It is September 1969. The Great Game, of all our sports the one most steeped in tradition, is dealing with change. Expansion from twenty to twenty-four teams results in each league being split into two divisions. For the first time ever, the postseason consists of more than just the World Series. With the advent of the best-of-five League Championship Series the playoff era arrives.
In the American League the two teams destined to face each other in the inaugural ALCS are identified early. Baltimore, on its way to winning 109 games, is running away with the AL East. While not quite so dominant in the NL West, Minnesota is well in front. Most of the late season drama appears to be in the NL West, where five of the six teams are within two games of the lead with three weeks to play. The eventual winner appears headed for a date with the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS. On the strength of a blistering springtime start, the Cubs lead the NL East by as many as 8 ½ games in August, and still sit a comfortable five games in front as the final month begins. Fans on the Northside have waited nearly a quarter century since their team’s last World Series appearance; a long hiatus that looks to be ending at last.
But the season does not end on September 1st. Chicago collapses in the final month, winning but nine while losing twice that number. A team less than a decade removed from the ignominy of its first few seasons as an expansion franchise, the Miracle Mets, surges to victory. In Chicago the long wait continues, and some fans point to a series at Shea Stadium early in September, when a black cat appeared on the field and walked behind the Cubs’ on deck circle as captain Ron Santo was preparing to hit.
It is October 1984. The Cubs claim the NL East by 6 ½ games over the Mets, and take the first two games of the NLCS from the San Diego Padres in the comfortable confines of Wrigley Field. The team arrives on the West Coast needing just one win to end the drought that is now nearly four decades old. The Padres coast to a convincing 7-1 win in Game Three, but the Cubs rally with a two-run 8th to tie Game Four at 5-5. Closer Lee Smith, who has saved more than thirty games during the regular season for the first time in his career, takes the mound in the last of the 9th. Anxious Chicago fans are hoping for extra innings, but with one on and one out Steve Garvey homers off Smith to force a deciding Game Five.
In that contest the Cubs lead 3-2 with one out in the bottom of the 7th. The Padres’ Tim Flannery sends a ground ball to second baseman Leon Durham. But rather than scooping the grounder and recording the second out, Durham lets it get under his glove for an error. The flood gates open, and San Diego goes on to win 6-3. Chicago is the first NL team in the playoff era to blow a two games to none LCS lead. In the wake of Durham’s error long-suffering fans of the snake bitten Cubs are left to ponder the curse allegedly placed on the team in 1945 by a local tavern owner, angered when he was asked to leave Wrigley Field because his pet goat’s smell was bothering other fans.
It is October 2003. Each league has three divisions now, and the playoffs extend through three rounds. NL Central champion Chicago downs NL East winner Atlanta in the Division Series, and arrives back home at Wrigley Field after playing the middle games of the NLCS in Florida leading the Marlins three games to two. Just one more victory and a wait of almost sixty years will end. The Cubs score solo runs in the 1st, 6th and 7th innings of Game Six. Ace Mark Prior is dealing before a raucous home crowd, and after Mike Mordecai pops out to begin the 8th, Chicago is five outs away from returning to the World Series.
Juan Pierre, the Marlins center fielder, doubles off of Prior, bringing second baseman Luis Castillo to the plate. He looks at five straight pitches, the count climbing to full. Castillo hacks at the next two deliveries, fouling them off. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat he sends a fly ball down the left field line, headed for the first row of seats in foul ground. Left fielder Moises Alou races over and tries to make a leaping grab, but a fan in a black sweatshirt and Cubs cap, one of several reaching for the ball, deflects it away to Alou’s vehement dismay.
In the aftermath of that NLCS the unlucky fan becomes a pariah to Cubs fans; but their misplaced ire ignores what happens next. After Castillo walks and Pierre scores the Marlins first run on a single, Miguel Cabrera bounces a grounder to the left side of the infield. But in a reprise of the 1984 debacle, shortstop Alex Gonzalez boots the potential double play ball. Before the inning ends eight Marlins cross home plate. One night later Chicago rallies from an early 3-0 deficit, but Florida overtakes Chicago in the 5th inning and never looks back on the way to a 9-6 victory clinching the NLCS and breaking hearts at Wrigley.
Now it is present day, another October, another NLCS. Chicago wins Game One on a pinch hit grand slam in the 8th inning, but then goes twenty-one innings before scoring again. Still Joe Maddon’s club refuses to panic, taking Games Four and Five in Los Angeles as the enigmatic Dodgers, so poised in Games Two and Three, turn in lackluster performances. Once more the scene returns to a packed Wrigley Field, filled with anxious fans for whom the wait for a World Series appearance has now stretched to seven decades.
The Dodgers start Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher in the game, but the Cubs make him throw thirty pitches in the 1st inning alone. It is 2-0 Chicago after one, and the lead grows from there. By the end of the 5th it is 5-0, and Kershaw is done. Kyle Hendricks is masterful on the mound for the home time, but history weighs on the crowd. As the game moves into the late innings there is far more anxiety than befits the score. With one out in the 8th Josh Reddick singles to center. Though it is just L.A.’s second hit of the night, manager Maddon signals for his closer, Aroldis Chapman. Howie Kendrick bounces Chapman’s third pitch to the right side of the infield.
More than a century ago, when the Cubs played in four World Series in five years, winning twice, they were led by an infield trio immortalized in a 1910 poem by Franklin Pierce Adams. The three shut down opponents’ rallies by deftly turning double plays, a far cry from the miscues that cost Chicago so dearly in 1984 and 2003. For opposing clubs, as Adams wrote, “These are the saddest of possible words: ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance.’”
This time there is no late inning disaster. Second baseman Javier Baez snares the grounder and flips the ball to shortstop Addison Russell, who throws on to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to complete the inning-ending double play. Then in the 9th, with one out and Carlos Ruiz on first, Yasiel Puig grounds to short. Russell to Baez to Rizzo, and the game is over. After years of anguish the ghosts of happier times are finally resurrected at Wrigley Field, vanquishing curses and black cats and decades of doubt. The Chicago Cubs are going to the World Series.