TOP OF THE SEVENTH: CUBS 6 (1) – 4 BREWERS
The mountains making up the seating decks at Miller Park huddle up with the deep blue of the Great Smokies at sunrise, a monochrome grouped in uniform for the away team—a militia of smiles, armed with beers, invading with cheers and the proud feat of a fanbase that travels better than any of the greats. Marco Polo. Ibn Battuta. Ferdinand Magellan. Cubs Nation, A.D. 2016.
They swarmed Anaheim and Phoenix, sieged St. Louis and stamped a bruise on the seats of Cincinnati. Whispers from city to city, This is the year, is it not?—on a mission from god, crusading ahead in big strides, careful not to wake up the jinx.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) July 24, 2016
It’s an afternoon game in Milwaukee, the roof half-closed, the sky overcast, and the major-league media scrambling for tips on trade rumors, all things brewing in the humid nationwide soup of wet hot American summer.
On the mound for Milwaukee, Junior Guerra sets up, bright white pants and a navy top, ready to make eponymous war with Javier Baez, at the plate. Guerrero vs. Osito.
Pat and Ron man the radio mics for the Chicago side, the new Ron, as our man Santo gets brought back to broadcast life with a story: Sometime in the ‘90s, after calling one of many stinging Cubs’ losses, he sulked down to Jim Riggleman’s office at County Stadium, took a drink and tried to forget—with the consoling hand of the manager himself around his shoulder. “That never happens!” says Pat Hughes now—“Can you imagine Mike Ditka trying to cheer up Wayne Larrivee after a game? Tommy Lasorda cheering up Vin Scully? Never happens!”
And out of the imagined sight of Len Kasper and Joe Maddon sharing a sad hug somewhere in the Wrigley clubhouse after last year’s NLCS loss, I’m back to the screen, the field, the Brewers up three in the 7th, the slump that’s had its fangs latched into the Cubs’ sides not yet unhinged.
Baez flies out to Ryan Braun in left. One out. Miguel Montero comes on to pinch hit, his average hopping like skip-rope over and back of the Mendoza Line. His season like a groundhog’s day of 0-4 statlines, an icy daily puddle he hasn’t yet learned how to step over.
Guerra comes out, Will Smith comes in—from West Philadelphia, born and raised?—and Montero digs in for the delivery, after the break. Hard-hit on the ground between first and second, just through the hole, safe on first with a single.
Up next, Matt Szczur, a nifty utility outfielder with a surname like an emperor and a favorite song shared by many, the early hit from the Beatles: “Plzcz Plzcz Me”.
Sidenote: Is Smith not a dead-ringer for Neil Ramirez?
He sets up on the mound, golden beard matching the barley sprigs on the Brewers caps. The pitch home meets Szczur’s bat, a hard ground ball to third. Sharply hit. Bobbled by Jake Elmore. Too late for a throw. Szczur safe at first, and Montero in to second.
Behind the backstop at home, there’s a “Try Not to Suck” t-shirt camera-visible in the front row, offending the sensibilities of all fans of the St. Louis Cardinals happening to tune in. Smith reads the shirt as if it’s talking to him, evidently unsure of how to follow it’s advice. Try not to suck, it says, as the line goes ignored.
Tommy La Stella steps up and slaps at a 2-1 curveball. Chris Carter leaps for it at first—over his head, sent hard down the line, into the corner. RBI double. One run scores, Szczur held at third.
The whole place is on its feet. An older man “raising the roof,” both arms up and down in a kind of wingy flapping he’s clearly attempting for the first time, having seen it years ago on a televised college football game. “I’m cool,” he shouts, “I’ve got it, I am cool!” A swarm of flightless birds join the growing flock around him, as if willing themselves into the air, making loud, harassing circles around the ballpark: “Let’s Go Cubs!!” echoing on all sides of Miller Park. An away game. Never seen anything like it.
“These Cub fans are giving me goosebumps right now,” says Pat Hughes on the radio. The few dozen Brewers fans in attendance sit with their arms crossed, ears plugged with pointer fingers, screaming I can’t hear you I can’t hear you I can’t hear you.
Kris Bryant draws a walk. The bases are loaded.
Then, Anthony Rizzo comes up. Papa Bear. Team centerpiece leading the way for fifty-something Cubs wins on the year, many with big hits, big leads, games marked more by big offense than late-game heroics. Wins without doubt, strings of 9-0 score-lines over Cincinnati and Arizona that won’t be on the table come playoff time.
But they’re down two here, the bases full, with the kind of must-do chance last year’s Royals team figured out in October. Practice for situations soon to come.
Rizzo works his hula wiggle, awaiting the pitch. A home run on his mind. Or a walk, a single, some spurt of offense to keep the line moving.
And then, it’s pure beauty. Like a golf chip holed from the sandtrap. Smith deals an off-speed pitch streaking low through the zone. Rizzo reaches for it, choked up, power held back in a finesse swing of perfection. The ball lofted, slotted on a low line into the gap in right-center gap. Beauty, pure and uncut, on the baseball diamond. Erupting noise in the stands.
“If you closed your eyes here at Miller Park,” says Pat Hughes, “you’d guess you’re at Wrigley!!
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) July 24, 2016
Three runners dash home like it’s a jail break, just safe before the gate closes, with Rizzo standing up on second in the cathartic moments after a roaring fist-pump, undoing his batting gloves, and Will Smith’s now pulled from the game, storming into the dugout with an all-out assault on a bucket of Dubble Bubble, ending his day in a pink, yellow, candied spray of unchecked fun-loathing rage.
“The Fresh Prince is a little hot under the collar,” says Jim Deshaies, chuckling on the TV broadcast.
Milwaukee’s Will Smith and the all-out attack on Dubble Bubble // Rizzo under his skin pic.twitter.com/fXKBgQiDrk
— The Big Inning (@big_inning) July 28, 2016
The inning wraps up as Tyler Thornburg comes in for Smith, Zobrist comes up for the Cubs, and a single up the middle brings home Rizzo for run number six. The Cubs go up 6-4, the script flipped in a few moments of rally.
And the cheers continue. At home, away from home.
Baseball joy, by the more-north shores of Lake Michigan.