CHICAGO – Turns out athletic heroes – even those who alter the history of a franchise and a city – don’t have to look the part. Chicago calls as its son Michael Jordan, who reshaped professional basketball. It boasts Dick Butkus, who is the dictionary-ready definition of football player.
On Saturday night, it had Kyle Hendricks. Put him in a cubicle or at a card catalog, and he’d scarcely be noticed. Saturday night, he was at the center of the cauldron that was Wrigley Field, pitching the Chicago Cubs into their first World Series – say it and sing it, Chicago – in 71 years.
Jordan, Butkus, Hendricks? Not quite. But the magnitude of what happened here in the Cubs’ 5-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series makes such status sound something less than ridiculous. He allowed a hit to the first man he faced. He allowed a hit to the last man he faced. In between, he faced 21 hitters. The only one who reached first got there on an error, and Hendricks promptly picked him off.
So meet the Cubs, National League champions, ready for the World Series – the World %$&^#@ Series – Tuesday in Cleveland. They beat up on Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of this generation. But they also walloped a far more difficult opponent: the franchise’s fickle history, for which this group has no use.
This victory, then, is so much greater than the sum of its parts. It serves as a suture on so many open wounds that have festered for generations. The parts, though, are worth dissecting, because when this accomplishment is parsed – over the winter, next October, a decade from now – the players who made it happen will be heroes.
There was Dexter Fowler, who scored the first run and drove in the third. There were Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo, who clubbed solo homers against Kershaw.
And there was Hendricks.
If Saturday night had been authored by lefty Jon Lester, a hero of Octobers past, or Jake Arrieta, a season removed from a Cy Young award, it might have made more sense. But in some ways, the fact that Hendricks – a product of noted baseball powerhouse Dartmouth – pitched so well is an ode to the completeness of these Cubs. He needed all of 88 pitches to navigate his 7 1/3 innings.
So the party, anticipated for decades, could start. By Kershaw’s seventh pitch, any anxiety – “angst,” Manager Joe Maddon called it beforehand – evaporated, or at least was tucked away in purses and pockets. It took only that long for Fowler to open with a double and for Kris Bryant to follow with a hard single that scored him. At that moment, Wrigley was so alive that the ballpark’s upper deck shook. The game wasn’t 15 minutes old.
This was the nervous, pent-up nature of the entire affair. The Cubs have been so good since the season’s first pitch that there has scarcely been a situation in which to doubt them. Maybe in Game 4 of the division series against San Francisco, when they trailed by three runs entering the ninth and suddenly were facing a decisive fifth game. Or maybe when, earlier in the NLCS, they were shut out in back-to-back games, and all of the Midwest wondered if they’d ever hit again.
But they beat the Giants with a four-run ninth, and they responded against the Dodgers by scoring 18 runs in the next two games. Before Saturday, they had combined to win 109 games in the regular and post seasons, more than any Cubs team since 1907, the year before their most recent World Series championship. There was mounting evidence that these Cubbies were different.
“History doesn’t really weigh on this club,” Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said.
Fine. But it weighs on the town, for sure, and over generations, no doubt. If you don’t remember World War II, you don’t remember the Cubs’ last appearance in the World Series. But the middle-aged might be able to recall 1969, and the nine-game lead in mid-August that was gone by mid-September. Chicagoans in their 40s can’t escape the image of Tim Flannery’s grounder somehow eluding Cubs first baseman Leon Durham in 1984, and the Padres’ ensuing victory in the deciding game of the NLCS.
And you need only be a teenager to be absolutely crippled by the three-games-to-one lead over Florida in the 2003 NLCS, by the three-run lead with five outs to go in Game 6 at Wrigley, by the flyball down the left field line, by the fan who prevented left fielder Moises Alou from making the catch. It’s worth recollecting: that collapse wasn’t built just on Steve Bartman, the Walkman-wearing Cubs lifer in the stands, but also on shortstop Alex Gonzalez’s booted grounder, one that might have been a double play.
Whatever’s left in the memory bank of each individual Chicagoan, it’s a lot to endure. Documentaries are made about events like these. Lives are shaped by them.
But not the lives of the people who currently wear the uniform.
“These guys, a lot of them are in their early 20s, and they’re not burdened by that stuff,” Epstein said. “The organization isn’t. It’s just about trying to win.”
So they are winning more than this town is used to, and now at a time of year when it is supposed to be football season. They have a stranglehold here, and who knows when it might be relinquished? Not next weekend, when the 102-year-old ballpark will host its first World Series game since Game 7 in 1945.
That day, Cubs starter Hank Bowory couldn’t get an out in the first inning before he was replaced three batters in, and the Detroit Tigers took a five-run lead en route to an easy 9-3 victory.
The fans, they waited till next year. And the year after, and on and on, until it seemed that there were karmic forces at work. Before Saturday night, the Cubs had played six games since 1945 that would have sent them to the World Series. They had lost them all.
What the town was waiting for, it turned out, was this group, which has just about no weakness, and this month, which the 42,386 who packed the old yard Saturday has no interest in ending. They were waiting for Saturday night.
When it arrived, Kershaw simply pitched poorly. His five-inning stint, in which he was charged with four earned runs, will send him into yet another offseason with questions about his October performance.
Those, though, are questions about one player on one team. The Cubs have endured those questions about an entire team, about a town’s character and its psyche.
Now, instead of Leon Durham and Steve Bartman, they have Kyle Hendricks and Anthony Rizzo and the rest. Instead of heartache, they have, of all things, happiness, in its purest form.