• The ivy-covered ballpark hosted an event never before seen in its 103-year history as Chicago celebrated its first title since 1908.
By Tom Verducci
April 11, 2017

CHICAGO—On Nov. 3, 2016, on the first night of this bizarro baseball world after which the Chicago Cubs became world champions, the World Series trophy rested on the nightstand of a sleeping Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs first baseman had taken the trophy home and, after snapping some pictures of it tucked in his bed and resting on a pillow, he fell asleep with the Holy Grail of sports keeping watch over him.

“I woke up, opened my eyes and the trophy was right there,” he said. “It was a beautiful thing.”

Yes, it happened. The Cubs really did win the World Series last season for the first time in 108 years. And as further proof, in their first home game as crowned kings on Monday night, they raised the banner at Wrigley Field, with the entire team trekking from the dugout to a pavilion atop the centerfield bleachers for the hoisting of the flag and none other than Rizzo tugging the rope that carried it to the top of the flagpole. When the players walked back, they did so out of a gate in right-centerfield, with Rizzo carrying that same trophy across the outfield.

“It surprised me how emotional I got,” Rizzo said in the clubhouse after the game. “I was an emotional wreck the whole time. Walking out there to raise the flag . . . wow, I got chills. And then walking back with the trophy . . . that thing’s not just heavy, it’s been beat up. It’s been around. Believe me, I know. But I kept thinking carrying that trophy, I’m the only one that’s ever gotten to do this. I still have chills thinking about it.”

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Naturally, because karma apparently has a second year on the lease on its Chicago residence, it was the Trophy King himself, Rizzo, who won the home opener for the Cubs. He did so with a walkoff single in the bottom of the ninth for his first RBI of the season and a 3-2 win over the Dodgers, the same team Chicago had beaten in last October's National League Championship Series to clinch its first pennant since 1945. Talk about your banner nights.

One more link to 2016, and the possibility that whatever magic helped carry the Cubs last year might not have been exhausted: The home plate umpire for the night they raised their first championship banner in 108 years was the same umpire who worked the plate in Game 7 of the World Series last year, Sam Holbrook.

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“What I remember most is when it was over,” Holbrook said about Game 7, one of the greatest, most meaningful games ever played. “Just to walk off the field at that moment was something special. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. The best way I can describe it was that you knew walking off the field it was an epic game in an epic series.”

Rizzo was the first major piece that team president Theo Epstein acquired in his exacting architecture of the franchise, and he is now the longest tenured Cub as well as the emotional touchstone of this team. In 2013 he challenged the entire Reds dugout after a brushback incident, and before Game 5 of last year's World Series, with Chicago facing elimination it was the 27-year-old Rizzo who brought his young team to a relaxed equilibrium in the clubhouse one hour before the first pitch by performing his naked, dancing rendition of Rocky Balboa.

“It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get up!” he shouted. And he made this promise during his pugilistic skit: “We’re going the distance!”

And they did, with Rizzo reprising his Rocky role before Game 6 and also Game 7.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On nights like Monday, it’s apparent that these Cubs were not a one-year wonder. World Series championship magic is ephemeral. Only one National League team in the past 95 years has repeated as champion, the 1976 Reds. Chicago was fortunate to win one last year—avoiding Giants ace Johnny Cueto in Division Series Game 5 and surviving their exhausted closer, Aroldis Chapman, hanging sliders in the ninth inning of World Series Game 7. But these Cubs were the best team in baseball over seven months last year, and nothing has changed. At the very least, they have a real shot to do it again, as their first game at Wrigley in 2017 showcased.

The Friendly Confines, renowned most of these years for baseball in the daylight and for its bucolic beauty, resembled Dickensian London, what with a raw, cold mist swirling under the arc lamps. The first pitch was thrown in an announced wind chill of 36 degrees. So miserable was the evening that most rooftop seats across Waveland and Sheffield avenues went unclaimed. This was not scalpers’ weather—nor, for very long, spectators’ weather.

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In just a few innings the chill chased many of the fans to the comfort of their homes, with school and work just hours away. It seemed as if they showed up for the raising of the flag for verification—“Okay, Gramps, they really did win the darn thing. Can we go home now?”—and the sight of the flapping of the pennant in the cold, gray gloaming was enough value for the paid admission.

The last time the Cubs defended a championship, in 1909, William Howard Taft was president. No one with facial hair or such girth has held the presidency since. The 1909 season proved the difficulty of repeating. Just like the 2017 Cubs, the 1909 version returned almost all its regular players, had no starter older than 32 and was favored to repeat, even though a key veteran catcher retired after winning the previous World Series. That catcher in 1909 was Johnny Kling, who retired to play billiards. In 2017 that catcher was David Ross, who retired to dance the Viennese Waltz on national television.

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The 1909 Cubs were the best runner-up in baseball history. They went 104-49—and finished 6 ½ games out of first place, behind Pittsburgh. (The 1942 Dodgers went 104-50 but had a slightly worse winning percentage and finished two games behind the Cardinals.) The lesson: repeating is hard business.

These Cubs, however, never did care much about history. Third baseman Kris Bryant liked to say last year that their ignorance of history—they were too new to know or to care—helped carry them to write their own history. And what they know now of Cubs baseball, which is completely different from what defined for the better part of a century, looked familiar Monday night.

Jon Lester, serious as granite, again peered over his glove like a high school proctor, making sure order was the rule of the day on the mound. Bryant drove in a run with a double. Reliever Justin Grimm, with the sequel to his World Series escape act, threw a double-play grounder to stifle a bases loaded drama. And Rizzo, whether raising the flag, carrying the trophy or driving in the winning run, basically announced as he did last postseason, “Follow me, boys.”

It was all so familiar, at least in this new world order. If you’re young and a Cub, or a Cubs fan of any age and still getting used to fulfillment, it was the kind of night, regardless of the mist and wind, that could give you the chills.

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