It's Sunday morning, 9:36 am. I feel good seeing the Chicago Cubs capitalize on rare mistakes by the St. Louis Cardinals. The National League Divisional Series is all tied up and of course, Game 3 features the best weapon in baseball — Jake Arrieta on the mound.
I would only allow myself to get a little nervous. It's the Cardinals for god-sakes. They always find a way and they sure rode their guy, Mr. John Lackey on Friday night, getting the performance any team needs from their ace. Jon Lester was nearly as impressive for the Cubs, but the first-inning run was the difference, the 8th inning giving way to breathing room for St. Louis.
Game 1 over. Fine. I'm more nervous but still overall confident prior to Game 2. Jaime Garcia is capable but not John Lackey. The Cubs counter with untested-playoff performer Kyle Hendricks.
I'm a sports fan. In fact, fan understates that. I'm the fanatic in fan. All 100% of me and then some. I don't know exactly how it started. Sports sure hadn't come my way yet when I was playing T-ball at about four-years-old. I remember being more interested in the firetrucks across the street. I was in a bowling league growing up. I played street hockey, ice hockey, backyard baseball and football, basketball on the driveway, catch in the backyard.
My father is from Broadview, Illinois. He's a fan of the Cubs, and my first baseball memories — among countless games in Cincinnati seeing the Reds and local Columbus Clippers — go back to visiting Wrigley Field in 2001. Cubs vs Cardinals. My only visit to this point. It was July 27, 2001, and Darryl Kile was opposing Jason Bere on the mound. It was about a year prior to Kile's death, again during a Cubs vs Cards series in Chicago.
Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were superstars, Albert Pujols still a mere rookie.
I was living in Columbus, Ohio at that time, the prime years of my youth, ages 7-14. My first baseball game was a Columbus Clippers game. All I remember is a cold April evening. Or it could have been September. It was cold. The Clippers at that time were the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. Enter my Yankees fandom.
My uncle is a Yankees fan and I picked that up from him. He got into them when the Richmond, Virginians were affiliated with the Yankees.
I most recently compared to a friend that liking two teams was akin to being in love with two women. It's not uncommon for one to like two teams, one in the American League and one in the National League. But the Cubs and Yankees?!
The Cubs have not won the whole thing since 1908. The Yankees, much to the chagrin of everybody outside of New York, have the most World Series titles (27); they're summed up as having the highest payrolls, always winning. Always. I'm sure to be eaten alive by the most diehard of Cubs fandom who knew there was an also-Yankees fan in their midst. Hell, maybe the Cubs could use some of that past magic from within their own.
Growing up in Columbus, I watched the Cubs on WGN, swept up in the Cubs' 2003 playoff push. They went all the way to the 2003 National League Championship Series, 5 outs from a sure World Series berth. Mark Prior was on the mound, their rookie-ace and ace of the future. He won 18 games that season and had ascended to the Major Leagues in no time. The kid was a stud. He was going to be a Cy Young winner — an accolade for the best pitchers. He was destined for instant stardom.
He was out of the Major Leagues by 2006.
A career beset by injury after injury, a promising pitcher that never came to fruition.
In that 2003 series all they had to do was get by the pesky Florida Marlins, an expansion team from 1993, already with more recent World Series experience than the Cubs. 1997 vs 1945. The Cubs were up 3-0 in the 8th inning with Mark Prior on the mound. All they needed was five outs.
It all fell apart. The team crumbled miserably. This is Cubdom.
Something you have to know, the Cubs have not only NOT won the World Series since 1908, they have lost in the most heartbreaking of ways. Charlie Brown has more chances of kicking that football Lucy keeps taking away.
Cubs fans, forever optimistic, always count on the inevitable doom. And it's all thanks to a blasted billy goat owned by tavern owner Billy Sianis. It's the 1945 World Series vs the Detroit Tigers, and Sianis is in attendance with his goat. The Cubs asked for him to take his goat out of Wrigley due to the odor. Sianis responded with a hex on the team, claiming they'd never win another World Series.
Yeah, it's ludicrous. The Cubs have also crumbled at the height of the biggest stage ever since: 1969, 1984, 2003...
So back to that night in 2003, I know the Cubs are going to win it. Five outs, Prior on the mound, what could go wrong? Prior was in cruise-control, having retired eight straight batters before Juan Pierre doubled down the line. Runner on second, one out in the eighth. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Luis Castillo hits a harmless pop fly down the left side. And then it happens.
Highlight films to this day show Cubs left fielder Moises Alou losing it over a fan who possibly interfered with a catchable ball. Maybe it could have been two outs, and Prior makes the third out.
That fan came to be known as Bartman. Steve Bartman was just an innocent life-long Cubs fan who saw a ball coming his way and did what any of us would have done; he leaped for it. Alou thought he could have had the out, but fan-interference was not called. So what? 3-0, just a foul ball.
Immediately afterward, it happened.
Castillo is on after a wild pitch. Two on. 3-0 and the tying run at the plate.
Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez singles on a 0-2 pitch scoring a run. If I had a beer I would have been all up in it. But I was 15.
Miguel Cabrera comes up, hitting the grounder of all grounders — Alex Gonzales, the Cubs' shortstop, nearly flawless all year, picks the most inopportune time to boot a ground ball. The potential double play ends the inning but Gonzales' error keeps the door open. For eight. more. runs. Eight. It's 8-3 after that merciless top of the eighth, Wrigley so silent you can hear a pin drop.
That's it. It's over.
The reality of it was manager Dusty Baker could have had the bullpen warming up sooner, he could have pulled Prior from the game when he was clearly rattled, Gonzales could have made the double play. The blame can land anywhere.
My dad knew it was over. I can't believe what's happened but I know there's still Game 7 at home to go. They'll win.
My dad has been through it with the Cubs; the collapse of 1969, the playoff run in 1984 and of course now the 2003 iteration. He says "it's over" before Game 7 even begins. There's a buzz at the park but obviously, it's still quite subdued. But everything springs to life when pitcher Kerry Wood ties the game on a 3-run home run in the first inning. Seriously, this thing is gonna be fine.
In the immediate days afterward I thought this to be a cruel joke. Baseball couldn't allow this; an upstart Marlins team on the cusp of their second World title? If only we could go back in time.
On the American League side of things, the Red Sox were poised to break through. But much like the Cubs, the Yankee Stadium magic and mystique came alive, ending any chance for Boston, a team that hadn't had any World Series success since 1918. The collapse came with their own ace on the mound, the Sox' Pedro Martinez.
And wouldn't you know it, the Marlins beat the Yankees too.
The Cubs looked like the best team in baseball all season in 2008, but the media darlings were swept in three by Joe Torre's Los Angeles Dodgers. Coincidently it was Joe Maddon's upstart Tampa Bay Rays that made the World Series run, and now that manager is sparking the same kind of vibin' in Chicago.
Flash forward to today, the Cubs have Arrieta on the mound tomorrow. The guy has been an absolute freak of nature since the second-half of the season. I feel myself getting more and more excited, without letting myself think ahead, or lose sight of the fact they need to win one at a time.
The Cubs brought in Theo Epstein in 2011 to run the team, the same general manager who brought World Series success to Boston in 2004 and 2007. His complete rebuild of the Cubs and its replenishing of the minor league farm system now bears the fruits of success.
The team finished 61-101 in 2012, 66-96 in 2013, 73-89 in 2014. They had a different manager in two of those three years and now another new manager in the very same Joe Maddon for 2015. Brimming with optimism heading into the season, and considered still a year away from fully arriving, the Cubs ended the regular season 97-65. Good for third place in the tightly contested NL Central. A division title in any other division. Probably home-field advantage.
Entering the season I thought they might be an 80-win team. The team has utilized the services of and relied on the rookie success of Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell. The team caught fire in August and the aforementioned Arrieta has put together a historical second-half.
I wouldn't allow myself to think ahead of last Wednesday's wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, a very good team who has not been able to figure out the single-elimination do-or-die game the last few years. I was confident with Arrieta, though cautiously optimistic.
Remember, I've been here before.
Back in May, the Cubs were thoroughly beat the Cardinals. This team was not anywhere near the level of the St. Louis Cardinals. The recent success over the Cards in September made me think we can play with them. I still won't allow myself to think beyond the next game.
2003 was my Cubs moment. Stupid me, I was still confident in 2007 as well as 2008 when they seemingly had the ingredients to make a long October run. They were swept both years.
I don't know what it is about sports that make me so emotionally invested. I had my TV on split screen Friday night, watching my Columbus Blue Jackets crumble before my very eyes — 3 unanswered goals in 77 seconds. Only the Cubs could suffer a similar fate. And on that other side of the TV was the Cubs, getting bested by John Lackey 4-0. That loss didn't sting, it just sucked on its own merit.
Being down 1-0 in the series, Chicago HAD to win Saturday night. They did. I'm more excited with Arrieta on the mound tomorrow, with the chance to...I'm not even going to say it.
I don't consider myself all that superstitious but I can't deny that I am. I wore my Arrieta jersey last Wednesday, my Lester jersey Friday and Rizzo yesterday. As if that jersey was going to break Rizzo's 0-for slump in the playoffs. He didn't, but the team as a whole did.
Much like 2003 with manager Dusty Baker, I trust Maddon. He just has a way about things, and it's obvious his guys trust him. He's a calming influence. He's just cool!
The guy is without a doubt the coolest manager or coaching disciple in sports. He imports animals from the Columbus Zoo for a Wrigley Field-Zoo day, he brings in magicians, sets up live concerts in the clubhouse, fog machines and disco balls. He taps into the youthfulness of the team but features a winning confidence and taps into an athletes' mind like a Joe Torre or Phil Jackson.
This is my life. I love sports and yet it can be as cruel as your worse ex. A cornucopia of emotions, I don't know why I allow myself to get so emotionally caught up in a game. This is an athlete's profession. Do they really understand what the fanatic puts his or herself through? And yet my undying passion will not die. No matter what happens I'll be ready to cheer on my teams. Because unlike a nasty ex, there's always hope for your team. They always come back, as if to prove to you all over again, this time, it'll be different.
I've also maintained the notion that whatever happens, this season is just gravy. The Cubs have a bright future ahead of itself. Hell, I'm being superstitious right now, not wanting to get too greedy with my thinking as if I'm going to bring on the Ji-...well, you know.
Also published on Medium.