No fear: Young, confident Cubs ready to face once-elusive World Series head on
- After a 71-year drought, the Cubs are, at last, back in the Fall Classic. A bigger hurdle awaits, but this young Chicago team has just the right mix of talent and spunk to make its fans believe.
CHICAGO—It sounded as you might imagine the end of a 71-year exorcism would sound: A purifying squall of noise, something raw, sultry and purgative, rising from deep inside the 42,386 people at Wrigley Field as their Saturday night turned into their wildest dream. A ground ball to shortstop, a brisk double play, and at 9:43 p.m. CT the Chicago Cubs were National League champions, delivered to the World Series for the first time since 1945. No team in the four major North American sports had gone longer without an appearance in a championship game or series. So here came the roar. Those generational burdens of agony or sadness or cynicism were gone.
At last, instead of dreading what was next, the Cubs and their fans would raise a toast to it.
“We’ll enjoy tonight, don’t get me wrong,” said pitcher Jon Lester, as teammates raised trophies behind him after a 5–0 win over the Dodgers in Game 6 of the league championship series. “We’ll have a celebration. We’ll smile. We’ll hug each other. Probably get drunk a little bit. Along with all these other people here, we’ll have a good time. But we got some work to do.”
That prospect has never sounded more tantalizing on this city’s north side. The plan to rebuild the franchise—shrewdly stockpile talent, supplement that with the occasional well-conceived free-agent splurge, and ultimately bring in a spectacled mystic of a manager to tie the whole thing together—has been a spectacular success. The 103 regular-season wins this year and the forthcoming collision with another historically afflicted team, the American League champion Cleveland Indians, confirm that. But what Saturday night underlined, maybe more than any other night in the existence of this team, was how confidently the Cubs and their long-tormented followers can welcome the future. Because there’s really no differentiating it from the now.
The lineup Joe Maddon deployed to erase seven decades of hurt—when dealing with a 108-year title drought, first things first—featured just two players north of 27 years old and five players 24 or younger. A 26-year-old starting pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, took an X-ACTO knife to the Dodgers’ lineup, allowing a hit on his first pitch and then going seven-plus innings before allowing another one, a stunning display of precision and execution given the stakes. Of the Cubs’ five runs, three were driven in by a 20-something. Anthony Rizzo, the 27-year-old cornerstone of the entire Chicago rebuilding project, raked Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw for a double and then a fifth-inning home run that had the stadium literally shaking and effectively served as the closing statement on this series. And 23-year-old glove wizard Javy Baez shared NLCS co-MVP honors with Lester after hitting .318 while amassing four doubles and five RBI and countless devotees over these six games.
It was Baez, minutes before the first pitch, who caught sight of himself on the left field big screen and was in such a solemnly competitive trance that he began pumping his right arm up and down to stoke the crowd, complementing it with a goofy smile that left Kris Bryant, a 24-year-old who may be the regular season MVP, shaking his head. It was Baez who set a tone with a tag-and-throw first-inning double play, and it was Baez messing with Rizzo on a popout in the fifth inning, because that is what preposterously loose and confident 20-somethings do. As for preposterously loose and confident and talented 20-somethings? They think they’re invincible, and they start to convince you of it by making the World Series. “You look from Baez to (Willson) Contreras to (Addison) Russell to (Albert) Almora,” Maddon said. “I mean, that could be somebody's Triple-A team there just based on experience and age. I'm very proud of the fact that they're as good as they are. That's a testament to scouting and development as well as the motor, the heart, the mind of all these kids.”
Long after the final out, with teeth chattering due to two layers of clothes sodden with various adult beverages, Hendricks attempted to explain his feelings to a small batch of beaming family members on hand. “I can’t believe it,” the right-hander said on the infield dirt, as the celebration continued around him. He was sincere but also less than convincing; it was, indeed, perhaps his only bad pitch of the night. Outfoxing Kershaw, and limiting the Dodgers to those two measly hits while striking out six and walking none? This is totally believable for Hendricks, the 2016 NL leader with a 2.13 ERA, and by extension the club he helped move one step closer to a title.
“He’s as well prepared and as poised as anybody in baseball,” said Jake Arrieta, the staff’s Cy Young winner of 2015. “You put those two things together and you get a guy like that. This guy can dominate and dissect a lineup.”
It is always about what’s next with the Cubs. But reminders are everywhere that what’s next is something to wonder at, and cower from no longer. There is the lineup that shoved its way into the World Series. There are the recent contract extensions doled out to the front office that ensure the architects of the plan remain in place. There was the ninth-inning foul ball that landed near the infamous Steve Bartman seat—only meaninglessly and harmlessly 13 years later. There is even the scaffolding and construction equipment dominating the landscape at Clark and Addison, with new office buildings and hotels transforming the area.
Some Wrigleyvillians may not appreciate the facelift, but it’s only fitting for the way this franchise now operates: Progress will come, loudly and inexorably, like it or not. “There was an era when this ballpark was the most beautiful ballpark in baseball,” owner Tom Ricketts said on the field after the win. “There was an era when [the Cubs] went to the World Series every couple years. There was an era when the Cubs were one of the dominant teams. We want to get back to that consistency. And do whatever we can to restore the glory.”
This moment, Ricketts went on to say, was payback for the fans that waited interminably on the restoration. There he was in the middle of Game 6, taking a lap along the upper concourse, high-fiving any ticket-holder with a hand held up. Nobody was worried, he said. “People really believe in this team,” Ricketts said.
Hundreds of them lingered in the stands as the scoreboard clock hands passed 10 p.m., then even 11 p.m., basking in the reverie their team and their belief had wrought.
One even made his way up the dugout steps and on to the field, wide-eyed and soaking wet.
“Anthony!” cried Eddie Vedder, 51, a longtime Cubs fan from Seattle by way of Evanston, Ill., as he wrapped Rizzo in a bearhug. “Thank you! Thank you!”
The Pearl Jam frontman pinballed through the crowd, renewing acquaintances and accommodating pictures and selfies with nearly anyone who asked, reticent only when asked what he thought about what he saw unfold before that. “There’s too much to say,” Vedder declared, scooting off to revel with still more familiar faces, eventually stopping to chat with Len Kasper, the Cubs’ excellent play-by-play man, while smoking a cigarette at second base.
But before he ambled off, Vedder said just enough during one of those impromptu photo sessions, just enough for everyone who awaited this night like he did.
“This is a dream come true,” he told the folks snapping the picture. “We got four more, though.”
There is that, yes, and the ugly 108-year burden they will bring to Cleveland on Tuesday. But even beyond that, there is something so good for Cubs fans to look forward to now. Some of them came by their anguish honestly, over decades, wearing their fatalism as both a matter pride and personal misery. Some of them might have been around since last year, or April, or just over the summer once the going got good, clambering on the bandwagon as it sped to this point. But for a night, for a moment, the barroom arguments about fan strata and badges of honor didn’t matter. After the final out Saturday, they all screamed and sang and flooded the streets outside of Wrigley Field. Everyone was invited to the party.
The wait was over, and they couldn’t wait for what’s next.