals’ dugout, manager Mike Matheny waited until his players were all in the clubhouse before joining them. Three games separated these teams in the regular season. They felt worlds apart after the final out of Game 4.
Ricketts said that everybody who was in Wrigley Field on Tuesday will always remember it. He is right, because it’s the beginning. Cardinals fans won’t always remember a clinching win in the Divisional Series. Not anymore. They have been frying bigger fish for years.
If there were a moment in Game 4 when these Cubs arrived, in full, it came in the seventh inning. Leftfielder Kyle Schwarber drilled a shot toward the new video board in rightfield, the one with the Budweiser ad above it. It takes some time to get used to video boards in Wrigley, but honestly, it doesn’t take long. Wrigley still feels like Wrigley. Everybody in the stands checks their phones during the game anyway—it’s not like anybody goes nine innings without using modern technology.
Schwarber’s home run kept rising. It cleared the new videoboard and landed on Sheffield Avenue, a welcome addition to the old neighborhood.