This article appears in the Nov. 14, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, which has a Cubs regional cover (see below). Subscribers in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, eastern Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin will receive the Cubs cover, and it will be available on newsstands in all of those states as well as Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, eastern Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
The comeback began as soon as the Cubs trudged back to their clubhouse after a 7–2 loss to the Indians in Game 4 of the World Series, a second straight somnolent defeat that put them on the brink of elimination. Heads bowed, they retreated in silence. The mournful quiet broke only when a lone thwack! rang out, the percussive result of a glove being fired into the back of one of the wood lockers.
“No, we’re not going to do that!”
The loud admonition came from David Ross, the 39-year-old backup catcher in the 15th and final season of his career, and the personal backstop for lefthander Jon Lester, Chicago’s starting pitcher for Game 5.
“We’ve got a Game 5 tomorrow at Wrigley Field, and Daddy’s playing tomorrow!” Ross shouted, referring to himself—a twist on the Grandpa Rossy nickname started by first baseman Anthony Rizzo. “We’re fine! Daddy’s in the lineup tomorrow! Don’t you worry. I’ll take care of it.”
The next night, just an hour before the first pitch of an elimination game, Rizzo, 27, stripped down to nothing, jumped on a couch in the clubhouse and began quoting every great cinematic motivational line he could think of, from Any Given Sunday (“Either we heal now as a team, or we will die as individuals!”) to Rocky (“It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward”).
The Cubs never lost again. Ross helped Lester to a 3–2 win in Game 5, while Rizzo went 3 for 5 with a home run in a 9–3 victory in Game 6 in Cleveland. Both men delivered timely hits in Game 7, helping Chicago to an 8–7 win, making it the first team in 37 years to win the World Series on the road after trailing three games to one. More famously, it was the franchise’s first title since 1908. More meaningfully, in the words of team president Theo Epstein, it was the epitome of “the great things human beings can accomplish when they set out to achieve for other people, not for themselves.”
The full flower of what the Cubs accomplished became clear as far as the eye could see when an estimated 5 million people, almost all of them dressed in blue, turned out for the victory parade on Nov. 4. It looked as if a seven-mile river of fountain pen ink had spilled across the nation’s third-largest city. The crowd was estimated to be the largest gathering of humanity ever in the Western hemisphere, and though some doubt was cast on its actual size there was no denying that to see the faces of the faithful was to believe something very much ecclesiastical was going on.
“The noise ... how loud it was ... that’s what was so amazing,” Ross says. “When the people screamed, I never heard anything like it. It was louder than anything I ever heard in any stadium when something big happens.”
Says Rizzo, who got choked up at the rally when he began to speak about Ross, “Sports. It’s what brings people together in this country.”
No championship ever bound more people than this one. No title was more defined by people pulling together than this one, right down to the impromptu team meeting during a rain delay that ignited the Series-winning rally in Game 7. The friendship between Ross and Rizzo became not only an essential part of the team’s chemistry but also the symbol of the brotherhood of all things Cub—a brotherhood generations in the making.
Only a dozen years after the 1908 championship, Chicago’s great poet Carl Sandburg, in an unintended nod to the local nine, wrote in Smoke and Steel, “Tumble, oh cubs—tomorrow belongs to you.” Tumble, they did, but who could have known that more than 25,000 tomorrows would have to pass for them to win again?
"Next time.” That’s what 12-year-old Frankie Colletti heard from his three older brothers on Oct. 6, 1945, at the streetcar stop on the corner of Division and Oakley. The boys were headed to Wrigley Field, where they would sleep on the street and scrounge up tickets the next morning for Game 5 of the World Series. They decided Frankie was too young for such an adventure and sent him home.
The Cubs lost that World Series in seven games. “Next time” took 71 years. When it arrived Frankie, now 83, attended all three games at Wrigley with his nephew, Ned Colletti, an executive and former general manager of the Dodgers. A Chicago native, Ned attended his first game at Wrigley in 1961 and got his first front-office job in the team’s media relations department in 1982. Immediately after the Cubs won Game 7 in Cleveland, Ned called Uncle Frank from his seat at Progressive Field.
“I said, ‘How about that?’” Ned says. “And he couldn’t talk. He just cried. There was 15 to 20 seconds of just silence. I’m still emotional about it. I’ve cried 15 times reading stuff about the Cubs.”
On the night of Game 7, 88-year-old John Matijevich, who was once a member of the Illinois House of Representatives for 26 years, stayed up to watch on a small television from his upstairs bedroom at his home in North Chicago. Matijevich, the son of a Croatian immigrant who put down roots in North Chicago, was born on Christmas Day 1927. He was a lifelong Cubs fan who rarely missed a game on TV and took frequent trips to Wrigley to watch from his preferred spots in the bleachers or the upper deck. Twice he got to use the box seats assigned to the House majority leader.
Matijevich left office in 1992, and his health started to decline last February, when he was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. But on this night he was more robust than he had been in months. He stayed up not only for the last out but also for two hours of the postgame coverage. Rizzo, his favorite player—“he plays the game the right way and has a great attitude”—caught the final out.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s happened in my lifetime,” he told his 46-year-old son, Robert, who had been watching on a bigger television downstairs but came up to share the championship moment. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to see it.”
He fell asleep with a smile on his face.
Many, though, never did live long enough to see it, which is why the next day people carried to the gravesites of their loved ones W flags as well as mementos, newspapers and other pieces of evidence that the Cubs really did win the World Series.
At All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, 18 miles northwest of Wrigley, fans festooned the resting place of famed Cubs announcer Harry Caray with baseballs, beer bottles and 15 bushels worth of green apples. On the last day of the 1991 season, one of his 16 unfilled years broadcasting Cubs games, Caray had told his viewers, “Sure as God made green apples, someday the Chicago Cubs are going to be in the World Series.” Also interred at All Saints is Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett, whose 19 seasons for the Cubs tie him with Ernie Banks for the second-longest tenure in franchise history without a title. Only Phil Cavarretta, who spent parts of 20 seasons with the team, invested more time since 1908.
Flowers, rally towels and notes covered Banks’s final resting place at Graceland Cemetery, just a half mile from Wrigley. And five miles from there, at Bohemian National Cemetery, people flocked to the columbarium built in 2009 to resemble the ivy-covered red brick wall at Wrigley, with the same yellow 400 marker as in centerfield. Cubs fans forever, beyond the vines, it reads on the stained-glass image of the ballpark’s iconic scoreboard, and from one of four ballpark seats facing the wall you can keep company with the ashes of those placed inside the wall’s 288 niches.
Fans also turned Wrigley itself into a shrine. On the brick wall that faces Waveland and Sheffield avenues, they used chalk in various colors to write notes to loved ones, whether living or deceased, sometimes using ladders to find empty space among the bricks. The club took pictures of the impromptu shrine before power washing it clean last week.
Posterity is what helped draw Ross to Wrigley. Two years ago, as a free agent, he mulled offers from the Cubs, Padres and Red Sox, his previous team. Epstein told him that if the Cubs succeeded in signing Lester, another free agent, they would immediately try to win the World Series; if they didn’t they would invest one more year in rebuilding. Epstein sent Ross a movie with digital special effects that showed him batting for Chicago in the Fall Classic. It also included footage of former Cubs pitchers Kerry Wood and Ryan Dempster extolling the team’s treatment of its players and their families.
“I started thinking, What if I was on the team that won the Holy Grail of championships?” Ross says. “If you win that, you’re set for life. You sign autographs the rest of your life, like [Kevin] Millar and [David] Ortiz with the ’04 Red Sox.
“If you could be a part of all that, why wouldn’t you try? If you really want to compete at the highest level, that’s the biggest stage. I’m a guy who lays out the pros and the cons, but when it came to which way my heart was going, it kept pulling me to Chicago.”
Just eight days after Lester came aboard with a six-year, $155 million deal, Ross signed a two-year, $5 million contract. He rejoined Lester, his former Boston teammate, and quickly developed a close friendship with Rizzo. A member of the Red Sox’ 2013 championship team, Ross sized up Rizzo as the guy “who brings that goofy energy, relates to everybody and is this big guy with that 12-year-old grin on his baby face.” As a part-time player, and knowing how much Rizzo meant to the team, Ross made it part of his job description to push Rizzo.
Last year, for instance, he called Rizzo out during a game in Pittsburgh. Rizzo had grounded into a double play with the bases loaded and no outs in the first inning, then, after reaching base with a walk in the third, stopped at third base on a double by Kris Bryant and was left stranded there.
“Do you think I could have scored?” Rizzo asked Ross.
“You want to know the truth?”
“Yeah, you should have scored. And you know what? It looked like you weren’t ready. You didn’t come to play today. And if you don’t want to come to play every day, I’ll get somebody who will.”
Says Rizzo, “That was one of the few times I was really mad at him.”
“I don’t know why he likes me,” Ross says. “I’m on him all the time.”
Next time up, Rizzo crushed a home run with his first swing. He flipped the bat and stared at Ross before rounding the bases.
“See,” Ross said when Rizzo reached the dugout, “I know how to push your buttons.”
“The real story,” Rizzo says, “is that we were up until 5:30 in the morning at [former Reds first baseman] Sean Casey’s house. We were up all night, me, Lester, [Jake] Arrieta, [Kyle] Schwarber, Rossy ... the next thing we knew it was 5:30 and we have a 12:30 game.”
Before this season Ross announced he would retire at its end to spend more time with his wife, Hyla, and their three children. Concussions he suffered in 2013 also influenced his decision. It’s a compliment to Ross’s skills as a receiver and as a respected teammate that a lifetime .229 hitter could play more than 900 games, 25 of them in the postseason, and last until age 39. Only three other catchers with such a low batting average ever had that kind of staying power: Billy Sullivan (whose last season was in 1916), Jim Hegan (’60) and Henry Blanco (2013), who’s now a Cubs coach.
Upon hearing Ross’s retirement plans, rightfielder Jason Heyward, a teammate of his in Atlanta who had just signed an eight-year, $184 million contract with Chicago, honored Ross by vowing to pay for a hotel suite for him on the road. Rizzo and Bryant hatched the idea of an Instagram account (@grandparossy_3) to document Ross’s final season—one in which he caught a no-hitter by Arrieta, played Pebble Beach (“He took all our money,” Rizzo says), attended a Coldplay concert with Rizzo and became the oldest player to homer in a World Series Game 7. After that win he was carried off the field on the shoulders of Rizzo and Heyward. “The weird part is you don’t know what to do with your hands,” says Ross. “It was the most awkward, coolest feeling I’ve ever been a part of.”
In the days to come Ross and Rizzo would understand even more deeply the magnitude of what they accomplished. When the team plane landed after Game 7, Chicago Fire Department trucks at the airport saluted them by shooting streams of water into the air. As police escorted the team buses to Wrigley Field around 6 a.m., cars that pulled to the side of the road honked their horns repeatedly.
Ross made guest appearances on Ellen, with Bryant, and Saturday Night Live. Rizzo joined him (and outfielder Dexter Fowler and fan Bill Murray) on SNL, while also doing The Tonight Show with Fowler and Ben Zobrist. Waiting at an airport gate one day in Chicago, Ross looked up to see a woman, about 20 years old, standing over him, quivering and repeating, “Oh, my God, you don’t know what you’ve done.” She explained that her boyfriend had cried for 30 minutes when the Cubs won the World Series.
“You hear the stories about fathers and grandfathers, but young people were enthralled too,” Ross says. “People don’t say congratulations. They say, ‘Thank you.’”
Rizzo tried to buy lunch at a sandwich shop downtown, but the store refused to take his money. At an Apple store a young man walked up to him nearly in tears saying, “I want to thank you. My dad was big Cubs fan. He died two months ago. I just put a W flag on his grave.”
Says Rizzo, “When you hear all these stories and see the videos of people crying, it’s so real. People have been waiting for the Cubs to win for so long. Everyone’s emotional, and they are showing it.”
During Game 7, Fox had Ross wired with a microphone, which picked up Rizzo telling him, “I’m an emotional wreck,” before the first baseman fell back on his movie trivia and goofiness, quoting from Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy to say he was “a glass case of emotion.”
“He was serious at first,” Ross says. “I felt the same way inside. I was a bundle of nerves the whole game, but as one of the veteran guys I just can’t show it on the outside.”
Says Rizzo, “You try not to think about the outside noise and how much it means to people. I don’t care who you are, there’s always self-doubt and nervous energy, so it’s hard to block it out when the games get bigger and bigger.”
Rizzo provided the best image of the World Series, one that so many people who had ever rooted for the Cubs would reenact: After Zobrist drove in the tiebreaking run in the 10th inning with a double down the leftfield line, Rizzo, standing on third base after advancing from first, put both of his hands atop his helmet and said aloud, “Oh, my God.”
Tomorrow was finally here. It belonged to the Cubs.
“That’s when it hit me,” Rizzo says. “We’re going to win the World Series. As a kid that’s what you dream about. I don’t care who it’s with—take the worst team in baseball right now and they win the World Series—it’s what you dream about. Now do it in Chicago for the Cubs. There’s nothing bigger.”
It is why Ross signed. He knew this championship, this brotherhood of players, would have meaning beyond all others. These Cubs would be bound today, tomorrow and forever.
“I wanted to win the World Series,” he says, “because I wanted to be connected to this group for the rest of my life. I wanted to be connected to guys like Rizz and KB and [Addison] Russell and Zo and Schwarber and everybody. They’re going to go on and have great major league careers. I feel so lucky I got a chance to play with them, to have this relationship with them for the rest of my life.”
A few hours after John Matijevich went to sleep with a smile on his face, at about 5:30 in the morning, Robert heard a thump on the floor above him. He rushed upstairs. He saw his father collapsed on the floor. He called 911.
An ambulance rushed John to the hospital. He was taken into an emergency room. Robert wanted to see his dad. He couldn’t find an attendant to help so he went looking for his father until he found a board that listed the initials JM, the number 88 and the letters e-x-p. Expired. A strange word. Robert, who had been his father’s full-time caregiver the past two years, remembered hearing it for the first time as a euphemism for dead when he was a young boy. Somebody had called to say that one of his grandparents had expired. Now his father had expired.
“It’s never easy, and you’re never really prepared for it,” Robert says. “But from the bottom of my heart, I’m so happy he got to live for these extra nine months. I think this is the real reason why he did. I know it sounds corny and like a cliché, but there’s a reason it happened like this. It’s like he said, ‘I saw the Cubs win the World Series in my lifetime. And now it’s time.’”