CLEVELAND — Baseball demands the wait. While the rest of the world works at warp speed, this game clings to a different code, one from another time and place. It requires devotion when it is foolish, and patience when there is none. Only then can the game’s splendor be fully appreciated.
The Cubs felt that thrill early Thursday morning, felt it for the first time in 108 years, felt it turn their bodies into expressions of pure joy. In a game that humbled the unbreakable, that rattled the unshakable, that bordered on the unbelievable, the Cubs beat the Indians, 8-7, in 10 innings to conclude one of the most memorable World Series of all time.
Relief aces Aroldis Chapman of the Cubs and Andrew Miller of the Indians revealed themselves to be human, their arms weary, their fuel gauges pushing empty. Rajai Davis hit a tying homer in the eighth, sucking the oxygen out of the Cubs.
But it was merely a prelude to perhaps the most important 17 minutes in franchise history, during a rain delay before the 10th inning, when Jason Heyward called a team meeting to settle his troops.
Now they sprayed each other with champagne and beer, cleansing whatever decades-long curses had befallen them.
“A curse to me is an excuse,” said Jon Lester, who pitched three innings in relief. “We just played good baseball. We didn’t care about a goat.”
Grown men jumped up and down and into each other’s arms. They hollered like children. They hugged each other tight. “I love you,” they said, over and over, their faces glazed in disbelief. “I love you.”
The wait had spanned generations. The Cubs had gone 39,466 days, 9 hours and 22 minutes since last winning the World Series. Now they were champions at long last, their reward for weathering the final hours of the most infamous drought in the history of professional sports.
11:39 P.M., TUESDAY
There would be a Game 7. Shortstop Addison Russell made it official, squeezing a pop-up from Jason Kipnis to give the Cubs their second straight victory while facing elimination. They had come back from a three-games-to-one deficit to even the series at 3-3. One more victory would give the Cubs the first 3-1 comeback on the road since the Pirates did it in 1979.
But before this year, 34 teams had fallen behind three games to one in the World Series. Only five had come back to win the title.
Now the focus turned to calming their frayed nerves. As late Tuesday turned into early Wednesday at the World Series of baseball, all the televisions in the visitors’ clubhouse were tuned in to the World Series of Poker.
For the next 24 hours, the Cubs would welcome any diversion. “You watch the World Series of Poker, you watch the Discovery Channel just to get away from it,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said.
Manager Joe Maddon dozed off to political talk on television. He had felt the fatigue of the election, but as the Cubs drew nearer to history, it became a convenient distraction.
Cubs owner Tom Ricketts had no problem falling asleep, though staying asleep was a different matter.
“You start thinking of the day,” said Ricketts, who busied himself with ticket requests to pass the time. “What’s at stake.”
Others found different methods of stifling the anxiety of Game 7. “How do I sleep?” Kyle Schwarber asked a day before his bat would start the winning rally. “I take Benadryl.”
3:40 P.M., WEDNESDAY
The group moved slowly through the tunnel, making the journey from the bus to the visiting clubhouse. Joe Maddon wore a vintage Team USA jacket , jeans and black Vansas as he quietly walked at the front of the group.
Most wore ear buds, even though this underground tunnel had shielded the Cubs from the gathering hoards on the street above.
For that same reason, they took the bus, even though the team hotel was only a half-mile away, a 15-minute walk at most.
At the back of the pack was the trio of John Lackey, Jake Arrieta and Lester, who lugged the roller bag that carried his belongings with his right arm. His left arm would have plenty of weight to carry.
Later, the three would make another walk from the dugout to the bullpen. They were ready.
“There’s no boundaries on anything,” Lester declared the night before. “Whatever they need.”
Kris Bryant and Rizzo appeared on the field first, followed shortly by Heyward and Ben Zobrist.
They heard boos as they stretched for the biggest game of their lives. “We’re normal people,” Zobrist said. “We get anxious and nerve-wracked like everybody else.”
Before taking the field, it was business as usual in their clubhouse. As promised, Rizzo added another heavy dose of “Rocky” to the pregame music selection. He had found inspiration in the movie, insisting that the Cubs would find a way to “go the distance.”
“The guys were in here playing Mario Kart, they were in here watching TV, listening to music, cutting up,” said Heyward, who spotted only one discernible difference between a game played in November and one played in June. He saw bags under his teammates’ eyes, the remnants of a long season.
The Cubs won 103 games and spent all but one day in first place, though the marathon proved unrelenting. That fatigue was only compounded by the stakes, which Zobrist said he felt as he warmed up, and then every time he stepped to the plate. “Man,” he thought to himself as he laid in bed. “I’m not breathing normal.”
The absurdity of a Cubs-Indians World Series comes out at first pitch. It’s November in Cleveland and it’s 69 degrees, perfect weather for a spectacle.
On Oct. 14, 1908, the day the Cubs earned their last World Series championship, only 6,210 watched the defending champs retain their title by beating the Tigers, 2-0. Two umpires worked the field. The game lasted 1 hour, 25 minutes.
On Nov. 2, 2016, the day the Cubs sought to end their drought, 38,104 packed into Cleveland’s Progressive Field. Another 40 million watched on television, which wouldn’t be invented for more than a decade after the Cubs clinched in 1908. Six umpires worked the field and another manned the review screens in a faraway city, connected only by technology. The game would last 4 hours, 28 minutes, a glorious display of torment and triumph.
Said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer: “We’ll be talking about that game for decades.”
This game will be talked about for all of its cruel twists and turns. Thanks to Davis, the Cubs were about to endure another.
Leading 6-3 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, the Cubs handed the ball to Aroldis Chapman, needing only four outs to win it all. The Cubs already had endured their mishaps: a pair of rare miscues by second baseman Javier Baez and a wild pitch that ricocheted off catcher David Ross’ mask on which two runs scored. But Lester logged three innings of relief and Ross, in the final game of his career, hit a solo homer in the sixth.
As Davis dug in, the Cubs draped themselves over the top step of the dugout, expecting Chapman and his 103-mph fastball to finish the job. But he had nothing. Soon, everyone would know.
Brandon Guyer ripped an RBI double and Davis’ two-run homer struck a Fox camera behind the high fence in left, tying the score. For the first time, Progressive Field sounded as if it held more Indians fans than Cubs fans. “Seeing a homer off Aroldis is as hard a baseball knock as it gets,” Ricketts said.
The Cubs had led the entire game, and now they had surrendered the momentum to the Indians. They badly needed to regroup. That’s when the groundskeepers jogged onto the field and the raindrops refused to cease.
It was time to pull the tarp, thus beginning the most important 17 minutes in the history of the Cubs’ franchise. Davis’ homer had kicked the Cubs in the gut, so Heyward summoned every player to a weight room behind the dugout. “Don’t take one on the chin,” said Heyward, who surprised teammates by calling the meeting.
He delivered the message with a mix of anger, frustration and passion. It carried a special meaning coming from the soft-spoken rightfielder, who hit just .230 in the first year of an eight-year, $184-million deal.
Said Zobrist: “Even though it’s not going to to show up in the stat book, it’s probably the most important thing he did for this team all year long.”
12:47 A.M., NOV. 3
The Cubs were champions of the world. It became official when Michael Martinez hit a slow roller to third base. Wearing a smile, Bryant fielded it and fired to Rizzo, who tucked the ball into his back pocket and stormed the mound to celebrate.
The Cubs had won 103 games and remained in first place for all but one day, a juggernaut. But not until Wednesday night could they truly part with history.
Zobrist doubled home the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th and Miguel Montero followed with an RBI single, knocking in what proved to be the winning run.
Lefty Mike Montgomery had no saves in his career, but after the Indians scored a run in the bottom of the 10th, he got the final out. Soon, bottle corks took off in every direction.Team president Theo Epstein accepted the trophy with Ricketts. Comedian Bill Murray mingled in the crowd. Players’ families congregated in the hallway. The wait was over.
Said Hoyer: “So many generations have gone through this.”
The buses glided down I-71 south, sloshing through the water that left the pavement slick and glistening in the middle of the night. The tires kicked up the same mist that had just brought salvation. The newly crowned world champions were headed home. Baseball’s top prize is called the Commissioner’s Trophy. The Cubs had never hoisted it before. After all, their last title predated even the namesake of the trophy, the commissioner’s office itself. But none of that sordid history mattered now.
Through the windows, the players could be seen taking turns raising the trophy holding it up to the dome light, inspecting its features, illuminated by the red and blue flashers of the police escort.
Passersby sped up, hoping to catch a glimpse.
In 24 hours, the world had changed. Here were the Cubs together as one, a shining ray of light streaking through the darkness.
“No one,” Ricketts said, “will ever, ever, ever forget this.”