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Growing up in Chicago over the past three decades has been an embarrassment of riches for any sports fan. In my 29 short years, Chicago teams have won six NBA championships, three Stanley Cups, and a World Series (no really, the White Sox won in 2005). Even the Bears played in a Super Bowl, though I was born two years too late to be alive for them to actually win one. It would be impossible to call Chicago a long-suffering sports city with a straight face. But ask anyone if the Chicago Cubs are a long-suffering sports franchise, and you will be met with a forlorn look and silent nodding of the head.
It has been 108 years since the Cubs won a World Series (the longest championship drought of any major sports franchise) and 71 years since the Cubs even participated in one. The reasons for this vary. Some blame a goat named Murphy. Others blame a black cat. Most blame a man named Steve Bartman. But the real reason has more to do with bad management and an organization unwilling to spend money than it does with any curse. It wasn’t until 2009, when the Ricketts family purchased the Cubs from longtime owners, The Tribune Company, and then hired wunderkind Theo Epstein to run baseball operations in 2011, that the Cubs began to look like they had a real plan for sustained success. It took a few years of awful teams to restock the farm system, but everything came together during the 2015 season when a team of youngsters stormed into the NLCS a year ahead of schedule. They’d be swept by the Mets, but the message was heard loud and clear around the league, the Cubs were ready to compete. The Ricketts opened their pocket book during the offseason, scoring numerous big name free agents, and the Cubs arrived at Opening Day as overwhelming favorites to win the World Series. 202 days later, the Cubs defeated the Dodgers 5-0 and punched their ticket to the World Series for the first time in 71 years.
This past Saturday, I got to do something very few living people have had the opportunity to do: I attended a World Series game at Wrigley Field. Sports have always been a huge part of my life. I played sports all the way through college and I’ve been a diehard Chicago sports fan since the day I learned who Michael Jordan was. Every time I move to a new city, the first thing I do is find the best Chicago sports bar in town and make friends (Monaghan’s in San Francisco and Triona’s on Third in New York). I’ve drank a lot of beer and watched a lot of games in some amazing environments at those bars over the last five years. I’ve also been fortunate enough to attend everything from a Stanley Cup game to an NLCS game 7 to a NFL playoff game to big-time college football rivalry games. I’ve watched in person as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods competed at their absolute peaks. I tell you this, not to brag, but to put into context the following statement: I’ve never seen a city or an environment like the one I witnessed in Chicago at Wrigley Field over the weekend.
From the moment that we stepped off the plane at O’Hare, the Cubs’ presence could be felt everywhere. We couldn’t turn our heads without seeing a Cubs hat, t-shirt, or jersey. Companies had updated their billboards along I-94 to congratulate the Cubs (they haven’t even won yet). The electronic signs above the highway that usually give travel time and a reminder to drive sober now say “Fly The W” (referring to the Cubs iconic “W” flag that flies after every win). Buildings downtown have changed their floodlights to red and blue and many have written Cubs’ related messages on the side of their buildings using office lights. The Lions standing guard outside The Art Institute now wear Cubs hats. All of this was before we had gotten within miles of Wrigleyville.
Getting to Wrigleyville from downtown is as easy as hopping on the Red Line “L” train to Addison. In fact, it is the preferred way to get there. There aren’t any massive concrete parking lots at Wrigley. The stadium opened in 1914, just a few years after the Model T went into production, and to this day, it is surrounded by homes and bars on all four sides. As far as public transportation goes, the “L” is about as good as it gets. They even offer mobile phone tap-to-pay at the turnstiles (what’s up NYC?). But before and after Cubs games, the cars can get a bit crowded.
I remember after a summer game at Wrigley several years ago, the train was packed so tightly that every time the train pulled into a station and the doors opened, people literally spilled onto the platform. It was a scorching hot summer day, making the overstuffed train car as close to hell on earth as possible. To add insult to injury, the Cubs had lost, so the crowd was largely silent and angry, until one brave inebriated soul suddenly belted out, “Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band.” The shock of a loud noise piercing the silence confused the crowd. But before they could react, this singer’s equally inebriated friends joined in for the second line: “Pretty eyed, pirate smile, you’ll marry a music man.” At this point, the crowd was either going to go one of two ways: the heat, the overcrowding, and the Cubs loss were going to turn this mob against the acapella singers…or one-by-one we would all join in chorus until the entire subway car was singing along to Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. I’ll let you guess which one happened.
There was a sense of comradery in the “L” car that day. If we all had to be miserable, we might as well be miserable together, singing along to Tiny Dancer. There was a similar sense of comradery in the “L” car on Saturday as it barreled along it’s track to the center of the baseball universe. The car was just as overstuffed, but this time, the comradery wasn’t born out of misery, but rather joy, optimism, and civic pride. Everyone was beyond excited that the Cubs were in the World Series. Most of the people on the train didn’t even have tickets to the game. They were either going to brave the lines and cover charges of Wrigleyville bars; take pictures with Wrigley Field’s iconic red sign, or just be present around the stadium. Everyone just wanted to be there to support our boys in any way that they could. To be a part of history.
“Our boys” . . . it’s funny how a group of young men, who most of us will never get to meet, can become such a big part of our lives that we start using words like “us” and “we” and “our” when describing the team. This effect is only magnified by baseball because they play 162 games. On any given summer night, you can turn on the TV and beam them into your apartment: Rizzo, Bryant, Russell, Zobrist, Baez, Heyward, Fowler, Lester, Hendricks, Ross, Arrieta, Lackey, Schwarber, Contreras. You become invested in those names. You understand at some level that the outcome of the game won’t affect your life in any meaningful way, but in the moment, it doesn’t feel like that. In the moment, it means more to you than it probably should. So, you do stupid things like show up to a bar at 7 a.m. to get a seat or spend a small fortune on tickets to the game, just so you can say you were there. That you were a part of history.
Getting off the train at Addison on Saturday felt like herding cattle. I mean that literally since the police had created a series of human barricades to guide you to your destination (side note: I’ve never seen more police officers in one place, but the crowd remained orderly and friendly throughout the evening). By the time we made it out of the station and on to the street, the first thing that immediately struck us was the size of the crowd. People as far as the eye could see stretched down every street around the park. Some were making their way into the park (though the lines to get into the stadium were comically short), but most were just trying to snap some pictures. We didn’t linger. Despite how much I would have enjoyed hitting the batting cages at Sluggers, we knew the bars had been full since 7 a.m. and our best chance at getting a beer was in the stadium.
As we went through security and got our tickets scanned, I couldn’t help but be struck by how excited the ticket taker was to take our ticket. My experience with stadium ticket takers has been that they never appear very happy. It isn’t the highest of paying jobs pays and its core task is repetitive and monotonous. Take ticket, scan ticket, rinse, repeat. But, the guy who took our ticket on Saturday had an enthusiasm in his voice that couldn’t have been faked by the best Hollywood actors. He was genuinely as ecstatic to be standing there taking tickets as we were to be attending the game. He was getting to be a part of history.
A couple Vienna Beef Hot Dogs, a Bud Light, and a quick photo later, and we were ready for game time. I’ve been in some loud stadiums in my life. The National Anthem during the Stanley Cup at the United Center (where the fans are known for cheering the entire song) comes to mind as perhaps one of the loudest. But nothing has ever compared, and perhaps ever will compare, to the noise in Wrigley Field when Anthony Rizzo drove in Dexter Fowler in the first inning with an RBI single. It was deafening. It was as if an entire city exhaled 71 years of disappointment in one giant, never-ending roar. The very foundation of Wrigley Field shook. For the first time in 71 years, the Cubs had scored a run at Wrigley Field in the World Series.
The next three hours were largely depressing. The Cubs lost 7-2 and weren’t competitive for the last four or five innings. The crowd quieted, but nobody left the stadium until the last out. That’s the thing about the 2016 version of the Cubs. No longer do fans watch in fear, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for disaster to strike. Now, we’ve always got a chance. Now, anything can happen with one swing of the bat. Now, Cubs fans cling to hope. Hope that, after being down 3-1 in the series with our backs against the wall, we can do what only a handful of teams have ever done in history which is win three straight elimination games, two of them on the road. Hope that this group of youngsters is too young and naive to feel the weight of the World Series, the weight of a city, and the weight of 108 years of history pressing down on them with every swing of the bat. Hope that, now faced with a game 7 against the best pitcher this postseason, our boys have one more win left in them. But even if they don’t, even if this isn’t our year, no one can ever take away last weekend. The weekend the Cubs played three World Series games at Wrigley Field for the first time in 71 years. The weekend that we all got to be a part of history…for our boys.