PITTSBURGH — The Chicago Cubs sprayed champagne, and sprayed it some more, and kept spraying and after a half-hour or so it was clear this was not your normal wild-card-win champagne shower because the Cubs showed no signs of stopping. Then they brought out the cigars.
Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar. Sometimes a wild-card win is not just a wild-card win. Suddenly the Cubs are no longer the Cubs.
These Cubs don’t care about 1908, billy goats, Steve Bartman or Leon Durham. They don’t care that they are too young, or that this is too early for them or that the third-best record in baseball only brought them a road game against the team with the second-best record.
This helps explain the atmosphere when they beat the Pirates, 4–0, to advance to the National League Division Series. Chicago had to spray the champagne because it could only drink so much; it has another playoff game Friday afternoon. And the Cubs wouldn’t put the bottles of Korbel down because they’re young, they don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t care about when any supposed jinx may have started. You say “drought” and they pour champagne on your head.
“Did they measure that thing?” backup catcher David Ross said. “He hit that ball and I couldn’t even celebrate because I wanted to see how far it went. That was amazing.”
A year ago in this very clubhouse, Madison Bumgarner chatted with reporters about his domination of the Pirates in a wild-card game, and we all know how that October ended. Well, Jake Arrieta has been as great for the past two months as Bumgarner was for one. Arrieta shut out Pittsburgh, and his manager Joe Maddon joked afterward that he had Arrieta on a pitch count: “Infinity.”
The Pirates only had one real hope of knocking Arrieta out of the game, and they tried it, with a Tony Watson pitch that landed on Arrieta’s butt.
Was it intentional retaliation for Arrieta hitting two Pirates? You don’t usually see that in a winner-takes-all playoff game, but it sure looked that way. Arrieta thought so, and he and Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli started jawing, which led to the teams clearing their benches. Then there was a little shoving that looked like a Miami-Florida State pregame scuffle reenacted by preschoolers, and then Pittsburgh’s Sean Rodriguez fought a Gatorade cooler in the Pirates’ dugout. Rodriguez landed more punches than Floyd Mayweather has landed in some of his wins.
If you were amused, you weren’t alone. The Cubs brought their own Gatorade cooler onto the field when they celebrated the final out. Then they screamed their way into the clubhouse, with team president and chief savior Theo Epstein violently high-fiving them on the way in.
Last winter, Epstein decided to speed up the timetable for his team by signing one of his old stars from Boston, Jon Lester. It was the kind of move that often sounds better in a meeting than it looks on the field. The Cubs are still young. The big talk this spring was about the team keeping future star Kris Bryant in the minors, apparently to delay his free-agency clock, and most of the core is in its mid-20s. The Cubs still act young, but they don’t play young.
“They’ve continued to grind all year, overcome the slumps that you expect from young players,” Epstein said in the clubhouse. “Now they’re men, and they’re rolling.”
Epstein acknowledged that this all seems unfair to Pittsburgh: “They have every right to feel they should be going on too.” But from the moment the Cardinals clinched the National League Central, setting up this game, the matchup favored Chicago. The Cubs had Arrieta, and while the Pirates could counter with ace Gerrit Cole, even Cole is not on Arrieta’s level right now.
“It wouldn’t have felt right to go home with this team,” Epstein said. “We’ve had a little magic all year long. It just felt in all our being like we deserved a nice little run here in October.”
Arrieta can only pitch once against the Cardinals in the next round. The Cubs don’t seem fazed, and Maddon is a big reason. Maddon has always been a media favorite—genuinely funny, perpetually insightful—but he is quite willing to make an enemy or two within the game. Just last month, he initiated a public spat with the Cardinals over hit batsmen, saying, “I never read this book that the Cardinals had written regarding how to play baseball.” The message was clear: The days of Chicago bowing to St. Louis are over.
It takes a certain mentality to end a famous championship drought. Mark Messier once brought it to the New York Rangers. Johnny Damon, Terry Francona and friends brought it to the Red Sox. Ozzie Guillen helped bring it to the Chicago White Sox. You have to embrace the challenge without being consumed by it.
The Cubs know what anybody paying attention should figure out: They are as good as anybody in this postseason bracket. And yes, they should be this good for the next few years. That doesn’t guarantee a championship. Ask the Texas Rangers or the Detroit Tigers. But if you had to pick one team to win a World Series in the next five years, who would you choose ahead of the Cubs?
Lester signed with the Cubs partly to end the drought; he embraced it the way Curt Schilling embraced his trade to Boston before the 2004 season (Schilling was bold enough to say he hoped to win more than one championship in four years; he won two). But Lester admitted Wednesday night that he had no idea how big this is. The excitement around the Cubs has grown each month. The city of Chicago has never needed an excuse to get drunk. If the Cubs win the World Series, the party might never end, and you can understand why:
These are the Cubs.
But they’re not those Cubs. Not anymore.