Finally! A Cubs team that ain’t afraid of no ghosts
CHICAGO — Grown men didn’t weep.
Maybe because anyone old enough to actually remember the last time the Chicago Cubs made it to the World Series would be at least 71 and know enough to stay home instead of parking himself in the middle of the pandemonium that engulfed Wrigley Field late Saturday.
Not so 78-year-old Billy Williams, a Hall of Famer and Cubs’ mainstay through the 1960s and ’70s. This was a moment he had to see for himself.
“I think about the guys I played with who never got to see this,” Williams began. “Especially Ernie Banks and (Ron) Santo. Man, we tried so hard for so many years and now they’re gone. … And I can’t tell you how long these fans stuck with us or how many times I heard stuff like, ‘This is the year.’
“But this,” he said with a sweep of his arm toward the still-rocking grandstand, “is finally the year.”
After believing their team was cursed by a goat, crossed by a black cat and undone by one of their own, after checking their sanity at the turnstiles for seven decades and counting, fans of the team on the North Side of town no longer needed any excuses . None needed reminding, either, that there was one hill still left to climb, starting Tuesday night in Cleveland.
But at the moment, a white flag with a single blue “W” fluttered in the night sky atop the huge, manually operated scoreboard in center field — a tradition begun in the 1930s so that riders on the nearby elevated train line would know when the Cubs won — and their fans basked in its possibilities.
“They win 100-plus games (in the regular season), they really have no weaknesses, they’ve got youth, veteran starting pitching … they catch the baseball, they can slug, they get on base, and they’re relentless,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said afterward, by way of a scouting report.
“That’s a very good club over there.”
You couldn’t have said that just seven years ago, when owner Tom Ricketts forked over $875 million of the family’s fortune to buy the ballclub and that faith was tested mightily. Normally a level-headed sort, he fell in love with the Cubs soon after moving to the city as an 18-year-old to attend the University of Chicago. The Cubs went 83-78 in Ricketts’ first year, then posted five losing seasons in a row.
In 2011, he shelled out good money to hire onetime Red Sox boy wonder Theo Epstein to rebuild the roster as president of baseball operations; the next year, the Cubs lost 101 games. But with Epstein pulling the strings, they also began collecting youngsters like Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant, occasionally mixing in high-priced veteran pitchers like Jon Lester and John Lackey and turning around Jake Arrieta’s career.
In 2015, Ricketts shelled out good money again to hire manager Joe Maddon; last season, they were swept by the Mets in the NLCS. The cornerstone of Maddon’s baseball philosophy is focus on the short term; try to win each at-bat, each inning, each game. He pulls stunts to make it fun — bringing in zoo animals, wearing pajamas on the flight home from road trips and breaking up the monotony of a long season.
But even he struggled on this night not to look back.
“You stand out on that platform afterwards and you’re looking at the ballpark and the fans and the W flags everywhere, and truthfully you think about everybody,” Maddon said. “I think about the fans and their parents and their grandparents and great-grandparents and everything that’s been going on here for a while. I think about my wife, Jaye, my kids, my mom back in Pennsylvania, my dad who wasn’t here.
“It’s overwhelming,” he added finally, “and it’s awesome.”
The Cubs last won it all in 1908, which means they’ve been without a championship 40 years longer than the Indians, holders of the second-longest run without a championship in major North American pro sports. They may be the sentimental favorites, but they’re also savvy, ruthless and blessed with short memories — basically, anything but your father’s Cubbies.
Ditto for the owner. Asked what it would feel like to see that same flag fly at the end of the World Series, Ricketts admitted he already had his eye on a souvenir. It was likely to be more painful than expensive.
“I may make the ‘W’ a tattoo,” he said.
He won’t be alone.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/JimLitke.