There was a baseball game last night.
There are three stories to tell about it, and they’re stacked on top of each other, tottering, each bigger than the last and relying on the one below it to make sense. The first story: the Cubs took a 6-3 lead into the eighth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, and Aroldis Chapman blew it. Then he won the game.
The protagonists of baseball stories are often pitchers; they’re the ones who fundamentally act to begin play. Even the hitter standing at the plate merely gets the privilege of reacting first. But protagonism is not inherently heroic, and Chapman’s was tainted appropriately; most everyone in the audience was rooting against him to some degree. Some wanted him to blow the lead. Others wanted him to do poorly enough that another Cubs pitcher would be brought in to take the save. Still others wanted Chapman to triumph completely, then walk off the mound and out of a Cubs uniform forever.
Some small portion of everyone’s wishes came true. Chapman allowed three runs in the eighth to Brandon Guyer, Rajai Davis, and Coco Crisp to tie the game. Then he had to spend a half-inning in the dugout with his team-mates. He returned to the mound in the ninth having blown the biggest save of his career with the eyes of history on him, failed the people in the sport closest to him, and knowing he cannot satisfy that failure – tonight he will not be batting. All that is left for Chapman to do, then, is his best. His best was merely sufficient. Aroldis Chapman retired the side in order in the ninth and departed the game.
He was only able to watch as Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, and pitchers Carl Edwards Jr and Mike Montgomery, secured the Cubs win in the tenth inning … for him. Such are the oddities of baseball scoring that Chapman will go down in the record books as the winning pitcher in the game Chicago broke the curse. And he will always know what that means, because all of us know will always know what that means: in the most important game of his career, his best was only good enough to blow a save instead of lose outright – and after that, it was in the hands of the people around him. All he could do was trust and hope, because he was powerless.
This might sound like it’s intended as some form of either absolution or comeuppance for the domestic violence incident involving Chapman last December. It’s not and it never could be, but there’s a reason it sounds that way: a man with extraordinary abilities being humbled by hubris in a moment of triumph is a very, very old story. In the fictional version, the hubris would be the some moral imperfection on the pitcher’s part, and his fall would be delivered not by a bolt of lightning from the gods but through the pitcher’s manager, who over-relied on him and sapped his tremendous gifts when they were needed most. That fall is intensely personal – his team-mates go on to win the game and their place in history – and he is left with the symbolic scar of his “win” in the history books. This is a story of justice and punishment, and it feels right because everyone more or less got what the story thought they deserved in the end. And in that specific sense, the story of Chapman resolved in the best way possible.
Yet resolution has no moral quality. There is no true punishment to be found for Chapman, the man, in throwing a baseball poorly; likewise, there would have been no absolution to be found for him in throwing a baseball well. But the story itself? The story is perfect. The final half-hour of last night’s baseball game was one of the best contained dramas that American sports have ever told.
Then, above that first story, there is the second story: after defeating the Giants and the Dodgers handily in the first two rounds of the postseason – never facing elimination against either, and only trailing once – the Cubs went to the brink of elimination against the Cleveland Indians and came back from a 3-1 World Series deficit to win the championship. One might prefer to add “at home” to the end of that sentence (blame the Commissioner Emeritus for that one), but otherwise this is the greatest way to win a World Series. Unlike the 3-0 comeback, where first one team wins all the games and then the other does, throwing in an early win in Game 2 keeps the front of the series engaging, rather than feeling like a let down that’s only redeemed when the real danger of elimination looms. Just as Chapman’s story is completely different if the Cubs aren’t right to trust his talent so completely, the Cubs’ story this postseason is completely different if they’re not actually the best team in baseball. Chapman gives up runs, but he still touches triple digits on the fastball. The Cubs lose games, but they still look not just like they belong, but like they can win.
That’s because these Cubs can win, of course; they can win an almost arbitrary number of times. The Chicago Cubs won three games in a row 22 times this year. The most times a team could possibly win three games in a row in a standard MLB season – speaking mathematically, not practically – is 54. What does that mean though, really? Well, it means they won more games than the Minnesota Twins won all year just in virtual sweeps.
The regular season doesn’t predict the playoffs, but it does contextualize them, and the context of reporters marveling about how loose the Chicago clubhouse was after Game 4 was this: the Cubs had spent around half of the year winning three games in a row over and over and over again, and nobody’s definition of impossible includes something they’ve done 20 times since they last paid their taxes. (Two of those three-game win streaks came before 15 April.)
At the same time, winning three games in a row on command remains the daunting statistical task it’s always been – and that gives us our real conflict, because the Cubs’ opponent in the second story isn’t the Indians or the Dodgers or the Giants, but sequence and consequence, force and pressure: can they do something they’ve done all year long right now, on demand, in order to save their season?
The answer was comprehensive. Their first win was tense, their second win was convincing, and their third was one of the best games of the era, if not the best. It is particularly fitting that while the winning blows were struck by the veterans Ben Zobrist and Miguel Montero, while the actual scoring runners were Albert Almora and Anthony Rizzo – Zobrist and Montero’s entire careers were redefined by those two moments last night. They will never do anything in the game of baseball more important than that. They never could do anything in the game of baseball more important than that. It’s a moment for men near the end of their careers, not at the beginning.
And also fitting is that Kris Bryant, who will likely win the National League Most Valuable Player Award, momentarily faded into the background in that final sequence to let two veteran free agent signings, the promising first-round pick who hasn’t yet made his mark (running for the promising first-round pick who just returned from destroying his knee), and the prodigal son from the Chicago front office’s previous relationship combine for the winning runs over multiple plays. The second story, after all, is an epic, not a morality tale, and epics concern the virtues and failings of many people.
These Chicago Cubs could not have been anyone, but they could have been many people, and they were. They are special, but they are not unique. Their roster was made the same way as rosters have been made before it and will be made after it; theirs was better than some that have won the World Series, and it was worse than others. Theo Epstein is no god, Jed Hoyer is not his son and between them they have no prophets. No star or sign or sigil brought the Cubs to this World Series. And to accept that now, at the ending, is to also accept that there was no star or sign or sigil that kept the Cubs away.
The third and final story sits above the second story and the first, and it is the story of a curse. It has nothing to do with goats. It has nothing to do with the Wrigley family, an angry tavern owner, or the World Series. It has nothing to do with the Chicago Cubs. It has nothing to do with baseball. It certainly has nothing to do with Steve Bartman.
This World Series, this one in particular, is so meaningful and so important is because at some point, the fact that the Cubs had not won a World Series in many years became a terrifyingly powerful thing. It became the birthmark of entire generations of Midwestern sports fans; its predictive force went from theoretical to that of a cultural law of gravity. Putting a Cubs hat on a fictional character or a Cubs mug in his hand meant something, and not that the character was from Chicago. A fictional Cubs team wins the World Series in the 1993 film Rookie of the Year, but almost no one remembers that because the movie cuts straight from the last day of the season to the first day of spring – still living in the immense shadow of the real story of the Cubs, even in another world.
And all it required was the passing of generations and the workings of the real world. The generations of Cubs fans that were born and then died between 1908 and last night don’t resonate the way that they do because they didn’t get to see some sports championship. They resonate because time is running out on our dreams, too.
Last night that third story, that century-old monster that gathered so much weight over the years that it was a wonder it didn’t crack the surface of the Earth and drag Wrigleyville with it right down into hell, ended. It ended perfectly and forever. Never again will the story of the Chicago Cubs and their 108-year long World Championship drought again hold such court in the vastness of the American cultural mind.
The curse this story concerns is this: it’s morning now, Cubs fans, and nothing for all the rest of your days will be like last night. Some things will be better. Some will last longer. Some may honestly make you happier – far happier. But last night you touched a storybook as it closed perfectly, and felt something older and bigger than yourselves conclude in perhaps the rarest of things man has been responsible for in our long and sordid history: an authentic, earned happy ending.
Touching that mystery once is enough, I imagine, and those who missed their chance last night have long odds to live to see another. And it’ll feel good to be the top dog in the Central for a change. It’s surprising how easy that transition is, as the new story starts. The Cubs win the World Series. The year is almost over. The Cleveland Indians will go into next season without having won a World Series since 1948. Time is always running out.