After over a century of suffering, Chicago Cub fans feel that all is right with the universe. It happened. The team has won its first World Series Championship in 108 years, thus ending the longest draught in American sports history. And they did it with grit, elegance, and maybe a bit of divine intervention. A collective sigh of relief was heaved after the last out was recorded; for many, there was a sense of internal validation for an emotional investment that spanned multiple generations. That proverbial cold day in Hell had finally arrived.
Where do I even start? The mere juxtaposition of the Chicago Cubs and World Series Champions in the same sentence smacks of Surrealism. And, like the great artist Salvaor Dali's seminal painting in that genre, The Persistence of Memory, this incredible victory straddles the line between dream and reality, and will be tattooed in the minds of all who witnessed it.
Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. I can officially count myself among the fortunate who lived long enough to see the team win it all. My personal World Series experience was an excruciating yet exhilarating ride--twelve days of exquisite torture that began with the clinching of the team's first National League Pennant in 71 years, and culminated with a Game 7 triumph that will go down as arguably the greatest World Series game ever played.
Sadly, there are millions of Cub fans whose devotion to the team went unrequited. They shuffled off this mortal coil without a post-season taste or toast. That elusive World Series title fell outside their life spans, and the joy that they were denied had to be experienced vicariously by those they left behind.
"Gee, I wish [insert name of family member or friend] could have been here to see this."
~ Legions of Living Cub Fans
At the time of this writing, things are still fresh. There is a lot to process. I am several days removed from attending the parade and rally for the team, an epic outburst of civic pride, which we have come to learn was the seventh largest gathering in human history (by many accounts, the largest ever in the United States). Sound bites extracted from player interviews, as well as the catharses of ecstatic fans, will be making the rounds on social media for quite some time.
That the Chicago Cubs arrived at, let alone won the 2016 World Series was no fluke. The ball club's systematic, incremental climb to the top has been well-chronicled. The Ricketts family, who assumed ownership of the team in 2009, engineered a major culture change and delivered the goods in the seventh year of its regime. New leadership--both in the front-office and on the field--was installed. The farm system was overhauled. The player roster was turned over and retooled with young, quality talent that quickly blossomed.
Throughout the process, we fans were urged to be patient. Although we endured some abysmal baseball--the Cubs were a combined 271-377 between 2011 and 2014--there were glimpses of what was to come. Dramatic improvements to the area around Wrigley Field, as well as the ballpark itself, were being scaled. An aging Cub Nation felt like they were now in a race against the clock. A transparent ownership had the trust of the fan base. But could the team deliver before it was too late?
The Joe Maddon Effect
In November 2014, three years after he was imported from the Boston Red Sox to become president of baseball operations for the Cubs, Theo Epstein hired Joe Maddon as field manager. Widely considered to be one of the game's great strategists and most eccentric personalities, Maddon was World Series-tested, having guided the Tampa Bay Rays to the 2008 American League Pennant. He was clearly the right guy at the right time for the right team.
From the get-go, Maddon brought, shall we say, a unique perspective to the day-to-day content that fed the electronic and print media. His press conferences were must-see TV. He has this incredible knack of nurturing high-level performance from his players by keeping them loose, as evidenced by staging several wacky apparel-themed road trips and a "Zoo Day at Wrigley," which featured visits from real wild animals. Many of his "Maddonisms" found their way on to the fronts of T-shirts and have become permanent additions to the Cub lexicon.
In leading the Cubs to their first World Championship since 1908, Maddon has become a revered, statue-worthy figure. Throughout the playoffs, he was incredibly reassuring to the fan base, always poised when the cameras were rolling, instilling a sense of confidence in us all. When it was time for him to let loose and enjoy the moment, he did so, but with a noticeable sense of reservation that belies the intense passion he brings to his work.
Hell Hath Become a Solid Block of Ice
On October 11, 2016, in Game 4 of the National League Division Series (NLDS), the visiting Cubs trailed the San Francisco Giants 5-2 going into the top of the ninth. In absolutely stunning fashion, they mounted a 4-run rally, and completed the 6-5 comeback win with Javy Baez's RBI single up the middle, which scored Jason Heyward, and earned them a second consecutive trip to the National League Championship Series (NLCS) against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It was right then and there that I realized that this was not just another team hungry for hardware. These Cubs were a fascinating study in collaboration and human resilience. They simply did not quit. After dusting off the Dodgers in six games to clinch their first World Series berth since 1945, fan expectations shot through the roof. Looming were the Cleveland Indians, another championship-deprived organization. Between the two ball clubs, there was a combined draught of 176 years. Something had to give.
In coming years, when Cub fans look back on this historic season, they will not only gain a deeper appreciation of what this team accomplished, but how they accomplished it. Down a seemingly insurmountable 3 games to 1, the Cubs regrouped and accomplished their goal organically, methodically, and with more than a touch of bravado. This was high-drama baseball, to be sure. But this gut-wrenching journey was filled with character-defining moments that transcended what was visible on the field of play.
In the end, yes, the Cubs prevailed in a squeaker of a Game 7 that wreaked havoc on the cardiac circuitry of more than a few diehard fans. When first-baseman Anthony Rizzo squeezed the toss across the infield from third-baseman Kris Bryant--a symbolic final play involving the two chief cornerstones of the team--the Cubs snuffed out the last vestiges of a billy goat curse, and any other demons that were lurking in the vicinity of Clark Street and Addison Avenue since 1908.
The celebration was a show of raw emotion, as authentic as it gets. The players, to a man, were acutely aware of what their performance meant to the fans. During this championship run, there were many vignettes that played out behind the scenes that will be forever etched in Cub lore. These are the ones that will stick with me:
1. The Rain Delay
There was more to Game 7 of the 2016 World Series than what met the eye. After Cleveland's Rajai Davis belted the game-tying 2-run homer in the eighth inning, I sensed impending calamity. I wondered if this was the next in a seemingly endless string of post-season disappointments. Soon thereafter, a steady rain began to fall, eventually picking up pace and halting the game after the completion of the bottom of the ninth inning. I took this as a sign from above.
While staring at that tarp stretched across the diamond, it became clear to me that Mother Nature essentially cleaned the slate and neutralized any momentum the Indians may have gained. After a 17-minute delay, play resumed, and the emotionally-charged Cubs scored two runs in the top of the tenth to go up 8-6, a lead they never relinquished. What went down in that Cubs' clubhouse during those 17 minutes becomes an indispensable piece of the championship narrative.
In his post-game interview, a champagne-soaked Ben Zobrist revealed that as the rain fell, the players all came together, aired it out, and refocused their efforts. First, it was David Ross who lit the fire. But it was right-fielder Jason Heyward, who struggled through a miserable, season-long slump at the plate, who was acknowledged as the galvanizing force. J-Hey implored his teammates to clear their short-term memories, go back out there, and grab the brass ring. And they did just that.
2. The Backup Catcher
Throughout the 2016 regular season, much attention was paid to Cubs catcher David Ross, who the team signed in December 2014 primarily for the purpose of catching high-priced free agent pitcher Jon Lester. Ross, or "Grandpa Rossy," as is he now known, quickly became a beloved figure in the clubhouse, a mentor to young players, a media darling, and a fan favorite. Ross made it clear he was retiring at season's end. The adulation heaped on him is one of the most interesting subplots in the Cubs' 2016 story.
Ross love built all season long and hit a crescendo after the All-Star break. In late September, he played to one thunderous ovation after another from the hometown crowd, and responded with key hits and defensive plays that fueled victories. His was one of the game's great exits. In storybook fashion, Ross smacked a homerun in his final World Series at-bat, becoming the oldest player (39) to do so in a Game 7.
At the victory rally, held at Chicago's Grant Park, Ross was the last player brought on stage, introduced by Cub slugger Anthony Rizzo, who choked back tears in crediting his teammate with "making him a better person" and affirming that he will "be a champion forever." I have been watching baseball for a long, long time, and cannot recall this kind of praise ever given to a man in the thankless role of backup catcher.
In his closing act as a Cub, Ross respectfully requested that the massive throng of supporters at the rally pose with him for a selfie, to which we all cooperated. (Let's face it: we would do anything for the guy.) After telling us to put our hands in the air, he angled his arm with Smartphone in-hand, and, with a few close friends in the foreground, snapped what has to be the most populated selfie in the history of selfies.
3. The Connection with the Past
For many, the 2016 World Series will be a bittersweet memory. They could not share the experience with loved ones or cherished friends who departed from this life. Fan interviews became as much a part of the local media coverage as the daily doings of the team. We were introduced to people who vividly recalled the 1945 season; others invoked the names of their descendants who attended the 1908 series at the then-named West Side Park, the ball club's home before Wrigley Field.
As history was being made between the white lines, a pageantry of nostalgia was taking place on the streets outside Wrigley Field, at cemeteries, and on social media. Fans armed with chalk took to the bricks that paved the sidewalk and formed the exterior outfield walls of Waveland and Sheffield Avenues, honoring those in absentia, and turning the grand old ballpark into a living memorial. Online, Facebook swelled with messages from sentimental fans, many of whom delivered stirring tributes to those who had passed the Cubby torch to them as kids, as well as those who sadly checked out before their time.
Other fans visited the gravesites of family members and brought transistor radios. They draped 'W' flags over tombstones and left other Cub memorabilia. A North Carolina man, Wayne Williams, 68, drove from his home to the Indiana military cemetery where his father, a United States Navy veteran, was buried, pulled up a folding lawn chair, and punched up Game 7 on his Smartphone just in time for the first pitch.
I get my love of baseball from my mother Ruth (d. 2004), who grew up in Cleveland as a diehard Indians fan. She moved to Chicago, where she met my father, and ultimately shifted her loyalties to the Cubs. Although she would have absolutely loved this World Series, I believe that she would have been a tad conflicted. On the outside, she would have shown an allegiance to the Cubs; deep down, I believe there was still a piece of her heart reserved for The Tribe. Watching this series with her would have been grand.
♦ With their first World Series Championship since 1908, the Chicago Cubs have shed their "Lovable Loser" status and vaulted to the rank of an elite sports organization. Given the talented nucleus of young players under club control, there is talk of a dynasty. In 2019, a new television contract will kick in, deepening the organization's pockets, and enabling the team to retain key players and plug holes with top-tier free agents.
♦ Watching the team I have rooted for since I was a child come back from the brink of elimination to rub the sweet sting of champagne from their eyes was absolute euphoria. My greatest takeaway from the experience--aside from the baseball itself, which was remarkable--was the rush. The games were anticlimactic; it was the anticipation, the between-game conversation, and the stress on our raw, exposed nerves that drove the celebration.
♦ An interesting and fitting footnote to this story comes from a tweet by the fine actor Michael J. Fox, star of the Back to the Future movie franchise. In Part II, which was released in 1989, reference is made that the Chicago Cubs were winners of the 2015 World Series. Fox took to Twitter to pay his real-world congratulations to the current team:
Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads.
JD Gershbein is a globally acclaimed social business psychologist, LinkedIn strategist, thought leadership coach, and speaker on personal branding and social networking. www.owlishcommunications.com; www.linkedin.com/in/jdgershbein