To know why a Cubs win can elicit fireworks on a Wednesday night and grandparents giggling and strangers hugging on the moonlit streets of Chicago, Illinois, you have to first know what broke those people. Mine was Game 7, 2003. I couldn’t drink after that game. I was in college and I was too sad to drink.
I called my parents on my walk home that night and kept muttering variations of “I thought they’d do it. I really thought they’d do it.” My mother comforted me. Then my father took the phone, heard me out, and said:
“Just wait till it gets bad.”
That was the hammer blow. As much as I knew about the Cubs by 2003, the true depths of that burden were obviously still a mystery. With that game and those six words, the mystery was solved. Not only was Pops not fazed, he viewed this catastrophe as typical. Your run-of-the-mill calamity. A “Cubbie occurrence,” as Lou Piniella once said.
That’s the baggage that saddled me until we cleared the 5-outs-away mark of this year’s NLCS.
That’s the baggage I released into the atmosphere like a billion balloons when Rizzo’s glove clutched the final World Series out.
When it happened, I whipped screaming around the room, then ran to the door, then ran back inside and got my keys, then ran back to the door, then trucked outside and screamed “YEAAHHHHH!” at nobody and everybody, then went back inside to breathe and drink water.
I would wager every Cubs fan experienced a wave like that. We were calling and texting everyone we knew. Think about when people get engaged and then call everybody, and everybody’s cheering and congratulating the newly engaged couple. Winning the first Cubs World Series in 108 years felt like all Cubs fans getting engaged simultaneously and calling each other to celebrate.
This time around, I just kept muttering, “We did it. We did it. Holy crap we did it.” I went back outside and ran circles in the intersection and high-fived other people running circles in the intersection. I high-fived people lighting sparklers from the sidewalk and sent air high-fives to people lighting sparklers from 2nd- and 3rd-floor windows. I high-fived a guy in an Urlacher jersey. I high-fived a guy in a “WE AIN’T AFRAID OF NO GOAT” t-shirt. I went back inside for more water. I spoke with my parents and celebrated with them. I went back outside. A guy my age was now standing on the corner, just shaking his head and staring at nothing. He was wearing a Cubs hat. We looked at each other.
“We did it,” I said, which was the only concrete concept I could articulate.
But he looked right back at me and his eyes widened and he nodded and said, “Dude.” And we walked right up to each other and hugged and patted each other on the back. And he smiled and looked at me and said, “We did it.”
In the locker room after the game, an inebriated Bill Murray interviewed an inebriated Theo Epstein in one of the great post-championship locker room interviews that’s ever lived. Incredibly, Murray practiced solid journalism: when Epstein sprayed him in the face with champagne instead of answering his question, Murray refocused and asked again.
“Are there any relatives or any folks you haven’t talked to this week who you want to say,” he said, smiling, “you’re sorry you didn’t get them tickets for the game?”
“No,” Epstein said into the camera. “I just want to thank everyone who’s ever put on a Cubs uniform and anyone who’s ever rooted for the Cubs. It’s been 108 years of love, support, and patience, waiting for a team like this, to make it happen on a night like this. You guys are all world champs tonight. And I couldn’t be happier for you.”
That’s the “we” in “we did it.” Those two groups. Everyone who played for the team and everyone who rooted for the team. Sports fans debate “we” all the time, but we do so in terms of fans calling the team “we” as if we played, and whether it’s appropriate to claim ownership of and participation on a team for which we never were employed. I get that “we” complaint. I disagree, but I get it.
This is a different “we.” This is about those who endured.
Bill Murray understood that.
“Thank you,” Bill told Theo immediately after Epstein said Cubs fans and ex-Cubs players were world champs. “My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sisters thank you. My brothers thank you. I thank you.”
“We did it,” the guy outside in the Cubs hat said to me a second time, after we hugged. We stood for a few seconds, looking at the sparklers on the other side of the street.
“Who gave you the Cubs?” I asked him. “Back in the day.”
“My dad,” he said. “And my grandparents.”
“Same,” I said. “Here’s to them.”
At 1:56 a.m., I heard a voicemail from a call I’d missed three minutes earlier from a Sox fan friend.
“Congratu-fucking-lations!” he shouted. “Hopefully when you get this message tomorrow you’ll just start smiling dog. Literally, that shit was — I’m happy for you. As a Sox fan, to see my childhood team win a World Series, that shit was cool as hell. And that was the greatest Game 7 in baseball I’ve ever seen in my life.”
I called him back soon after and opened with a wimpering, “We did it. We did it.” This was still all I could say, which slayed him and left us both grinning and laughing. And then we talked about something that doesn’t get discussed enough:
Sports share qualities with cinema, theater, and concerts. Among the key differences, though, is that there are no assurances of your preferred result. In sports, you don’t necessarily get happy endings. You don’t necessarily get an entertaining product. You don’t necessarily cheer good people. You sometimes go decades without cheering a championship.
I’m a pretty calm sports fan at this point in my life. I’ve seen just about every template of Crazy Game possible. Yet every so often a game still has the power to surprise me. Watching the Indians score three runs in the eighth to tie the game six to six was a shocker. In fact, it was the exact sort of sequence that in years past would have barbecued my heart.
Instead I remained weirdly confident. I continued to openly predict victory. I relayed positive messages to friends. I was concerned in the way you’re concerned about John McClain making it to the end of the movie: you don’t know HOW he will defeat Team Gruber. You just know he WILL.
After Rajai Davis’s game-tying home run in the eighth, I just kept telling people to be calm. That this was our final test. The final challenge to our faith. I told them we would overcome. I told them we were still on track.
What I learned was that the curse was not the same as the championship. We broke the curse when we believed it could and would be broken, when we believed we were McClain and anyone in front of us was Hans Gruber. The curse would have remained broken and obsolete even if we lost Game 7. Only the ring was waiting.
The moment I knew the Cubs would one day win the World Series (something I’d not long earlier convinced myself, for my own sanity, would never happen) was earlier this year when I saw Jake Arrieta in a t-shirt reading “108 YEARS. WE’RE READY.”
That attitude, founded on organizational excellence, is how we broke the curse. From Ricketts on down, this team simply did not believe in anything but their own talent.
Previous teams may have acknowledged that they accepted the responsibility of breaking the curse. They may have even said they wanted that responsibility.
These Cubs took it one step further: they themselves were not cursed and instead wanted to lift OUR curse.
We, the lifelong fans and the former players, WE were cursed. We carried the mark. We felt the burden. We could not do it ourselves. Only they could bring us there. And they could do so because it wasn’t on them. It was as if their responsibility was to remove our burden. They could lead us out because they were not afflicted.
Previous teams were. In spring training 2013, I began an interview series with members of the 2003 Cubs. One of the players I talked to was Paul Bako, a catcher who caught Mark Prior in Game 6 of the NLCS. In the midst of what was probably a two-hour phone call, Bako asked me a simple question:
“Do you think they’ll have a rally for us, or invite us back to the park?” Bako asked. “Have you heard anything?”
“I hate to say this bro, but I don’t think it’s happening,” I told him. “People are still pretty well shaken up. Maybe when they win, you know?”
He’s part of “we.” The “we” is every Cubs player who wanted so badly to win one for the “we” — and didn’t. The “we” is every player who donned the Cubbie blues, learned the history, and said, “I’m going to be a part of this. I’m going to do it.”
The “we” is every Cubs fan who watched for decades not knowing if this day would ever come. The “we” is the bond forged by being there together, rooting your ass off on a random Tuesday in August in the midst of a lost season. The “we” is saying “Yeah, but next year,” and knowing you’ll have to say it again next year.
After the game, relief pitcher C.J. Edwards told a reporter that we don’t have to hear anymore about curses or goats or “that fan and the foul ball.”
“Steve Bartman,” the interviewer said as champagne sprayed in the locker room all around them.
“Yeah, Steve Bartman,” Edwards said. “He should throw out the first pitch next year.”
Edwards smiled. I did too. He knew about “we.” He did not need to explicitly state it. We could tell he understood. He saw the full picture. He saw the “we” out there that can finally be at peace. He saw how he helped make it happen.
I’ve only truly been broken once as a fan. After Alfonso Soriano struck out to end the 2008 season, my heart crumbled. In 2009 I didn’t watch baseball until June. In 2010 I didn’t watch until August. In 2011 I declared that the Cubs “should just take a year off and think things through.” In 2012 I ended a Cubs essay with a line that, at the time, represented to me the peak of positivity:
“The Cubs will never win a World Series, and I can live with that.”
The truth was, I couldn’t live with that.
I couldn’t live with the feeling that it might never happen.
I was at my lowest.
This team brought me back.
In doing so, they gave peace to every Cubs fan who died without seeing the mountaintop. They gave peace to every Cubs fan who thought it might never happen. They gave peace to every Cubs fan who thought it WOULD happen, “but not in my life.”
Rooting for a team is frequently illogical. We pour ourselves into them, even during horrific seasons. We stay dedicated during the ‘97 Bears and the 2000 Bulls and the ‘06 Hawks and the ‘89 Sox. This is where “we” is forged. Where our mettle is tested. Where friendships are made.
Kris Bryant matters because we remember the years where we trotted out a new 3rd baseman every opening day. Anthony Rizzo’s joy matters because we saw his loneliness in a 101-loss season. Addison Russell and Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora and Jorge Soler and Willson Contreras and Carl Edwards matter because we watched a million-and-one can’t-miss kids become answers to trivia questions for the beer-soaked die hards. Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist and Jake Arrietta and Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks and Jason Heyward and David Ross and Miguel Montero matter because we saw a million-and-one “this is it!” acquisitions disintegrate by the middle of May. Joe Maddon matters because we were there for every new manager who said “We’re gonna do it!” at his introductory press conference and left the team in disarray, wondering if he’d ever work again.
I went to sleep last night and dreamed of joy. I awoke this morning and it’s still here.
I promise you this from the bottom of my heart:
It will always, always, still be here.