In the end, it looked so simple. Yasiel Puig chopped a ball through the dirt of Wrigley Field, where it was corralled by a precocious young shortstop, who whirled it to second base, where an even more exciting phenom fired it on to first. Double play. Game over. For the first time since 1945, the Chicago Cubs punched their ticket to the World Series.
Until that ball nestled in the glove of Anthony Rizzo, there was always an element of doubt. That’s only natural. Even with a 5-0 lead, these were still the Cubs, a team so routinely tortured. For the vast majority of viewers, there was no frame of reference for how to think, feel or act with a National League pennant looming so close. Yet, if truth be known, this felt different even within the context of Cubdom. They were going to win, and nobody could stop them, because this team may wear those heavy blue pinstripes, but it doesn’t belong to the same fabric of failure that has defined North Side baseball for so long.
Under the guise of Theo Epstein, these Cubs are unique. They’ve been unique for a number of years, first in terms of intellect while building a juggernaut, and now in terms of talent and chemistry while hunting for the ultimate prize. Where things should go wrong, according to the old dystopian script, they now go right, according to the blueprint of a genius and his staff. Rarely has sports seen such a comprehensive turnaround.
A symbolic example came in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. Down 5-2 to the Giants heading to the ninth inning, this game was over for almost every other team in modern Cubs history. The narrative asked them to keel over and bow to the superiority of some noxious goat spirit, but the Cubs said no. Instead of playing out the string, they came roaring back to win the game and series. Right then. Right there. Fearlessness personified.
The trend continued against Los Angeles in the NLCS. In Game 1, Javy Baez blooped a double as the Dodgers failed to make a catch. The kid then stole home, rather inadvertently, after being caught too far off third base. In years gone by, the Cubs would have been punished for such mistakes. The ball would have been caught, or at least Baez would have been picked off. Not this year. Not this time. Not this team. They have other ideas, other dreams.
After Miguel Montero’s grand slam won Game 1, the Cubs were stymied by Clayton Kershaw, the greatest pitcher on earth, in Game 2. The Dodgers eked out a 1-0 victory and followed it up with a 6-0 triumph as the series switched to California. At that point, the Cubs faced serious adversity for the first time. The bats fell silent. Chicago failed to score in successive games for the first time in over two years. A meltdown brewed, as people feared the pixie dust had ran out. But these aren’t your fathers Cubs, nor are they your grandfathers. These are Cubs of incredible belief, resounding fortitude and sensational talent. These are Cubs of destiny.
A 10-2 romp evened the series. A day later, in Game 5, the Cubs won 8-4, edging a step closer to glory. Then came another caveat, a fresh hurdle: Kershaw, a word that strikes fear into the heart of any opposing fan. On a night of ferocious noise at Wrigley Field, the most dominant pitcher of our age stood between Chicago and its first Cubs World Series appearance in 71 years. Again, other Cubs teams may have folded or bowed to the pressure. Not this year. Not this time. Not this team.
Kris Bryant, the stud third baseman, drove in a run before Kershaw could settle. Then Andrew Toles misplayed a ball in the Dodger outfield, allowing runners to advance and eventually score on a sacrifice fly, doubling the lead. This time, when it mattered most, the opponent encountered demons, not the Cubs. The Dodgers booted balls. The Dodgers missed catches. The Dodgers swung and missed. History was reversing itself, one play at a time, as the noise grew louder.
Even when Baez made an error in the second inning, bobbling a routine grounder, Kyle Hendricks, the ultimate control artist, came back to strikeout Joc Pederson and pick Reddick off first base. Since when did the Chicago Cubs do such things?
Hendricks pitched a beautiful game, dropping and floating and weaving pitches in unhittable locations. Meanwhile, the Cubs kept pounding, as the drumbeats of triumph became steady and furious. Dexter Fowler laced a two-out RBI hit in the second inning, making it 3-0. Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo added solo home runs, as the game and season unravelled for Los Angeles. Cub fans once knew such feelings. They were once haunted by them, by that fear of impending doom. But not now. Not this year. Not this time. Not this team.
As the game wore on, the gap between these ballclubs appeared to grow. The Cubs smothered every ball on defence; the Dodgers had trouble recording even easy outs. The Cubs played with boundless energy; the Dodgers looked drained from a merciless season. The Cubs made all the right pitches and collected all the big hits; the Dodgers sent just 27 men to the plate, and none of them advanced beyond first base.
For once, luck was with the Cubs, not against them. In October, that’s often the great modifier of ability, and Chicago certainly has the talent, drive and hunger to deserve such fortune. In Joe Maddon, the Cubs have a masterful manager, one of the finest conductors of clubhouse morale ever to wear a uniform. Oh, and he’s also quite the strategist, too. Yet Maddon wouldn’t be the great chess player he is without the right pieces, and he certainly has those now. This is a team of stupendous energy and remarkable talent. This is a team of history.
When Aroldis Chapman induced the final two outs off the bat of Puig, victory was finally secured. The Chicago Cubs had beaten baseball’s greatest pitcher en route to altering yet another narrative. For so long, Steve Goodman sang about the Cubs’ last pennant coming in the year America dropped its bomb on Japan. Well, now those lyrics can be confined to history, as Theo’s powerhouse rolls on, righting wrongs at every turn. One final hurdle lies in the way of baseball’s most wonderful story. It’s time for the Cubs to take aim at 1908, the most daunting mountain of all.