Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Cubs, The Indians, and The Best Game in 25 Years

Wow. What a flippedy,-friggin',-fraggin' game. In my 33 years of life, there are not many sports moments where I can clearly remember where I was when ___ happened. Being a Minnesota sports fan, most of those moments are bad anyway and involve missed Field Goals. Last night though, is a great memory and will always be one of those "I remember that night" kind of memories.

I moved to the Chicago area for college 14 years ago. During my sophomore year, 2003, I got my first introduction to the agony of Cubs fandom. Everyone knows the story now - my friends and I were making plans to hop on a Metra train to go downtown and celebrate a Cubs NLCS win when the Bartman incident happened and everyone knows the rest of the story. What proceeded that season was another 12 years of mostly bad teams with the occasional blip here and there (LDS losses in '07 and '08). In 2009 the Cubs were sold by the Tribune Company to the Ricketts Family and that was the beginning of the turnaround. In 2011, they hired baseball-wizard Theo Epstein from the Boston Red Sox. Theo turned around and hired Jed Hoyer (as GM) and Jason McLeod (Director of Scouting and Player Development) from the San Diego Padres and then in 2015, Theo hired Joe Maddon from the Tampa Bay Rays.

Here are Theo's (and Jed Hoyer's) other moves since becoming President of Baseball Operations:
- Acquired Miguel Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks via trade (2014)
- Signed free-agent David Ross to a 2-year, $5MM deal (2014)
- Acquired Anthony Rizzo from the San Diego Padres via trade (2012)
- Signed free-agent Ben Zobrist to a 4-year, $56MM deal (2015)
- Acquired Addison Russell from the Oakland Athletics via trade (2015)
- Signed free-agent Jason Heyward to an 8-year, $184MM deal (2015)
- Acquired Dexter Fowler from the Houston Astros via trade (2015, re-signed 2016)
- Acquired Jake Arrieta & Pedro Strop from the Baltimore Orioles via trade (2013)
- Acquired Kyle Hendricks from the Texas Rangers via trade (2012)
- After trading Jason Hammel for A. Russell, re-signed free-agent Hammel to 2-year deal (2014)
- Signed free-agent Jon Lester to a 6-year, $155MM deal (2014)
- Acquired Mike Montgomery from the Seattle Mariners via trade (2016)
- Signed International free agent Jorge Soler (2012)
- Acquired Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees via trade (2016)
- Selected Javier Baez with the 9th overall pick in 2011 draft
- Selected Kris Bryant with the 2nd overall pick in 2013 draft
- Selected Kyle Schwarber with the 4th overall pick in 2014 draft

The above is, more or less, the anatomy of a Championship, at least from a player personnel standpoint. The Ricketts Family, specifically Tom Ricketts did what all of us fans of other sports franchises wish that our owner would do...he brought in the absolute best people he could to run the team and those people turned around and hired the best people around them. In basically 4 years, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer built the Chicago Cubs into a World Series Champion.

Last season I had a chance to go to NLCS Game 3 at Wrigley Field. My friend Bryan, who has been a season-ticket holder for awhile, offered me a ticket and I didn't hesitate. It will always be one of my best sports memories. I had never been to a playoff game before and aside from the Cubs losing that game and eventually getting swept by The New York Mets, everything else about that experience was great. Sitting there in that game you knew that even if 2015 wasn't the Cubs year, it wasn't going to be far off. They were one or two pieces away from being a truly special team.

The 2016 season needs no recap. The Cubs added Zobrist and Heyward in the off-season, lead all of Major League Baseball in wins (103) and clinched the NL Central with two weeks to go in the season. They faced the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS and took care of business, winning the series 3-1 capped off by an improbable and historic 9th inning comeback in Game 4. So they were back to where they left off the previous year - an NLCS match-up with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

This time around - we paid secondary-market prices to go and see a game. My friend Stephen flew in from North Carolina and he, my wife and I went to NLCS Game 2. The Cubs got Kershaw'ed in that game, losing 1-0 which was, again, disappointing, but also a lot of fun. The Cubs went on to win that Series as well, achieving their first World Series berth in 71 years. At that point, I was content to watch the rest of the playoffs from the comfort of my own (or others) living room. My income level doesn't come close to being able to afford the $2,000+/seat price tag that World Series tickets at Wrigley were going for. Then I went over to my friend Bryan's house again during Game 1 of the World Series...

Through some amount of magic and sleight of hand, my friend Bryan (same one as before) had gotten his hands on face-value tickets to the World Series, for all of the games at Wrigley (3, 4 and 5). When he told me we were going, I just sat there and stunned disbelief. The World Series? At Wrigley? Once in a lifetime opportunity - especially considering how long it had been since the last time the Cubs made it that far. The experience was magical. Again, the Cubs lost, getting Kluber'ed enroute to a 7-2 loss, which at that point made the series 3-1 in favor of Cleveland. We talked towards the end of that game how the pitching match-ups in games 5 and 6 favored the Cubs and we all thought it at least plausible that the Cubs could get the Series to Game 7. That is exactly what happened as the Cubs' bats came alive in Games 5 and 6, forcing a winner-take-all final game.

I was 8 years old in 1991 when the Twins won the World Series. I don't remember watching the game but I remember all of the excitement. I have since watched that Game 7 at least 3 or 4 times because I have a DVD of that Game and that entire series. It's arguable, but in my mind, that is the greatest baseball game ever played and it would be almost impossible to top it...last night's game came close. Leslie and I watched the game with friends, she has been a life-long Cubs fan - I was dancing around the living room when Dexter Fowler hit the lead-off home run. We were second-guessing Maddon's moves all game long, especially why he took Hendricks out so early and why he brought Chapman in when he did. We all sat there stunned when Rajai friggin' Davis hit that game-tying home run. And of course we were all on our feet hugging and high-fiving when Bryant scooped up that grounder and fired over to Rizzo for the final out, grin on his face the whole time. We went outside - it was just after Midnight and there were people outside yelling, lighting off fireworks, driving down the street honking, yelling, everything. It was a great moment. If you're a Cubs fan, or even a baseball fan in general - Game 7 had everything you could want in a game. Home runs, an epic comeback, a short rain-delay, starting pitchers relieving, long relievers closing, relative nobodies (Carl Edwards Jr.) in staggeringly huge situations...and finally a world championship for a franchise that has waited longer than any other franchise in sports. It was great to feel like we were a part of it. It's a game and a playoff run that I will tell my daughters about when they are old enough to understand baseball. Congratulations to the Chicago Cubs and to Cub fans everywhere, especially the older ones.