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Thursday, November 03, 2016

I Ain't Afraid of No Goat

I'll be honest; I was rooting for Cleveland (I won't say the rest of the name of the team). Both they and the Cubs had long, historic droughts, but I usually root for the American League, except when it's the Yankees, and I feel more sorry for people in Cleveland because they've had far less success than other sports teams in the city, and the fans have to live in Cleveland.

But when the final out was made in last night's weird and wonderful Game Seven, which ended the Cubs' 108-year schneid, I had to smile, It was a moment that transcended sports. There are probably Hottentots who know about the Cubs' woes. Just as "1918" was a knife to the heart of Red Sox fans, so was "1908," and even "1945," to make it that much worse. Is Chicago still standing?

Another reason I didn't want the Cubs to win was that their long-running losing streak was a good story, except for Cubs fans (but even one Cubs fan wasn't sure he wanted them to win). Now the Cubs are just another team, like the Red Sox are, whose fans have become some of the must insufferable in sports (I think it's interesting in that Masterpass commercial that the mean, burly fan is the Red Sox fan, and the meek, nerdy fan is a Yankees guy). If the Cubs are in another series or two, as they are primed to be, we may all hate Cub fans even more than Red Sox fans.

This was the Cubs' to lose. They had the best record, the best lineup, the best pitching staff, and one the best managers. They took care of the Giants, and in fact won the deciding game in a way that they usually lost games before, scoring five runs in the 9th against a hapless Giants' bullpen. Against the Dodgers they went down 2-1, probably giving the North Side the runs, but righted the ship and won going away, beating Clayton Kershaw in the deciding game. And then came Cleveland.

Cleveland was most impressive, dispatching the Red Sox in three straight and Toronto in four. They played all aspects of the game brilliantly, and every move Terry Francona made was the right one. He had a bullpen of the ages. Imagine that a middle-reliever, Andrew Miller, was his most important player (and won the ALCS MVP). The fact that the two teams had the two longest droughts in the major leagues would make for great drama.

This was not the greatest World Series of all time. In my lifetime, it's the 1991 Series, which had five one-run games and four walk-offs. You could also say 1975. This Series had three great games, including one of the greatest ever played, and three ho-hum games and, as usual, it was the odd-numbered games that were the turning points.

After trading mostly one-sided affairs in Cleveland, Francona's bunch went with Josh Tomlin, who was matched against the newly great Kyle Hendricks. Both left the game without giving up any runs. A Coco Crisp single in the seventh scored the only run, and the Cleveland bullpen held on by their fingernails to win 1-0. They added a 7-2 win the next day, also at Wrigley, and the Cubs looked doomed.

But they fought back in a pivotal game five, spurred by a Kris Bryant home run. The series would go back to Cleveland. Comebacks from 3-1 down, especially on the road, are rare, and the last one happened in 1979. But the Cubs battered Cleveland 9-3, setting up Game Seven.

This game will be talked about for years, because a lot of people saw it. It got a 25 rating, the highest for a baseball game in twenty-five years. It was wacky and exciting and Cub Anthony Rizzo, overheard on another player's mic, gave a touch of the poet when he said he was "in a glass case of emotion."

The Cubs' Dexter Fowler homered in the first at bat against Cleveland ace Corey Kluber, who settled down and Cleveland tied it. The Cubs pulled ahead 5-1, and it looked good until Jon Lester, in relief, threw a wild pitch that scored two runs. The last time that had happened, we were told, was 1911. But the Cubs added an insurance run on David Ross' home run (it would be the last game before retirement for the grizzled journeyman) and all seemed well.

Here is where Cubs' manager Joe Maddon, who I think won the Series in spite of his managing, got burned. His closer is Aroldis Chapman, who can throw 105 miles an hour. He threw an unusual amount of innings in Game Five, necessarily so, but Maddon brought him in in Game Six five runs up, and Chapman was clearly out of gas. He allowed a run-scoring double to Brandon Guyer and then up stepped Rajai Davis, who is the kind of player that nobody thinks much about (his slightly errant throw allowed a run to score earlier). But Davis turned on a down-and-in pitch that just cleared the left field wall, and it was all tied up. Bedlam.

Maddon stuck with Chapman for the ninth, but there was no damage. But then, in what could be interpreted as divine intervention, came a rain delay. Going into the tenth inning. In Game Seven of the World Series (those on the East Coast were probably debating whether they could wait it out--on the West Coast it was still only a bit after nine). The Cubs to a man say the rain delay was enormously beneficial. It allowed them to regroup after the shock of the eight inning, and it may have bothered Cleveland reliever Bryan Shaw, who had to sit through seventeen minutes of inactivity.

So if God wanted the Cubs to win, that's how he helped. He also helped by having Shaw give up a series of hits and some brilliant baserunning by Albert Amora, who took second on a deep fly ball to center. Ben Zobrist, who was with the champ Kansas City Royals last year, made sure he was on back-to-back winners by doubling the opposite way. Zobrist then scored, a run that was needed, as Cleveland scratched out a run in the bottom of the tenth. Jesus wept!

It was tough luck for Cleveland, who were immediately handed the distinction of now holding the longest drought in the majors, the Cubs the shortest. There were many heroes on both sides, and it was a reminder that baseball is the best sport there is (although I do maintain the most exciting thing in sports is a Game Seven in the NHL, because it's sudden death).

I watched almost every pitch, in bed by ten most nights (even low-scoring games can run four hours). I was impressed with John Smoltz, and though Pete Rose looks like he is melting, he knows his stuff (everyone had high praise for Alex Rodriguez, but at times I found him to be Captain Obvious). Par for the course were the shots of people in the stands. Fox botched a reviewed play of Francisco Lindor's being picked off first. The director was so concerned with fan reaction shots that we missed the umpire's call and Lindor was already in the clubhouse before we got his reaction.

We also got our usual shots of celebrities. Fox shamelessly imports starts of their TV shows to sit in the stands, and we had the celebrity fans there on the their own dime. LeBron James and Drew Carey for Cleveland, and Vince Vaughn, Eddie Vedder and, most notably, Bill Murray for Chicago.

Murray was such a presence that it seemed like he was part of the team. He somehow got into the White House Press Room and said the Cubs would make the World Series, "We've got the sticks," he said. He was at all games, including this one which I believe was in an early round, wearing a self-referential shirt that read "I Ain't Afraid of No Goat," a reference to Ghostbusters and to the Curse of the Billy Goat. That started in 1945. The Cubs were actually a respectable team up until then--1945 was actually their tenth pennant (they also won six National League Championships in the pre-World Series days). But a tavern owner, Williams Sianis, and his goat were asked to leave Wrigley Field during the '45 series. Sianis was outraged and said the Cubs would never win again. That has become interpreted as a curse, but it's gone now (fortunately goats are now banned, I believe, in all ballparks).

Murray was so ubiquitous that he seemed like a mascot, albeit without a giant foam head. He invited fans to sit with him during Games Six and Seven (I hope it's not because he has no friends) and when Zobrist was named Series MVP and awarded a Corvette, Murray was seen trying to start it.

I don't know anyone who doesn't like Bill Murray--how can you not?--so if anything I'm happy for him. Both teams should be good for a while. Cleveland, who lost the last World Series to go into extra innings in Game Seven (Jose Mesa!) will hopefully be back before another 19 years go by. As for the Cubs, they have everything for a dynasty run. Theo Epstein, the General Manager who has now lifted two several-generation curses is a Hall of Famer in waiting. They'll certainly win again--if not soon, then in 2124.

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