Jason Kipnis knows what it means to be a long-suffering Cubs fan. He grew up as one in Northbrook, Illinois, about an hour’s drive from Wrigley Field.
Now his primary goal is to make sure they stay that way, at least for another year.
“If curses are real, their curse seems to be stronger,” said Kipnis, 29, the Indians’ All-Star second baseman. “I think that was a serious thing for them, to not let that goat in. I think the baseball gods should hold that against them.”
But Kipnis is familiar with more than just the Billy Goat hex. He lived down the street from Steve Bartman, the infamous fan who interfered with the foul pop-up that derailed the Cubs in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, and recalled the police cars stationed at his neighbor’s house for weeks after the incident.
The Cubs were a big part of Kipnis’ life back then, just as they are with all of his family and friends. He remembered going to Wrigley for the 2003 Division Series duel between Mark Prior and Greg Maddux, with fans mocking the Braves by using their tomahawk chop against them.
But as Kipnis relayed his fond Cubs memories during Monday’s workout at Progressive Field, he also repeatedly emphasized that there are no conflicting emotions this week. It was a popular question, and when a kid reporter took his swing, Kipnis gently laid out his feelings.
“I get my mail sent to an Ohio address now,” Kipnis said. “I’m an Indians guy.”
If this were any other World Series, the overriding narrative would be the Indians’ own title drought, which dates to 1948. They’d be the media darling, with a sympathetic national audience likely rooting for them to snap their streak of futility. But this October, with the Cubs involved? Their drought dates to 1908. Sympathy for the Indians? Not happening.
“I don’t think there’s any series that can embody ‘Cleveland vs. The World’ as much as this one does,” Kipnis said, “because that’s what it feels like.”
And while we’re on the subject of jinxes, Kipnis has been nursing a sprained ankle since last Thursday’s clinching ALCS Game 5, when he injured himself during the postgame celebration at Rogers Centre. Immediately after the final out, Kipnis embraced Francisco Lindor and rolled his left ankle on the shortstop’s foot. You can see Kipnis’ face go from rapturous smile to painful grimace, but the expectation is that he’ll be ready — if less than 100 percent healthy — for Tuesday night’s Game 1.
Kipnis described Cleveland as “the center of the sports world” for what will go down that night, with the Cavaliers getting their rings and hoisting the championship banner across the street at Quicken Loans Arena shortly before Corey Kluber delivers the first pitch at Progressive Field. It’s a dramatically different vibe in “Believeland” these days, but even with the Indians hoping to make history, as the Cavs did in June, Kipnis joked that his celebrity status doesn’t quite approach that of King James. For one, he’s not as easily recognized.
“I honestly hope never to be on that level,” Kipnis said. “It’s a lot different for a 6-8 guy than a 5-10 guy. I can sneak into my friend’s softball games. I don’t think LeBron can sneak into any pickup basketball games.”
Kipnis wasn’t kidding about the softball. But as crazy as that sounds, playing at Wrigley Field in the World Series is something he always imagined as a Little Leaguer. Just not quite the same way it will unfold for him during the middle games on the North Side.
“I dreamt about it,” Kipnis said. “But I dreamt about hitting in the bottom of the ninth inning. Instead, it’s going to be the top.”
One of these teams will make history when this World Series is over. Either Kipnis or his pals back in the Chicago suburbs will be celebrating. And based on the tortured pasts for these franchises, lives will be forever changed. The fans, the players. Anyone with emotional ties to the Cubs or Indians.
As for Kipnis, he’s enjoying the ride. And winning has its perks.
“The other day, I went to Chipotle,” Kipnis said. “And the guy told me, no, you’re not paying.”
Today free burritos. Tomorrow the world.