A ballpark has stood at the corner of Waveland and Sheffield Avenues in Chicago’s North Side for 101 years. A beautiful place, with an indelible legacy in the history of American sports. Wrigley Field, the ancient, ivy-covered burial ground of baseball dreams, has witnessed a lot through the eras, but never anything quite like yesterday, when its downtrodden tenant clinched a postseason series at home for the first time since time immemorial.
For the Cubs, this was a two-pronged catharsis. Not only did they finally prove an ability to win big games at home, but they also showed a capacity to beat the St Louis Cardinals, that sneering bully who has made their life hell in perpetuity.
The Cubs and Cards have waged a lopsided war since 1903. Chicago holds a slight edge in the all-time series, but many conclude that this isn’t a true rivalry. Rather, it’s more akin to an older sibling picking on his younger brother. St Louis has finished ahead of Chicago every year since 2009. St Louis has won 11 World Series titles since the Cubs’ last triumph, 6 since the North Side last hosted a Fall Classic game. And, accordingly, St Louis fans have grown with the birthright that we’re always better than the Cubs, no matter how bad things get.
Finally, the Cubs have changed. Slowly but surely, they’re defeating their demons, one round at a time. In this, the first playoff edition of a flagship baseball rivalry, Chicago mustered a hundred years of courage to topple St Louis at long last. With fearless play and deceptively precocious talent, the upstart Cubs proved that they can beat the best organisation baseball has to offer. From top to bottom, that’s what the Cardinals are. They’re the paragon of sustainable success, of exceeding means and markets to experience glory in the fall. Yet now, that aura has been demolished, at least in the minds of Cubs players, executives and fans. Rather like Theo Epstein’s Red Sox defeating the Yankees in 2004, his contemporary Cubs have lanced a boil, destroying all narratives of Cardinal superiority in the process.
When Stephen Piscotty lunged and missed at a breaking ball in the dirt from Hector Rondon late last night, ending Game 4 of the NLDS, Wrigley was transformed into a maelstrom of jostling, jubilant humanity. It was okay to cheer. It was fine to smile. Hell, fist-pumping was encouraged. Where once fear reigned, belief now resided. Where once nerves percolated, excitement poured forth. Where once the Cubs lost, in excruciating and somewhat iconic style, they finally won, in a heart-stopping fashion all their own.
After losing the opening game of this series in St Louis, the Cubs buckled down and produced a remarkable fight back, winning three straight to secure a place in the National League’s final two. In that opening encounter, Mike Matheny managed a flawless game for St Louis, pushing all the right buttons, entrusting all the right players, who triumphed through obscurity in true Cardinal fashion.
However, it was almost like Joe Maddon tipped his cap to Matheny at that point, acknowledged his masterful management, then proceeded to raise him. In games two through four, Maddon’s genius was on full display. From daring squeeze plays to adroit bullpen management, Uncle Joe exhibited his boundless capacity for excellence, all with a cunning smile, all with a knowing calmness rare in Wrigley annals.
In the five seasons previous to this wonderfully enchanting one, the Cubs lost 57% of all games they partook in. Now, they are just four wins away from reaching their first World Series in 70 years. That is a phenomenal turnaround, an inspirational recovery. And it has Wrigleyville alive like never before.