There’s almost a certain sadness to it all. Winning, against two lifetimes of failure. Peering out through the morning fog of the battlefield, seeing an arch-enemy finally downed. Shot, and stabbed, crying out and writhing—its innards eviscerated, a row of giant blades sticking up from its back.
You start to feel mercy—what did that poor Billy Goat ever do to deserve this?
Can we at least wish it a happy goodbye?
There’s a sadness to it all, in the end. In the end. The end. The most heartbreaking book you’ve ever read—but ending? You never told the author you’d wanted an ending. Not for real.
You hate the curse. You wake up in cold-sweat nightmares about the curse. Whine about it, commiserate about it. Deny it, re-affirm it. However you approach it, it’s the it that never ceases. It’s there. Mock it or fear it as much as you like—but it exists.
And suddenly, it no longer exists.
In the alleyways around Chicagoland, huge stacks of posterboards, piles of Cubs’ bumper-stickers, thrown out in advance with next year’s trash. This is the year! they all read—Believe it! We’re on a mission from God! Blowing uselessly in the wind, like a book that’s gone forever out of print.
Like when Rangers went bankrupt and Celtic FC reigned alone atop the Scottish Premier League. The east end of Glasgow celebrates, for a moment, but then it hits—that Celtic only ever made sense with Rangers. Yin only made sense with Yang. Us means nothing without Them. And the Cubs, who’ve made sense only through adversary—Sam Sianis and his god-forsaken billy goat, their spirits drifting around on Clark Street, outside the brownstone stoops of Sheffield, up into the Wrigley Field bleachers, the outfield grass, the infield. What are these Cubs without them?
A century of running from Michael Myers, and now you’ve unmasked him, slapped at him, found out he was just hologram.
Am I still a Cubs fan? Did we beat the game?
You just beat sports. There’s no more sports to be sported. It’s over. The big one. Cub-fan career began at age five, ended at age 24, in one euphoric last surge.
What happens after happily ever after?
You’re watching Sisyphus, on top of his mountain, rolling that boulder back over the other side. You look up at the scoreboard, at the celebration out on the field, all around you, your tears welling up for confirmation, and you know—well, boys, this is the peak. And it’s a f*ckin’ great one at that.
You imagine the conversation between Theo Epstein, between Jed Hoyer. Between Bill Murray, Vince Vaughn, Eddie Vedder, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, between the rest of the long-awaiting Cub fans.
What do we do now?
What do you mean? Now we can just enjoy baseball.
* * *
The 10th inning began with the rains overhead just letting up, the fans trickling back down from the concourse, the players—though we didn’t know it yet—out from the clubhouse after the most made-for-Hollywood speech in recent baseball memory, from Jason Heyward.
The inning began after you stood there during the rain delay, muttering disbelief to yourself in spastic little phrases.
“Unreal. Surreal. Wow. Wow. Wow. This is crazy. Thisiscrazy. Thisisnuts”—a long litany of jumbled words whose translation reads “Thank you God. Thank you Theo… Thank you Dad, better yet, over everyone else—for the best tickets of a lifetime.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel was somewhere nearby, failing to stay either dry or unnoticed. Many Cub fans stayed down, too, under the rain—gazing off at the outfield under the lights, enjoying the warm summer air, not sure how the mirage worked, what the trick to it all was, sleeveless in the rain all the way into November.
They’d figured it would be hours before the game resumed, checking the weather radar on their phones—not sure what came next, after the Cubs had blown a sure lead. After Rajai Davis put the heart-attack shock of fear in everyone’s face, tying the game in one bizarre line-drive swing.
People pulled on ponchos and sat down, stood up, sat down, stood up—no one sure which gestures would invoke the jinx, which would erase it. People took off the ponchos, for the last bits of rain, a kind of born-again ritual going on around the stadium. To be closer, to whatever was about to happen.
They’d driven in across the midwest in baseball pilgrimage, whole bucket lists being crossed off in a single calendar day. Two years earlier people hoped for the smallest of things: a ballclub competitive into September, eighty wins, a .500 record by 2016, a building block, an all-star, a something. No one had hoped for all this. For a World Series. A Game Seven. Extra innings. 75 degrees and balmy. Raining. Rain stopping. No one had hoped for this—this was one big giant bonus.
Then, the players took the field again, and people relaxed. With nothing to go on but that air, that rain, that break in the momentum. We’re gonna win this sucker. Look out there, look at those guys. Look at Zobrist. Look at Rizzo. We’re gonna win.
* * *
In the middle innings, you’d run up to the concourse to grab a beer. Baez hit the home run and you’d watched on the screen, listening as the standing-room Cub fans roared like it was a home game. Cleveland fans flashed the evil eye as you waited for a urinal in the men’s room. You got shoulder-slammed by one rounding a corner by the hot dog bar. On the way you’d had a top-secret operation in place.
You’d received a text: “Meet now? Up near pillar behind section 142.”
A planned rendezvous with one of the all-time greats. A mission that began before you were born, set up now with everything coming together. It started with references to a sign in the bleachers, old game clips from the late ‘80s. A top-class meme before a single meme had been memed. And then, suddenly, a resurfacing—as you watched Game One at home—the FOX broadcast showing a picture that made you go “whoa! that’s the guy.”
“Yep—be there in a minute,” you typed in reply.
You weave your way around through the buzz of teeming fans, Clevelanders in red, Chicagoans in blue, and you look up from your phone scanning the crowd until you finally see him—a man in a button-up jersey, glasses, a massive garbage bag resting against his leg.
“Hey man!” he says. “Check it out.” He opens up the garbage bag, whips out a crinkled sheet of paper from his pocket, and the mission proceeds ahead near its final conclusion:
Get the Schwarb-O-Meter in the front row of Game Seven of the World Series.
* * *
The way it played out, you’d think the game would end easy.
Flashing up the It’s Gonna Happen sign to the cameras, no jinx in sight. Drumming on the top of the dugout after every run, so hard your thumb bruised.
Watching Zobrist score.
Watching the neighbors celebrate.
Watching David freakin’ Ross hit a home run. Hugging the Mayor of Chicago. Doing the We’re-Not-Worthy.
Made it into the highlights after all…. up above the dugout, bowing to Rossy in the gray Nomar jersey pic.twitter.com/4n7YGYW25X
— The Big Inning (@big_inning) November 4, 2016
The Cubs up by three, cruising along into the sixth, into the seventh. Into the eighth, with two outs, nobody on base for the Indians. As if the World Series is heading for a kind of anti-climax—to the point where you’re almost bummed out by the lack of drama. You think, Shit, if the Cubs are gonna do this thing let’s make it interesting!
You take back those words the second you think them.
Bad idea. Baaaaad idea. Bad thought. You didn’t mean that. You shoot off a quick prayer to the baseball gods. No takebacks. Shit. Looks like things are about to get wild.
It was coming. It was always coming, wasn’t it?
Jose Ramirez hits the infield single off Russell’s glove. Brandon Guyer hits the double to right. Score goes to 6-4.
The worst thing you can think of thinks its way into your head. What if he they home run right here? I mean, I’m sure he won’t, be what if he does—what would that even look like. Holy shit, imagine that.
Two pitches later, Rajai Davis chokes up and hits an Aroldis Chapman slider on a frozen rope over the wall, onto the Home Run Porch in left.
The kid next to you jumps on top of the dugout, running around and almost onto the field. It’s pandemonium at Progressive Field.
You’re crouched down at the edge of the backstop netting for entire inning. Praying, with our lucky-charm Cubs hat, that the boys find their way out of this one.
You might remember the end of Fever Pitch, where the narrator goes something like: “Well, you remember the rest—the Sox go to St. Louis, Pedro and Lowe find their form, Keith Foulke flips to first, and the rest is history.”
This wouldn’t be a The-Rest-Was-History kind of finish. No easy sweep on the road to wrap things up. This would be a mainline injection of utter madness. The billy goat down to its last, then smashing through the doors of every Cubs fan’s living room with an axe—“Heeeere’s Billy!!”
What became, in that 8th inning, the But Wait There’s More! Game.
You get to the point where you just want it to end, where you’re so tired and freaked out and nervous, where you just want it to end, with anything but the home crowd jumping up and down around you, mocking you for attending, mocking you for hoping, screaming in impish little devil taunts as the Indians hoist up the trophy. You just want it to end. If that comes with the Cubs ending the 108-year drought and making history, that’s all good and fine and great but just get me out of this.
You’re on the rack, tortured to no relief. Just stop the ride, already. I’m about to vomit.
* * *
Weeks after the game, on Christmas Eve in Ravenswood, you drive meandering around city streets until you pull up to a brick bungalow house and see Dave Cihla waiting outside. There’s snow on the lawns, lights on all the windows around the block, big blue W flags hanging from the porches.
“Hey man!” he says again, and you’re welcomed into the hospitable home of Schwarb-O-World.
There’s a work station on the dining table—a paper stencil with red ink around the edges, making mini Schwarb-O-Meters for handheld operation. A pile of Schwarb-O t-shirts on the chair, bringing back the old hobby for extra scratch.
He starts telling stories. Old Cub teams. Andrew Dawson. Ryne Sandberg. Shawon Dunston. Harry Caray. Growing up Chicago and the ballpark before the lights came in. The halcyon days of bleacher bumdom. The birth of the Shawon-O-Meter. Becoming a household character on the North Side. The trips to the big games. Going out west for the 1989 NLCS. The design of the Shawon-O-Meter. The confiscation of the Shawon-O-Meter. The burglars who stole his signed baseball collection.
“So in 1990 we’re out there in the bleachers,” he says. “The Mets are playing the Cubs.”
“We’d been messing with Lenny Dysktra each time he came to Wrigley, making a big sign saying ‘LENNY DYKSTRA IS A BED-WETTER’ on the back. Getting under his skin. Ribbing back and forth when he’s out there in center during the game. And then—you get the All-Star game that year at Wrigley, 1990. Who’s playing center-field for the National League? Lenny Dykstra. So he’s out there just like the last game, with his N.L. uniform this time. And we show up with the sign snuck back into the ballpark, flashing it at him again. He looks up at us at one point before the half inning starts, points at us, singles me out.
Yeah. You. You got an issue?
We keep holding up the sign, dancing around in the bleachers.
Dykstra looks up at me and shouts up again.
‘Hey—what’s your malfunction, man?’ “
Dave cracks up thinking about it, his eyes lit up recalling an entire life of Cubs obsession. He goes on about Dykstra, the Mets, about the others they’d taunted, about selling t-shirts on the street corners, about local fame and appearances on WGN. About the Shawon-O-Meter getting into the Chicago History Society, about it getting into the display case of team history, at Wrigley Field itself. He pulls out a book—100 Things Every Cubs Fan Should Know—and flips to page 178, Number 59. There he is: Shawon-O-Meter.
You look up, loving every bit of it, and two hours have flown by. You’ve missed Christmas mass at church, you’re halfway running late for family dinner.
You panic for a second, then say “ehh… you’ll be late anyway.” May as well reminisce. You stick around. Another five minutes. Another ten. Cubs story hour jumps back to the game. Game Seven. Dave’s wife in the dining room with you, hearing from the two of you how it all played out.
- You spot him in on the Game One broadcast, stitch together the photos, post the Tweet. Watch it ping around with the baseball bloggers. Figure you’ll never run into him. Does he even exist? A living meme—born from WGN telecasts, revived into the internet.
I’d be willing to wager a fair amount that last night’s Schwarb-O-Meter guy was also the Shawon-O-Meter guy, circa 1989 pic.twitter.com/7B0n6pLQLP
— The Big Inning (@big_inning) October 27, 2016
- You go to Game Six. The Cubs win big. You’re celebrating above the dugout, down among the travelling Cubs faithful. Dad says “Hey! Turn around!” You turn around. Schwarb-O-Meter himself, hoisting up the sign and smiling. You run up, say hello, say you’re a fan, do the introductions. Take the pictures, chat about the sign, about him, about—Tomorrow? Game Seven? This happening?
- You text him the next afternoon, seeing if he’s got tickets. Says he’s outside the ballpark, looking for scalpers. You go into the stadium, get to your own seat. He gets back to you just at game time: “I’m in.”
- In the fourth inning, you find him out there on the concourse, the O-Meter packed in the plastic garbage bag—all the extra numbers taped onto the back. He shows you how it all works, what the slugging percentage will jump to on a home run, a triple, a double, a single, an out. He’s marked it all out in pencil on the official Schwarb-O-Chart, and tucks it into your hand. In your other hand is the garbage bag. O-Meter inside. The plan: meet back up an inning later.
- You take off back down the aisle steps, crouch out of view at the edge of the front row. You look up and see two things of note. Maybe the (second) best sign of the game—Terry Francona cerberus and “The Two Best Words in Sports: GAME 7”. And a few feet ahead the Cubs owner, Tom Ricketts, sitting right there.
- After the next pitch you shuffle down along the row and back to your seat. You watch Kyle Schwarber come up to bat. You wait, you wait, you wait. You make sure the numbers are right. And you hold the sign up for the cameras, hoping it got on.
You think it just might’ve.
A geriatric man in an Indians hat waddles down and chimes in:“Don’t look now, but there’s a guy up there that wants to kick your ass. Take that sign down.”
You hold your tongue, sorta reply “uh, alright”, but think:
Not that I think I could win any kind of real fight, but… the hell is this guy saying, exactly? If… I didn’t put this sign down, is he… are we just gonna fight, in the aisle, in the middle of the World Series? Fist-fight?
He gives me a “Hey man, I’m just the messenger” look and slinks back up into some sort of cave.
- An inning later you run back up, give the sign to Dave. “Your turn—get on down there.
- Dave does his thing. Comes back up, himself and the O-Meter intact. You ask if he got hassled. He says no, but says he’d been attacked out by the bleachers innings earlier, escorted away by police. You decide to put a hold on the whole Schwarb-O-Meter thing. You decide the city of Cleveland might not be in the mood. You’d like to get through this game alive.
Together at the Schwarb-O-Home, you finish recalling the 10th. The finale. The whole whirlwind of a night.
And you wrap things up at the Cihla household, three Schwarb-O shirts and one mini O-Meter richer, Christmas gifts for the family.
* * *
In 1991, Harry Caray said a few lines on the final season broadcast that have stuck around with Cub fans for quite a while.
“Well, a lot of things happened today, and they were all great. And they were all thrilling. And they were all dramatic. Too bad we couldn’t have had a victory that meant a pennant. But that will come. Sure as God made green apples, someday the Chicago Cubs are going to be in the World Series. And maybe sooner than we think.”
You spend a Game Seven remembering things, just like that one.
And, well, there you are: at the World Series. Sister, dad, and you. And there you were.
There’s a thing you learn about a Game Seven: You spend it remembering things. You spend nine innings half-away from the game—you spend it with a memory sharper than ever.
You remember 2003, when the Cubs swept an afternoon double-header against the Pirates, and you watched from the upper deck seats above third base. Sammy Sosa and Randall Simon dousing the bleachers in champagne, running around the warning track.
Van Halen, “Jump!” playing out of apartment windows in Wrigleyville, on the way back to home.
You spend it remembering October 2003, remembering hell on (first-world privileged Cub fan) Earth.
Game Six of the NLCS against the Marlins. When you were on a field trip to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin with your fifth grade science class, your family at the game. And your dad had said, “If they win this one, we’ll go to a World Series game. If they lose, we’ll try for Game Seven.”
You remember the bus ride home that night, two classes of Mann Elementary kids listening on the radio, the Cubs up 2-0. Heading over to a friend’s house with only the game on your mind, only The World Series!!! on your mind. You get to the house and flip on the TV. Cubs up 3-0 now and coming on home.
You remember—well, you try not to remember—what happened next. A fly ball down the third-base line…
You remember when Kerry Wood tore the house down with a home run in Game Seven. Then Moises Alou. Then the Marlins, taking the life away from the place, hit after hit. Full cans of beer thrown up from Sheffield and into the crowd around you in the right-field bleachers.
You remember taking a lap walking around the block after James Loney grand slam finalized the sweep in 2008, your White Sox die-hard neighbor parking his car and giving you a sympathy nod.
You remember random things, moments with no bearing on anything at all. Watching the ball off Rizzo’s bat squirt through Brandon Belt’s legs on a summer day in San Francisco, 2013, on a shoddy illegal live stream 10,000 miles away in South Korea, at 6:00 a.m. local time—when the idea of beating even the regular-season Giants seemed absurd. Screaming and whooping and dancing around the sharehouse.
You remember the luck you’ve had in the first place, missing the leanest years—that stretch from ’46 to ’83 when the Cubs hardly sniffed the pennant once.
You spend a Game Seven questioning if you are where really you are.
And it’s all going through your head at once, when the 10th inning begins and Kyle Schwarber leads off with a line-drive single to right. When the rest of the team comes out of the rain delay with a fire, and the inning goes like this:
Almora comes in to pinch-run for Schwarber at first. Bryant flies out to the warning track, two feet from the wall. Almora tags wisely and dashes into second.
Bryan Shaw walks Rizzo.
And on a 1-2 count, Ben Zobrist knocks a double the opposite way on an accidental ball sliced down the third-base line.
Almora charges around third and comes in to score. Rizzo in to third. Zobrist on second base doing the jacked-up celebration leap he’ll remembered for into old age.
And then Miguel Montero, unsung veteran, steps up and knocks another hit the opposite way—a single to left and Rizzo jogs home to score the eighth and final run.
It’s all going through your head, still, when Mike Napoli strikes out in the bottom of the inning, and Jose Ramirez grounds out.
When Rajai Davis scares us all again, sending home Guyer on a single. The score cut to 8-7.
Mike Montgomery comes in from the bullpen.
And when Michael Martinez, in on defense for Coco Crisp, steps up.
When a soft roller comes to Kris Bryant, he gloves it, throws to Rizzo.
When the Curse of the Billy Goat comes swiftly to a close.
* * *
On the grass back home, at a cozy place on the North Side, a tight group of ghosts danced in a circle. Harry Caray shotgunned a Budweiser, a young Ernie Banks threw his glove up in the air, Ron Santo clicked his heels. Stan Hack and Phil Cavarretta brought Andy Pafko in for a bear hug. Tinker tossed a full glass of champagne to Evers, and then on to Chance.
In the air around them was a soundtrack, heard around town—in text messages, 2:00 a.m. phone calls, Facebook chats and screams:
“Words can’t describe—”
“I can’t even—”
“I mean…there’s just…. this is f^cking…. holy f^ck!!!”
“THEY DID IT!!!!!!!!”
The lower stands at Progressive Field stayed full for over an hour, no one saying goodbye, not to that. Bill Murray drifting around the infield stunned. Mike Wilbon trying to keep it together for SportsCenter. David Ross lifted up by the team, carried off into the clubhouse.
The ballpark security had lined up a string of bicycles over the dugout into a wall, keeping anyone from breaking ranks and running for the infield. But everyone stayed cool, stayed put, stayed amazed in this big weird dream come to life.
The upper deck Cub fans poured down and crammed among the others over the dugout, up against the backstop netting. A game of Cubs baseball, in November, ending a season with a win. Everyone cheering on the unheard-of. Finding ourselves in front of a SportsCenter camera.
The bleacher fans sat with their legs hanging over the wall, where the Fowler and Ross homers had landed. Early in the morning, on November 3rd, 2016. All sitting there together in the Church of Baseball.
The full rain finally arrived, just before 2:00 a.m., sending the fans home for good. Filing out with big grins on their faces, back to hotels hosting as little sleep as they’ll have all year.
* * *
The next day you’re at the tail end of an eight-hour drive, from Cleveland back to Oak Park. You pull onto Stony Island in Chicago, driving north toward Lake Shore Drive peering around the South Side for signs of blue and red. You flip on the radio and a song comes on, one you’ve never heard outside the ballpark. Go Cubs Go. You turn it up. You sing it loud, alone in the car, looking up at the buildings in the loop, lit up in Cubbie blue. You turn west onto Congress, and the song comes on again. ‘Go Cubs Go’ on endless repeat as you ride the curves of the Eisenhower Expressway home.
You’re in the car, a mile from home—repeating again and again the words “This is… that was… I can’t believe it…”
Translation, in that inarticulate other language, for “Thank you, Dad.”
They really did it.
They went all the way.