CLEVELAND – The Chicago Cubs won the World Series here Wednesday night for the young, the old and the long dead, too. Of course these Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians, 8-7, in 10 thrilling brain-warping innings in Game 7 for themselves, for their own joy and glory.
But, as they have been reminded endless times in the last seven months of this baseball season, they also won the Cubs' first world title since 1908 for the citizens of a nation without borders. They lifted the silly "curse" of Murphy the Goat, and roused the spirits of a worldwide legion of interwoven sufferers who share a passion and an affliction – a lifelong freely chosen Cubness.
Because this game went beyond the baseball surreal, because it provided forgetfulness and forgiveness for several Cubs who might have been enormous goats, including reliever Aroldis Chapman and Manager Joe Maddon, it seemed to encapsulate the team's long history of staring into the abyss. Only this time, at long last – it only took a century or so – the abyss blinked.
With a 6-3 lead and just four outs required to clinch this Series, the Cubs brought on Chapman who, earlier this year, threw a 105-mph fastball. Cubs fans all over the world thought they knew what would happen when he entered with a man on first base and two outs in the eighth. He'd slam the door on the Indians and extend Cleveland's own World Series drought, which dates to 1948.
So much for assumptions.
With two of the most unexpected swings in World Series history, the baseball worlds of these two cities flipped. Obscure Brandon Guyer smashed an RBI double off the center field wall on a 97.9-mph fastball. Then on the seventh pitch of his at bat, 35-year-old journeyman Rajai Davis launched a two-run homer into left on a 97.1-mph fastball. His blast, fair by less than 10 feet and a few rows deep into the bleachers might as well have traveled 600 feet – and the score was 6-6.
For 108 years, this is when the "curse" arrives and gags the life out of the choking Cubs. But, finally, not this time. Chapman finished the eighth, then pitched a scoreless ninth to send the game into extra innings. Next, it rained. Honest. For a 17-minute rain delay. Was that the baseball gods idea of an appropriate amount of time for prayer, begging and unspeakable promises to all available dieties?
When the tarp was removed, the sun rose on the Cubs, even though it was past midnight. Kyle Schwarber greeted losing pitcher Bryan Shaw with a single. Soon, Ben Zobrist had sliced a double into the left field corner to break the tie, then Miguel Montero singled home and insurance run.
Finally, in the 10th inning, reliever Carl Edwards Jr., who had dressed as Mr. Incredible on a Cubs Halloween plane ride, tried to get the save. He allowed one run, but Mike Montgomery finally put out the blaze – the largest, perhaps, in the view of Chicagoans since Mrs. O'Leary barn had that little accident in 1871. At 12:47 a.m., after 4 hours 28 minutes, the mound mob scene began. Just a guess, it was better than the one in 1908.
The happiest Cub may have been Maddon, who, in the view of many – OK, almost the whole baseball universe – had overused Chapman unnecessarily in Game 6, allowing him to pitch in all or parts of the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, even though he had already gotten an eight-out save, the longest of his career, in Game 5. Now, all that will be forgiven, though probably not forgotten.
This whole night, and early morning, seemed jammed with Cubs symbolism. When Dexter Fowler hit the third pitch of the game over the center field fence, then danced backward between first and second base, exhorting his teammates, he was, by his spontaneous jubilation, honoring so many great Cubs of the past who never played in a single World Series game, like the late Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub.
When Javier Baez and David Ross, 39, playing his last game, also hit solo homers, perhaps they were not just high-fiving teammates as they returned to the jumping Cub dugout but also saluting a long tradition of baseball affection on the North Side of Chicago that is so powerful and authentic that it has withstood a century of frustration while keeping alive a powerful multi-generational baseball love affair.
How fitting, after all of this, that the Cubs would become the first team since 1985 to have the fortitude to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a World Series. And the first since 1979 to win the final two games on the road.
How ironic, but suitably sweet, that the 2016 Cubs will always be known for playoff grit in all three rounds of this postseason. In their division series, they trailed San Francisco, 5-2, in the ninth inning of Game 4 and seemed certain to face scary Johnny Cueto in a decisive fifth game. Yet they scored four in the ninth to kill the Giants.
The Dodgers shut them out back-to-back to take a 2-1 lead in the National League Championship Series. Then, with their first pennant since 1945 at stake, the Cubs stomped Los Angeles flat, winning three straight games by a combined score of 23-6.
No one season erases a century of lousy teams, bad management and a half-dozen famous choke jobs, including defeats in the NLCS in 1984 and 2003 when the Cubs held three-run leads but lost and did it with haunting misplays, whether by first baseman Leon Durham or one of their own fans. But this season, with its balm and blessings aplenty, will have to serve – and, considering the style with which this whole affair was completed, including four relief inning by ace starter Jon Lester – it should more than suffice.
From now on, wherever two or three Cubs fans are gathered together, and still wonder, smacking their foreheads, how Jose Cardenal once missed a game because his eyelids were stuck together, there will be joy and relief whenever Nov. 2, 2016 is recalled. And there will be amazement, too, that they were resilient and hopeful for so long, and perhaps just a touch dopey for sticking with America's biggest bunch of baseball losers.
Poor Cleveland, now they are the leaders in frustration, without a World Series title since 1948. Unless, of course, you count a city, rather than a continuous one-town franchise, in the futility calculation. Then, Washington, with no such celebration since 1924 takes the bitter prize.
Perhaps there has never been a World Series in which there was as much, or perhaps more focus on the fans of the two teams, both living and long departed.
In the past 40 years, there has certainly never been a World Series crowd so divided in loyalty. The cause: Enormous numbers of Cubs fans paid huge prices for tickets on the secondary market. Some, if they risked buying from scalpers who might have bogus tickets, got "bargains" as low as $1,200. But one pair of tickets behind the Cubs' dugout was sold on StubHub for $23,000 – apiece.
"[Cubs fans] might have more money than us," conceded Indians Manager Terry Francona.
Among the reveling Cubs fans was Kevin O'Brien, a Chicago lawyer wearing a vintage Bruce Sutter jersey. "If you count from birth, which I do, I've been a Cubs fan for 55 years," he said. "My mom's 82 and she's been a Cubs fan all her life, too. She used to clean the Wrigley Field bleachers after games in the '40's and '50's to get free tickets to the next game.
"So I was stuck. The whole family are Cubs fans – brothers, sisters, cousins," said O'Brien who was asked how much he'd paid for his ticket since he was, in a sense, representing all branches of his family. "Too much. Not going to say," he said. "But my wife is happy it was less than her engagement ring 26 years ago."
When the Cubs fell behind 3-1 in this Series, some Cubs fans simply hoped this Series would be extended back to Cleveland for a sixth game so that they could glimpse their team in a World Series for the first time since '45 even if the Cubbies ultimately lost.
"In Wrigley Field, tickets were $3,000, $4,000 or $5,000. I live there and I couldn't get into my own park," said Eddie Opitz, 58, a truck driver from Mt. Prospect, Illinois, who found a much cheaper ticket here for the Cubs' victory in Game 6. "I called my wife this morning. Last week was our 25th wedding anniversary. She said, 'So you're coming home today, right?' I said, 'Errrrrr. . . . ' "
"I wish it wasn't Cleveland we had to beat. What they've gone through all these years is so much like us," said Opitz the truck driver long before that final winning pitch. "Wish it could've been the Yankees."
But, after 108 years, the Cubs and their fans have come to a decision: they won't be picky. They'll just take this World Series, and its incredible final Game 7, in their loving arms and toddle off into a long and blissful winter.