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How Theo Epstein erased a century of Cubs torment in five years
2:43 | MLB
How Theo Epstein erased a century of Cubs torment in five years
Thursday November 3rd, 2016

CLEVELAND—What would you have done to see this happen? Chicago Cubs, World Series champions. Would you have sold your house? Taken a pay cut? Would you have sworn off chocolate or beer, red meat or golf? Would you endure a summer full of winter? Would you have traded a few Bulls championships or erased the memories of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cups?

Julianna Zobrist handed over her baby. She did not plan to do it. But plans changed throughout Game 7 of this World Series one of the most memorable games in the sport’s history. A Cubs-Indians World Series, impossible to imagine for so many decades, was somehow even harder to process when it actually happened. Game 7 was a murder mystery wrapped inside a Western inside a sci-fi thriller, one what-just-happened moment on top of another, and it was tied after nine innings when the rain came.

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Blaise Royal Zobrist was crying at the time. Could you fault her? It was late, she had to be tired, and who cared about history? She is one of the few people on the planet who is used to this. A year ago, her father Ben helped the Royals win their first World Series title in 30 years; that team brought her father a ring and Blaise her middle name. Now Ben was trying to help the Cubs end their 108-year drought.

This is why Ben signed with the Cubs last winter. Julianna knew that in her mind, but not in her veins. She knew the Cubs had not won in 108 years but had not read Mike Royko’s columns about it. She did not ask what-if questions about Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and never imagined Harry Caray trying to pronounce “Ben Zobrist” backwards.

She didn’t fully feel the emotional pull of the Cubs until Games 3, 4 and 5 of this Series at Wrigley Field. That is when she met a pair of 82-year-old fans who last attended a Cubs World Series game when they were 11 years old. The fans had tears in their eyes. That is when it hit Julianna—“The closest I have come to even beginning to understand it”—the way it hits anybody who has spent any time on the North Side of Chicago: Call it a curse or ineptitude or whatever you want, but this Cubs thing snakes inside you and won’t ever leave.

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Julianna used the rain delay to feed Blaise in the tunnel under the stands. A few dozen yards away, her husband was in a team meeting, listening to the club’s most disappointing player give a speech they will always remember.

But Julianna didn’t know about the meeting. She just knew she was told there would be a 30-minute rain delay and it turned out to be only 17. She looked up at a TV and saw that Kyle Schwarber was batting for the Cubs. She scrambled, gave Blaise to a friend and ran upstairs and through the concourse barefoot, with her six-inch heels and socks in her hand. When she arrived at Section 150, she did not go to her seat. She stood behind the section, which offered a perfect view down the third-base line, just as Ben stepped to the plate with two runners on base.

The World Series was tied: three games apiece, 6–6 in Game 7, one team’s history of failure locked in a death struggle against the other’s.

Ben Zobrist fell behind in the count, 1–2, to Cleveland pitcher Bryan Shaw. Ben looked back in the stands, to where Julianna was standing, and nodded. She didn’t know if he saw her, but she nodded too. He settled into the batter’s box again. The Cubs had waited 108 years to win a World Series. They needed those extra 17 minutes to do it.


Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

They don’t believe in the billy goat curse but couldn’t stop talking about it. They weren’t tormented by history but kept hearing about it. The 2016 Cubs were reminded every day that this franchise hadn’t won a World Series since 1908. There is a mental trick that everybody who plays for the Cubs must pull off: You walk into Wrigley Field and all you think about it is history, and then the first pitch is thrown and you’re supposed to forget about it.

These Cubs did not believe in this nonsense. A billy goat? Baseball gods? Oh, just throw a nasty slider and shut up.

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The first batter of Game 7, Dexter Fowler, started to put an end to all of it, with a home run off previously unhittable Cleveland ace Corey Kluber. Fowler turned down the Cubs’ $15.8 million qualifying offer last year so he could test free agency, but then, in February, decided to come back for one year and $13 million. He surprised his teammates by walking on to the field at spring training. So there was Fowler’s answer: He would take a pay cut to be a part of this.

Now, after he circled first base, Fowler turned around again to face his teammates. He jogged backward for a few steps. Then he turned again and ran toward second. The Cubs led, 1–0.

By the middle of the fifth inning, after some savvy Kris Bryant baserunning and a Javier Baez home run and shut-down pitching by Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs led the Indians, 5–1. You see? Goats, curses, Steve Bartman, 1969, whatever. Nonsense. The Cubs were going to win the World Series.

Then David Ross, who was playing in his final game, hit a home run off the previously unhittable Andrew Miller. Well, the Cubs loved attaching the word previously to unhittable pitchers.

And then the Cubs led 6–3 in the eighth, and the hardest-throwing pitcher in history, Aroldis Chapman, was on the mound. Two Indians were on base. Cleveland’s Rajai Davis was up. The Indians had their own demons to beat: no championship since 1948 and a history of losing, across all sports, that hovered over the whole city until the Cavaliers won the NBA title in June.

But Davis wasn’t thinking about history, or the World Series, or even his teammates, who had overcome a brutal string of injuries to make it here. He was thinking about one man, Chapman, and he was thinking, “I’m going to win this battle.”

He was right. Davis crushed a 97-mph fastball over the leftfield fence to tie the game, and then the world opened up for Davis again, and the sensation of running around the bases was unlike anything he had ever felt in baseball. Chapman immediately felt like he had let his team down. His teammates would console him in the dugout.

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Then came the ninth inning. The Cubs’ Jason Heyward took a lead off third base. Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who did almost everything right this season and almost everything wrong in the last game and a half, asked Baez to try a safety-squeeze bunt … with two strikes.

Baez bunted foul. He was out. If you closed your eyes, you could hear the late, great Ron Santo say “Oh, no.” The Cubs did not score. Maybe you don’t believe in curses. But it was hard to believe, in that moment, that the Cubs would win the World Series.


Here is the thing about the paranormal: Sometimes, in baseball, it’s good to believe. When you’re struggling, you can look everywhere for answers, but the simple act of looking can tie up your brain. Sometimes it’s better to just believe you see a sign. Baez is an emotional player, capable of heroic swings, and the safety squeeze would not have been his idea. As Heyward said afterward, “It’s not an easy thing to do. He was frustrated.”

This is when the rain came. Was it a sign? Well, two teams with painful histories had to sit through that rain delay. The Indians hoped it would end quickly. The Cubs used it to call a meeting. They do not hold many meetings; Maddon hates them. But Maddon was not invited to this one.

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In a weight room between the dugout and the clubhouse, Heyward assembled all of the players and reminded them: They dominated the National League all year for a reason. Forget the botched squeeze and the lost lead. Play baseball.

Anybody could have said it. It had to mean the most coming from Heyward, who signed a $184 million contract last winter and struggled beyond comprehension at the plate all year, yet never complained or dwelled on it. This was Heyward’s answer: He sacrificed some pride to see this. As he said Wednesday night, “A while ago, I kind of told myself, it’s not about me.” He did not plan to be a $184 million role player, but until he could fix his swing, he would be the best damn role player he could be.

Shortstop Addison Russell said he had tears in his eyes as Heyward spoke. He was not alone. If Heyward still believed, why wouldn’t everybody else?

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After 17 minutes, the rain delay ended, and pretty soon Julianna Zobrist was standing behind section 150, nodding at her husband. She did not know he would get one of the biggest hits in the team’s history. But she knew what it would mean if he did it.


Shaw sat in the Cleveland clubhouse, checking his phone. White uniforms hung from lockers. Players milled about. Game over, season over, nothing to say, nothing to do. Shaw did not need to see the replay. He knew exactly what happened in Zobrist’s at-bat.

“We got ahead of him. We went (inside) for a ball. Went back in for a strike. Down and away for a strike. Up and away, he fouled it off. We tried to go back up and away.”

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It was a good pitch. Shaw believed that. Someday, he will look at the replay. But he was right: It was a good pitch, a cutter that may have caught a bit of the strike zone but was basically where Shaw wanted to put it. This is important, because the Indians had the kind of season, the kind of World Series and the kind of game that deserved to end with their best effort. Shaw does not have to spend years wondering why he hung a curveball or left a fastball over the heart of the plate.

He threw a good pitch.

But Ben Zobrist is a terrific hitter.

Zobrist slapped the cutter down the third base line—Julianna could not have had a better view—and as Shaw said afterward, “it just got past” third baseman Jose Ramirez: “If it’s a foot closer to him, he fields it, steps on third, and throws it over to first, and we’re not even talking about this right now.”

The Cubs took a 7–6 lead. They tacked on another. Rajai Davis singled in a run in the 10th; Davis still believed the Indians would win, right up until the last out. But as Davis would say, “It was their turn. Their time. Unfortunately for us, their streak is over. Ours is still going on.” Cubs 8, Indians 7, final, forever.

Ross stood in the weight room, the same place where Heyward had raised everybody’s spirits, and talked about how ridiculous this was: He had hit a home run in his final game, Game 7 of the World Series, and his teammates had carried him off the field. Ross said he felt like Rudy, the Notre Dame walk-on in that movie. He said, “Whether there’s a hero or a goat … excuse the pun,” and laughed.

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The Cubs started talking about winning again next year; they are good enough to do it, and they know it. Maddon said he is glad to be done with this jinx silliness. Ace Jon Lester said, “To break the goat or the black cat or God knows what that somebody else wants to talk about … it’s over. It doesn’t matter. A curse to me is an excuse.”

It was an excuse. But it was still there, immovable as the old ball yard. Ignoring it was as foolish as submitting to it. The 2016 Cubs countered belief with belief; a well-timed rain delay was a sign, a players’ meeting was inspirational, ending a 108-year drought was an opportunity.

Chicago Cubs, World Series champions. All these years, some people said the Cubs needed to break a curse, and others said they just needed to build the best team in baseball. It turns out, everybody was right.

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