CHICAGO—Torture and ridicule finally relinquished their 71-year hold on the Cubs thanks to the goodness of godwinks.
What are godwinks? As lifelong Cubs fan Rhena Knourek, now 82 years old, told me two years ago at Cubs Convention, the annual mid-winter Hajj for the most devout of the Cubbie flock, godwinks are seemingly random moments of ordinary life that actually occur because of heavenly direction.
A godwink is Carlos Ruiz of the Dodgers, the penultimate batter of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series Saturday night at Wrigley Field, hitting a foul pop fly with nearly the same trajectory as the one hit by Luis Castillo of the Marlins in the last NLCS Game 6 at Wrigley. Once the 2003 foul pop hit the hands of Steve Bartman rather than the glove of leftfielder Moises Alou, it became Chicago’s baseball version of Mrs. O’Leary’s lantern. The pop fly hit by Ruiz, after giving its winking nod to the one 13 years ago, carried harmlessly one or two rows deeper into the stands. The Cubs were safe.
A godwink is the Cubs winning their first pennant since 1945 on the exact date Billy Sianis, the original conjurer of The Curse of the Billy Goat, died 46 years ago, not to mention the day after Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts, of all the 8,190 restaurants he could have visited in Chicago, chose to eat dinner at Girl and The Goat.
A godwink is the Cubs clinching the pennant in a game that took two hours, 36 minutes, 71 years after their last pennant-clincher, on Sept. 29, 1945 in Pittsburgh, took . . . you got it: exactly two hours, 36 minutes.
A godwink is a clinching game that began at 7:08 p.m. local time, or, to aficionadas of military time and the most recent Cubs World Series title, 19:08.
The Cubs are going to the World Series.
Let that swim around your head for a bit, though you might want to lie down first. No one has been able to say that since Gertrude Stein, Al Capone, Henry Ford and Seabiscuit were alive and before Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Montreal Royals, the first affiliated team to break the color barrier. The Cubs, yes the Cubs—the team of Phil Cavaretta and Phil Brickma, of Fergie Jenkins and Ferris Bueller, of Ernie Banks and Ernie Broglio, of pet goats and black cats—are a source of juvenile amusement no more.
“If you can just play .500 ball for these fans they are happy,” former Cubs manager Herman Franks once said, in the days when as long as the sun was warm and the beer was cold the team's faithful remained charmed. “Can you imagine what they’d be like if you ever won a pennant for them?”
Imagine no more. The scene inside 102-year-old Wrigley Field Saturday night in the immediate wake of a thoroughly clean, dry-palms 5-0 win over Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers was the stuff of baseball at its best. One giant roar, like something alive and animated, rose up from inside her ancient concrete and steel bones as the Cubs turned a pretty drought-ending double play—Russell to Baez to Rizzo laying down the up-tempo re-mix to Tinkers to Evers to Chance of the last world championship Cubs team, from 108 years ago.
Cubs pitchers Kyle Hendricks and Aroldis Chapman, with the help of three double plays and one pickoff, tied a postseason record by facing the minimum 27 batters in a victory. The only other such postseason game in which that happened came in the perfect game by Don Larsen of the Yankees in the 1956 World Series.
“We played our best game of the year,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “and I’m happy for that. I think the players played their best because they know what this means to these people.”
After the exultant roar, it was on to singing (“Go, Cubs, Go”), flag flying (the blue W), hugging, laughing, and, yes, some crying. Baseball, because it connects generations and is shared out of doors while we are mobile in the warm months, binds people like no other sport, both in grief and in joy. Cubs people were overdue for the joyful end of the bargain.
“When I talk to people on the streets and in the neighborhoods,” said manager Joe Maddon, “it’s like my hometown of Hazelton, Penn. It really seems like a conversation I’m having with familiar people.”
Waveland, Sheffield and all the streets around Wrigleyville swelled and rolled with oceans of people, as if you had to be within earshot of the jubilation to truly know that it actually happened. In the 71-year epoch of the Great Wanderings, the Cubs lost more games than any other franchise. Their ventures into the postseason came and went like a fireworks dud: they came flying out of nowhere and left with a dull pop. Chicago was 28-58 in postseason games in the great interim, including 1-4 in potential clinchers at Wrigley Field, with the only win coming in last year's Division Series against the Cardinals.
So this scene, both cathartic and energetic, brought to mind what Bueller himself once said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
This marked only the fourth time the Cubs had clinched the pennant at Wrigley Field. The others occurred in more quaint times with less angst—and no lights: Sept. 21, 1932 (no time of game or attendance recorded), Sept. 18, 1929 (time of game: 1:58 in front of 8,000 people) and Aug. 24, 1918 (no time or attendance). So this tableau had never been seen before: the Cubs winning the pennant under the arc lamps of Wrigley.
Just before the last double play, Chicago vice president Jason McLeod, who had joined good friends Theo Epstein and Hoyer to form one of the best baseball architectural firms in the business, looked out on the field and surprised himself as he took inventory. Anthony Rizzo, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Javier Baez … all of them either drafted or developed by the trio.
“And the next thing I thought about," said McLeod, "was, ‘Wow. They’re all so young.”
The Cubs became the first team to clinch a pennant with five players in the starting lineup who are age 25 or younger (Alomora, Bryant, Contreras, Baez and Addison Russell).
Hendricks, only 26, is a prime example of another way Epstein and Co. smartly built this team: the under-the-radar trade, which also was deployed to nab Russell, 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, relievers Carl Edwards Jr. and Mike Montgomery and others. Hendricks was a 22-year-old out of Dartmouth toiling with a 3-5 record for the Texas Rangers' Class A Myrtle Beach team in 2012 when the Cubs obtained him in a trade for righthanded starter Ryan Dempster.
Actually, that, too, was a godwink. Epstein, searching for young pitching to supplement his core of young position prospects, tried hard at the 2012 trade deadline to send Dempster to Atlanta for pitcher Randall Delgado. Five minutes before the deadline, however, the trade fell through. Epstein quickly pivoted. Upon the recommendation of a rival farm director, the Cubs traded Dempster for Hendricks and a minor league third baseman. “We were told his makeup was off the charts,” Hoyer said. “He said Hendricks had an 80 makeup [on an 80 scale]. Really, that alone sold us. We went with the makeup.”
Hendricks dazzled the Dodgers with his assortment of changeups (he throws one that fades and one that cuts) and fastballs (sinkers and four-seamers) and the odd curveball here and there that nobody swings at. He faced 22 Los Angeles batters in Game 6 and only five of them managed to get the ball out of the infield. He joined the anachronistically named Orval Overall (1908 World Series) and Three-Finger Brown (1907 World Series) as the only Cubs starters to clinch a postseason series with the win in a shutout.
Hendricks' teammates gave him all the runs he needed just two batters into their first turn hitting, when a a leadoff double by Dexter Fowler was followed by an RBI single from Bryant for a 1-0 advantage.
One more godwink to remember: This series turned as Ben Zobrist walked to the plate to lead off the fourth inning of the fourth game, which was scoreless. At the time Chicago trailed Los Angles 2-games-to-1 and had not scored a run in 21 consecutive innings. They were as tight as steel guitar strings.
“I contemplated bunting as I was walking up to the plate,” Zobrist said. “As I got in the box I took a glance at third base. You do whatever you can to get things going. That’s what I was trying to do.”
Zobrist, who had four bunt hits during the season, saw Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner playing behind the bag. He dropped a perfect bunt in front of him. The next batter, Baez, singled, and so did the next, Contreras, for a 1-0 lead. Jason Heyward knocked in a second run with a grounder. Then Russell pounded a 2-and-0 fastball from Julio Ureas for a back-breaking two-run homer that made the score 4-0. Baez is 23 years old, Contreras is 24 and Russell is 22. The Cubs went on to a 10-2 win, and they won 8-4 the next night.
“It all started with a bunt,” Maddon said. “I didn’t know what to expect going into that game. But Theo came into my office before the game, and he wasn’t worried. He said we would start hitting.
“Two times I was a little worried: watching [the Giants'] Johnny Cueto beat us [in the NLDS] and thinking in the dugout, ‘There’s no way I want to see him again in a Game 5’ and going into [NLCS] Game 4.”
The fourth inning of the fourth game allowed Chicago to exhale. Starting with the Zobrist bunt, over the final 24 innings of the series the Cubs never trailed again and outscored Los Angeles 23-6. It reminded me of the heavily-favored 1998 Yankees, down 2-games-to-1, beating the Indians in ALCS Game 4 and, after a similar exhale, never losing again that postseason.
The World Series starts Tuesday in Cleveland in a matchup between the two biggest championship droughts in baseball (108 years and 68 years, respectively). The Indians can point to their own collection of godwinks as to why this year is different from all the others, but let’s face it, the Cubs are the grandmothers of droughts.
Indeed, Knourek didn’t mince words when, thanks to a lucky ticket in her gift bag that entitled her to a Maddon autograph (a godwink, of course, is how she regarded the ticket), she met the then-newly signed manager.
“Joe,” she said, “I’m 80 years old. Can you please get us one World Series before it’s too late? I’m running out of ‘next years.’”
Here it is. It has arrived. Next year is this year. Let it be written that on the night of Oct. 22, 2016, on grounds where once stood a Lutheran seminary before a ballpark took shape in 1914, hallelujahs rose into the cool of an autumnal night. No one under the age of 71—roughly 90.7% of all Americans—had ever seen anything like it. The Cubs are going to the World Series.