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Then You Are Not The Thing You Were

Analysis and Commentary

It hit me when Miguel Montero’s bat exploded through the zone on an 0-2 pitch, sending a monster grand slam blast into the right field bleachers in Game One of the National League Championship Series. A wave of emotion that surprised even me.

The packed bar around me literally shook with the joy of hundreds of Cubs fans – and 40,000 more in Wrigley Field across the street – screaming and hugging and inconsolably happy.

Me? I was slumped over my table, head sinking deeper into my hands.

At first I thought I was just failing to process the shock. The Cubs had blown a two-run lead in the 8th inning of the NLCS, and for them to immediately thereafter shove back the gravity of history with a dismissive flick of the bat, I couldn’t believe what I’d seen.

But that wasn’t what I was feeling. I knew it before the Cubs ultimately cruised to a comfortable victory in the game. I knew it, and it was a horribly discomforting feeling.

This Cubs team really might win it all.

***


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It’s the thing you were never supposed to talk about as a thoughtful, passionate Cubs fan. And a pox on the house of any non-Cubs fan who would have the audacity to suggest it.

No, it’s not as pathetic as being attached to the losing. I never enjoyed watching the Cubs lose, and I don’t believe any of you did, either. I never felt like the Cubs being a dominating powerhouse would somehow diminish the joy I felt while experiencing my Cubs fandom. I won’t speak for you, but I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun these last two years.

Instead, it’s all much more subtle. More … definitional. You spend a lifetime desiring something. Wishing for it. Dreaming of it. Eventually, you become a person who is identified more by that desire than by the object desired. “I am a person who wants to see the Chicago Cubs win the World Series” is not the same thing as “I am a person who properly enjoys the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.”

Even now, on the other side of a Chicago Cubs championship, I can tell you I’m even more convicted about what I was feeling before it happened. I know what my world has been as a Cubs fan. It all makes sense to me, and how that fandom played out in my life has become a huge part of who I am. The kind of person I believe myself to be.

And then you are not the thing you were.

It has always meant something to be a Cubs fan. While I never bought the idea that we were somehow unconsciously attracted to the losing, I very much do buy the idea that we pride ourselves on a different caliber of loyalty – the kind that can be earned only by so much heartbreak. The Cubs never win? Well, screw you, pal. I still love them with all my heart, and I’m not going anywhere. That says something about me, and I like what it says. It is almost like there is a nobility there that we can’t easily earn in other areas of our modern life.

When I raised my head from the table during Game One of the NLCS, and actively surveyed the bar scene around me, the echoed explosion broke out as Dexter Fowler went back-to-back following Montero’s grand slam.


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It felt … good. In the heat of a game like that, an existential crisis rarely lasts much longer than the next pitch.

I screamed. I high fived. I got happy. Really happy. Positivity flowed, and my enthusiasm for what was to come would not wane as I watched Anthony Rizzo squeeze a well-turned double play ball and dash for the mound at the end of Game Six.

The Chicago Cubs had won the pennant for the first time in 71 years, and I just felt happy. I stayed inside Wrigley Field for as long as security permitted after that win, soaking in the moment, knowing how rare it is.

Whatever that moment was that washed over me in Game One of the NLCS, it was as long gone as Montero’s grand slam. I wanted this. With every firing nerve in my body, I wanted to see the Cubs win the freaking World Series.


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***

Although we could trace the roots of this season’s championship run to the arrival of the new front office five years ago, or, even moreso, the arrival of the Ricketts Family as owners in late 2009, it will always feel to me in memory that things really got rolling in mid-2014.

That’s when we started to see the arrivals of the Cubs’ vaunted young talent (COOKIES!), with Arismendy Alcantara coming first in July of that year. I find it strangely appropriate that, not only did the Cubs lose the game and Alcantara had an uninspiring debut, but also the Enhanced Box Score from that game was about how Aroldis Chapman overwhelmed Junior Lake, Justin Ruggiano, and Mike Olt. It was the kind of down, shrug-your-shoulders day that had flavored the Cubs experience for so many years, and the arrival of one prospect wasn’t going to change anything.

The very next day – July 10, 2014 – Kyle Hendricks was called up to make his Major League debut, Anthony Rizzo won the All-Star Game final vote, the Cubs extended Scouting and Player Development Chief Jason McLeod after he’d declined an opportunity to run the Padres, and the Cubs beat the Reds, with Arismendy Alcantara having a huge game, and Anthony Rizzo stepping up for his teammates (in a dispute with Aroldis Chapman, no less).


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Looking back from where we stand today, could you have scripted a better turning point? Heck, if you had scripted that, I would have said it was way too on the nose.

But that’s what really happened, all on July 10, 2014.

From there, the Cubs would see the arrival of many more young players, would go 31-28 to close out the year, would bring in Jon Lester and Joe Maddon, would break out in 2015, and would play as the clear best team in baseball in 2016.

***


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The 2015 NLDS felt like a reward for a season well-played. That 2015 team was, in many ways, the beta iteration of this year’s championship club. If July 10, 2014 was the turning point for the organization, then the 2015 season was the proof things had really turned.

Winning the NLDS, especially over the Cardinals, was such a joy. Yes, disappointment awaited in the next series, but for a week, things were very, very good, and it felt like there was no real downside after the Cubs had competed in 2015, and then won the Wild Card Game.

This year’s NLDS, by the end, came with just as much joy, but the emotional underpinning was, for me, very different. It felt like there was very real downside if the dominant 2016 Cubs succumbed to the vagaries of the five-game series, and somehow lost to the Giants. The offseason, the talking points, and the regret of knowing what could have been, would have been absolutely unbearable.

When the Cubs won the 2015 NLDS over the Cardinals, I cried because I was so happy. When the Cubs won the 2016 NLDS over the Giants, I screamed and danced mostly because I was relieved.

… well, and because that series was freaking incredible.

It’s easy to forget, given what followed, but that Giants series was amazing, wasn’t it?

Consider that the one game the Cubs lost in the series was one of the most exciting playoff games of the year – a 13-inning thriller, featuring a late blown lead by the Cubs, a game-tying two-run homer by Kris Bryant in the 9th, a game-saving diving catch by Albert Almora Jr., and ultimately a walk-off by the Giants.

The series was bookended by a tense and dramatic Game One, for which the only scoring was a late Javy Baez homer into the teeth of the wind, and an unbelievable Game Four, in which the Cubs came behind from a three-run deficit in the 9th inning to win the game.

Whatever I’d been feeling about the series as only a possible disaster with no upside, that was all gone when Willson Contreras’s game-tying single and Javy Baez’s game-leading single reached center field.

I’d somehow forgotten that there’s always upside when this Cubs group is playing: more often than you’d believe, they pull off something utterly incredible.

***


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I often think about why we care so much about sports. About why a group of people we don’t know beating another group of people we don’t know in a game a thousand miles away impacts us at all.

About why this moment – what happened for the Cubs – can move us so profoundly. It’s just a bunch of guys playing a kid’s game trying to hit and catch a silly ball wearing silly pajamas. Why does it matter? Isn’t this all so very silly?

At the end of years of ruminating on the subject, I don’t know that there’s any one, comprehensive answer, and I’m certainly no psychologist. I do find myself heading down a couple avenues regularly, though.

One has to do quite simply with watching the games and seasons unfold. We like this sport, but we don’t swing the bat and we don’t catch the balls. Instead, we get to experience the process of a particular team trying to achieve something at the end of a show we happen to like watching – and when the show has a happy ending, we as humans find that happiness reflected in ourselves. And because this is a process stretched over long periods of time, it is only natural that we would become attached on some deeper level to the outcomes of the games. You follow along in the highs and the lows with the players on the field and the other fans around you for long enough, and the results start to feel like they are your results, too. You feel like you’ve earned these experiences, good and bad.

But I never felt like that was enough to explain the depth of our attachment and emotional reaction to these games.

There is something about the fact that it’s just a silly game that strips away everything else in our world, and allows us to get down to something in our core. Something powerful and primal. I have always believed that, in the deepest depths of our soul, we feel just one thing, and we are so desperate to share that feeling with as many other beings as possible.

It’s love.

Love comes in many flavors, but I challenge anyone here to deny that what they were feeling on November 2 was one of the most love-infused moments of your life. And you knew, on some level, that in that moment you were sharing that love with so many other people, who were themselves feeling that same love. Your friends. Your family. Those players. Your internet commenting chums. Total strangers. There is so much power in something that can bind millions of people together in a moment, however fleeting, of nothing but pure love.

How could that be silly?

***


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I think about the Red Sox quite often in relation to the Cubs’ win. Well, more accurately, I thought about the Red Sox quite often when thinking about the Cubs’ eventual win.

Although the Cubs’ drought was lengthier at the time in 2004, I’d imagine that most non-partisan observers would have described the Red Sox’s as more harrowing. Maybe that’s just the unthinkable conclusion to the 1986 World Series imprinted on me, with the Red Sox twice having been one strike away from winning it all, only to see Game 6 slip away, and then ultimately go to the Mets on the infamous Bill Buckner play. In any case, suffice it to say, the Red Sox – and their fans – had suffered a great deal.

Then, in 2004, you had a young new GM in Theo Epstein calling the shots, supplementing an already-strong roster, and heading into the postseason with an excellent club. But the New York Yankees, naturally, stood as a hurdle (fresh off the Aaron Boone ALCS-winning homer against the Red Sox the year before), and took a 3-0 lead in the teams’ ALCS rematch. That baby, for all intents and purposes, was over. No team had ever overcome a 3-0 deficit in a series.

But then the Red Sox won four straight, and did it. It was the kind of miraculous comeback that presaged the World Series win without any doubt. After overcoming the Yankees like that – a year after losing in excruciating fashion? They had done “the thing”, and the World Series win was a foregone conclusion. (Sure enough, the Red Sox went on to sweep the Cardinals in four games.)

The reason I thought about this a lot as the Cubs marched toward the playoffs, and even as they moved into the NLCS and the World Series, is that I kept wondering: what’s going to be the Cubs’ “thing”? You know what I mean. What is going to be the “wow, so THAT’S what they had to finally overcome in order to finally do it”?

Sure, the NLDS finale was dramatic as hell, but the Cubs won the series in four games. The NLCS was a great one with a beautiful ending, but, again, the Cubs won it in six. Each series was full of dramatic, exciting moments, but I never quite felt like I knew that destiny was kicking in.

Maybe you’ll point to the 3-1 World Series deficit, which, hey, if that’s your feeling, great. The Cubs had a mere 15ish% chance of winning the series at that point, and overcoming that hurdle is significant.

I guess I just didn’t think the Cubs could finally do it all without there being some crystal clear moment where they overcame something so much bigger. Sports don’t always give you that easy poetic connection.

Then again …

As the Cubs built a sizable lead in Game Seven, I’ll admit here and now that, as David Ross homered off of Andrew Miller (off of Andrew freaking Miller!) to push the Cubs’ lead back to 6-3 in the 6th inning, after they’d just given up a couple runs, I was convinced: this is going to happen. The Cubs not only had their potent offense clicking and a killer late-innings defense, but they had the only better pitcher in the game ready and waiting in Aroldis Chapman.

Or the very guy who gave up the Cubs’ lead on Rajai Davis’ home run two innings later.

The you-could-hear-a-pin-drop cliche is overused, but I couldn’t use it here if I wanted. None of the 600 or so in attendance watching on the big screen at The Metro, across from Wrigley Field, was dropping a pin in that moment. No one was moving at all. Every last one of us had, at some point in the preceding few innings, accepted what was happening. And for that home run to happen … it strained credulity. It should not have been possible. Our collective stunned silence said what our hearts would not let us say aloud: this can’t be happening.

The greatest victories, however, have heartbreak as prelude. It was true for the 108 years that the championship took, and it was true for the climax of the final game. Never before has the line between the most incredible dream and the most dreadful nightmare been so narrow – truly, for several innings, it was matter of just one pitch.

The Cubs held the line just long enough for the heavens to send the most famous rain delay in sports history, and for Jason Heyward to put the wind back in his teammates’ sails. For me, the most lasting image of the entire series will probably be Ben Zobrist’s unbridled and exuberant leap into second base when he doubled to give the Cubs the lead in the 10th inning of Game Seven, followed by Anthony Rizzo’s look of utter shock at third base. In that moment, they were all of us: screaming in joy, and then instantly thinking, “Oh my God, is this really happening?”

It was really happening. The devil winked at us for just a moment in the bottom of the 10th, allowing the Indians to put together a little rally, but this really was the year.

My legs gave, and I started to go down. I never quite made it, though; the explosion of energy released by the cracking of so many years of frustration and hope compacted into a tiny, dense star in the pit of my stomach lifted me back to my feet. And then off my feet, and into the air. Gravity no longer had any dominion over my movements. I felt no weight, and, for a moment, I was untethered from anything that had ever restrained me. I was a swirl of smoke. I was atmosphere.

So, then, what did the Cubs overcome? What is their the grand narrative “thing”? Consider how many little things could have so easily gone just wrong enough to derail Game Seven, right up to the final out. Improbably, Kris Bryant’s slip on the final play didn’t send the ball sailing into the stands.

In the face of so many opportunities to do so, at the highest-leverage moments in the history of the franchise: the Cubs didn’t screw it up.

Maybe that’s the thing.

***


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Our youngest was born as the Cubs clinched the NL Central last year. She arrived hours after the technical clinch (a late-night Cardinals loss did the trick), and hours before the Cubs beat the Brewers with a Miguel Montero walk-off in what would become their celebratory “clincher.” Whichever game you count as having done the trick, our daughter entered a world where the Cubs were already NL Central champions and headed to the playoffs as something as close to prohibitive favorites as a team can be in baseball.

The only life she’s ever known has but one World Series champion: the Chicago Cubs.

While that’ll no doubt be a fun factoid for the rest of her life, I do wonder how much it’s going to matter.

When the Cubs won it all, I was overwhelmed entirely for personal reasons, as I have loved the Cubs for so many more years than I’ve ever loved a woman. And yet, had the Cubs won it all in 1984, would my reaction have been so different? I was three at the time, and assuredly wouldn’t remember the experience. So, the 2016 Cubs would have been the first real chance in my lifetime to experience that moment. Wouldn’t I have felt just as overjoyed if the Cubs had merely squashed a drought that matched my lifetime?

… and yet, somehow, I know that’s bunk. I didn’t live in the 1970s. Or the 1960s. And I’ll save you a handful of short sentences to say that I was not around in 1909, either. But I felt the weight of those decades of heartbreak in the same way that sports allows us all to feel something bigger than ourselves: Cubs fans came together in a greater community of suffering.

When the team finally won it all, as I said, I was overwhelmed for myself. For a time. From there, the sublime and transformative joy I experienced was almost entirely the product of everyone else’s disappointment overcome. I knew how they felt. Maybe not for as long, and maybe not even as deeply. But I knew. And it meant so much to me to commune with them. With you. From the oldest Cubs fans who’d waited so long, to the youngest Cubs fans who knew how long they’d waited only by looking in the eyes of their parents and grandparents.

I felt it most acutely when I visited the outfield walls at Wrigley Field the next morning. The colors. The happiness. The well-wishes. And the names. The names.

Someone had an idea to write in chalk on the outer side of the outfield wall at Wrigley Field. And, in the way only the very best things can, that idea grew until it had covered every reachable, chalkable surface. In another context, it might’ve been an unwanted, selfish ugliness. Here and now? It was an enormous, collective love letter, written to the Cubs by those whose lives they’d touched, and in memory of those who couldn’t be there to write.

It was a physical manifestation of the very thing I’ve been trying to describe in these paragraphs, born into existence at the very home of the very team that had brought us together in collective suffering. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more beautiful work of art.

I added the initials of my family, including the littlest girl, born on the third base of Cubs fandom.

 

***

The Chicago Cubs begin their reign as champions today, for the first time in 108 years. It is as jarring to see unfolding as what happened five months ago, which I suppose means I’m still enjoying the ride.

The reality of this post is that, although I’m putting the finishing touches on it this morning, I started writing it long before the playoffs were even over. No, I wasn’t being overconfident. I simply knew that so much of the personal truth in here was going to apply whether the Cubs finally won it all or not.

That’s what I cling to today when I think about something I wrote up above, the day after the Cubs won the World Series: and then you are not the thing you were.

It’s true. I’m not. You’re not. Cubs fans are now forever changed by what happened in Cleveland on November 2. We will never again begin a Cubs season equal parts hopeful and dubious that this might finally be the year. There was an uncertainty for me back then about how I’d feel now, with that part of my life in the past.

But with distance, as always, comes perspective. There’s no part of me that is not still gleeful that the Cubs are the world champions, allowing myself periodically to be ravaged by memories of how It Happened. That was the year. And it was beautiful. I felt it then. I feel it still.

Moreover, for the first time in our lives, we now have the privilege of entering a Chicago Cubs season unburdened by the weight of the wait. There is no more peculiar agony attached to what happens in this baseball season. Not one of us has ever had the opportunity to experience a season like the one we’re about to experience. We can enjoy these baseball games, resolute in the knowledge that history cannot be changed. Anthony Rizzo’s glove forever and always squeezes that ball, imprinting upon us a moment that no frustration in the season ahead can take away.

I am not the thing I was? I pondered that five months ago with fear. Now I ask it with anticipation.

I’m excited to find out the thing that I am.


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Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor of Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation.