TOP OF THE EIGHTH: CUBS 2 – 1 WHITE SOX
Oh man. Oh man oh man. This is the night, the first of many to come, when Aroldis Chapman will stride before our eyes, assuming a mantle the Chicago Cubs have never had: a closer. A dominant closer. A lights-out force of baseball nature, a Sidd Finch come to life out of April Fools’ fictions, a magician with fastballs for spells, shooting out faster than ever recorded. A piece of the paranormal. Oh man. A great steep step-up from Ohman. Oh man. Chapman. He’s here.
Wrigley Field is electric with hype. It’s game four of the Crosstown Cup. The Cubs in first and the Sox in mid-table purgatory. Michael Wilbon’s at the game. Scotty Pippen’s at the game. Hector Rondon is on the mound, having taken a classy step down into the 8th-inning role to accommodate Chapman, and “classy” is indeed the word of the night for the CSN broadcast team. A classy move to have stepped aside, they say, and I imagine a back-clubhouse handing over of a baseball, just before warmups, bowties donned, silk tablecloths lain, and a digging-in to a shared genteel meal with serifed placecards switched—“closer” flipped gracefully for “set-up man”. Pure class, sense and sensibility, from all involved.
— Scottie Pippen (@ScottiePippen) July 29, 2016
Rondon sets up against Tyler Saladino, with a one-run lead and the fate of a mid-slump Cubs on his shoulders, not yet clear out of the woods. He’s got a wide stance to his windup, a milder cousin of the Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick pose, folding up into his delivery as he lets fly a fastball toward home. Saladino rips the second pitch for a double to left, over Matt Szczur’s head. One bounce off the ivy, and he’s in safe to the bag.
The crowd roars the strange roar of away-team glee, the black/gray Sox half of the stands leaping up into hugs and high-five hope, bringing with them in each section a handful of Cub fans, sending a text, finishing a conversation, hearing a cheer and jumping up with Wrigley instinct at what must have been a diving catch. A blazing strikeout. Something to explain the proud echoes ringing the ballpark, hoodwinked by a cheer that was never meant for them. No away teams tonight on the Northside, a baseball two-flat hosting both squads at once.
A beautiful, noisy thing.
Adam Eaton comes up next, hitting a slow bunt down the line to third, the classic will-it-or-won’t-it standoff between pitcher, catcher, third baseman, ball, chalk, dirt, grass, and the batter, waiting to see if he’ll hit again, or enjoy the free gift of first-base, with his teammate advanced.
The ball rolls foul. Eaton steps back in to the box. Strike three on the next pitch, caught looking, just on the outside corner. Eaton says his piece to the ump, looks up at the tv board for the replay, walks back to the dugout fuming.
Eaton tries to bunt there, more for a hit than anything else, rolls foul.
— Born on Third (@BornOnThirdCubs) July 29, 2016
Tim Anderson steps up next, setting up into a rigid crouch, awaiting the pitch. He slaps a quick ground-ball up the middle, rolled up the mound dirt, just past Rondon’s stretching arm and barehand, just missing it, a barrel roll onto the rosin bag. But Javy Baez snags it. Whips over to first. Out by half a step.
And it’s at this point that the crowd takes collective notice of a movement in the bullpen. No one speaks, or everyone speaks, it’s hard to tell. A loud quietness. The heads all turn to one spot, and there’s a word, capped by a question mark, floating around in the minds of all present: “…Chapman?”
Wrigley Field itself seems to nod. The scoreboard bows down onto its knees bending century-old iron in reverential awe. The lights get brighter for a moment, the moon peeks out from behind the clouds. And Aroldis F**king Chapman comes in from the bullpen, jogging in like each step contains some deep meaning, a revelation.
On the TV, they can’t quite capture it. The friendly, froggy voice of Len Kasper the friendly ghost announcer chimes in with an ad, the stadium audio tuned down: “It’s the Midas Tire & Auto Service call to the pen, it’s Chapman in the 8th, we’ll be back!” Cheerio, old sport!
Meanwhile—in the ballpark it’s the sublime: goosebumps by the millions, heartbeats shot up into nervous joy, Saladino on third already assuming the role of stranded runner. Melky Cabrera with no chance for a hit. Wrigley’s never felt quite like it before (except, maybe, for Lee Smith, but that was pre-lights). Joe Borowski didn’t do this. Ryan Dempster, no. Carlos Marmol, hell no. Rondon, as great as he is, not once (and he is great).
Chapman jogs in with the most hype of all songs playing overhead. “Wake Up,” Rage Against the Machine. It’s the end scene of The Matrix, Neo stepping out of the phone booth, donning the sunglasses, shooting up into the sky. Doing the monologue:
I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid…you’re afraid of us. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, exit this bullpen, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see.
It’s like like seeing Freddie Mercury at Live Aid ‘85. Radiohead doing “Paranoid Android” at Glastonbury ’03. Rage Against the Machine themselves, at Woodstock ’99. Helter Skelter. Chills, all over.
Liam Neeson, as Zeus, making the final command:
Brother, it is time for the mortals White Sox to pay…
My child closer waits to do your will…
Release the KRAKEN CHAPMAN!!!
I once sat at pizza bar in Carlsbad California, as a youth, watching the whole place live out that same emotion, if tempered a bit, when the Padres broadcast played “Hells Bells” through the giant screen and Trevor Hoffman came out to close out a win for a playoff-bound team. This was better. Somehow. Even better.
Chapman goes through his warmups. One out and he’s a hero. He winds up like a scorpion. A flash of yellow swishes atop the CSN pitch-trax graphic. 101 MPH. It’s like we’ve all stepped into a freak show, unknowingly, everyone whooping and watching, no longer rooting for a win, a hold, a solid eighth inning—but amazement, entertainment, legend.
He’s got a slight faux-hawk patch peeking out from under the cap. A tight, long-sleeved blue undershirt. Sweat dripping from his chin. A delayed cheer in the ballpark, all eyes on the radar gun screen, waiting for the readout. Hands together in prayer. And then smiles, laughing, as if Theo Epstein’s typed in a cheat code, virtual hologram video-game hyperbole sent onto the mound tonight. Even some of the Sox fans can dig it. Them laughing too, the what…the…f**k! laugh of surrender.
Chapman strikes out Cabrera. Dispatched.
He stalks off the mound like a wolf, freezing after the third strike, just to let it rub in. I own this place, he seems to say. Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained??
There’s an aura around Chapman. A swagger. A supernatural. A string of power pitches showing power itself.
This guy… he’s the talisman.