CLEVELAND, Ohio—They traveled all along Interstate 90, the road from Chicago to Cleveland, dressed in gear bearing the Cubs logo.
It reminded me of ``The Grapes of Wrath,'' the Steinbeck classic in which Okies trekked from their Dust Bowl homes in search of a better life picking fruit in California.
Seeking something just as perishable, Cubs fans packed every travel plaza along the Indiana and Ohio toll roads, stopping for gas and food, and speaking to each other in reverential, confident terms about their quest for better things. The Cubs’ pilgrims were dressed better than the Okies. But they did not eat as well.
At one unleaded/burger stop, my cousin Michael and his son Jonny, who are involved in commercial real estate, encountered two of Jonny’s friends, a pair of young men who had left their office impulsively, with only the clothes on their backs. Unlike the Okies, they would purchase fresh Cubs gear in Cleveland. They had bought tickets on Stubhub. While in their car.
Finally, we arrived in Cleveland. It was a drive of 5-1/2 hours. But it had taken 108 years.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
Cleveland used to be maligned as the Mistake by the Lake, but we found a vibrant, inviting downtown awash in World Series revelers.
The food-and-beverage options around the ballpark, Progressive Field, were as enticing as their counterparts in Wrigleyville. Michael’s brother-in-law, Bill, a Cleveland native who loves his rock and roll as much as the Indians, paused to take a photo with an Elvis, even though the Elvis wore a cape that saluted the Cubs.
Sitting with Bill at a Cubs' game in Wrigley Field in September, I said to him, ``Wouldn't it be something if the Cubs and Indians met in the World Series?''
Progressive Field is one of the many ersatz-retro ballparks built across America since the last bad ballpark, Comiskey, was built on the South Side of Chicago. I say that sadly, as a Chicagoan—not gleefully as a Cub fan.
Baltimore, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Washington and others have built ballparks that have some quaint Wrigley-Field/Fenway-Park-like touches—odd dimensions, vintage feel etc.—and Progressive is one of them.
It also has escalators—hooray for modern infrastructure—that was much appreciated. Our seats were near the top of the upper deck, but between third base and home plate. Although high up, that’s an excellent viewing spot, as far as I’m concerned.
The game, as you know, was an epic of biblical proportions. The Cubs started with a bang. Dexter Fowler hit a leadoff homer and the Cubs built a 5-1 lead, then allowed the Indians back into the game, 5-3, with a two-run wild pitch that was more akin to the previous 107 years than this wonderful season.
The misery continued when Cleveland bounced back with three runs in the bottom of the eighth off of Aroldis Chapman, the flame-throwing reliever acquired from the Yankees to avoid late meltdowns like the one he had just allowed.
In yet another demonstration that stats are over-rated, Chapman got the win.
But the truth is, all great pitchers are overworked and vulnerable by the late innings of the seventh game of the World Series. Why should Chapman be any different? There is a big question about whether he will return to the Cubs. I'm not as big a fan of his work as some people. But after seeing his agony and ecstasy in Game 7, I'm more inclined to want to see him back. He has endured his Cub baptism.
And so it went. When it was a 6-6 tie after nine innings, even the heavens weighed in, with rain that brought the tarp onto the field and brought a massive groan from the stands. Cubs and Indians supporters had found something they could agree on.
So many Chicagoans, including me, have been getting emotional about this Cubs team because of what it means for departed loved ones—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles—who indoctrinated us into Cubdom.
Rain? Really? Couldn’t the departed have used their influence up there?
I found this rain delay especially troubling. I rarely attend sporting events as a civilian these days. And while the creature comforts of press boxes are increasingly under fire from teams eager to convert those spaces into revenue-producing areas, they still beat the hell out of the steerage experience the basic fan endures.
The entire rain delay, for example, could easily be spent in a washroom line. And it was.
Most troubling, while our seats afforded a good view, we were in the middle of a long row. In these steep stands, getting to the aisle was somewhat akin to crossing a creek while balancing on a log. Having been alive for more than half of the 108 years of solitude, and with a balky knee, declining balance and other ailments, that was not an easy task.
That is something I will only do at the seventh game of a Cubs’ World Series.
Lo and behold, the rain delay ended, and the Cubs came out with an inspired vengeance. While the rain delay was a downer for spectators, the Cubs credited it with being the best thing that could have happened. The heart-felt remarks of Jason Heyward apparently renewed their resolve. . . .Imagine, Jason Heyward, best known for his big salary and tiny bat. I had come to feel sympathetic rather than upset with him. His swing is as flawed these days as my golf swing. But while I have given up on my golf swing, I’m hoping he can correct his mechanics.
The image of Ben Zobrist jumping up and down on second base after driving in the lead run in the 10th inning is one I will never forget. Hopefully, all of us have known that kind of unbridled joy somewhere back there in our youth—on a baseball diamond or basketball court or other playing field.
To see that in a veteran player, one who just joined the Cubs this year, one who has been there/done this elsewhere, winning the World Series in Kansas City just a year ago. . . that sums up the whole point of this. Not only why we care so much about sports. But why we watch in the first place.
The second-most memorable moment for me. . . when it was over, the group of Indians fans in front of us turned around to congratulate us and shake hands. This was especially surprising because there had been some edgy moments during the game. They would be crushed at moments when we were celebrating, and vice-versa. Nothing serious.
But one of the guys—a very big man with tattoos—reminded me of the imposing character in that ad, the giant who has nachos spilled all over his pristine Red Sox uniform by a nerdy Yankees fan.
To see his show of sportsmanship—which is increasingly scarce in the modern world—that was very touching—something I will never forget.
On the way down the myriad ramps, Cubs fans were singing the ``Go, Cubs, Go!’’ Steve Goodman song.
I’m not that big a fan of that tradition. But then again, sportswriting alters and tempers your fandom. At that moment, as we exited Progressive Field, knowing that the Cubs had done the unfathomable, it seemed appropriate.
I almost sang.
Age and wisdom and career choice have heavily influenced the way I rank Cubs teams.
Everyone old enough has memories of 1969, 1984, 2003 and other promising seasons that died on the Wrigley Field vines.
But baseball, because of its every-day nature, is about connecting with the style of a team and its players, and its successes or failures.
For example, I was so proud of the 1963 Cubs, the first Cubs team on my watch that finished over .500, a modest 82-80. I worshipped Dick Ellsworth, who was left-handed like me, and went 22-10. I wrote to him for an autographed picture, which he graciously sent. Does that still happen? I hope so.
I also identified greatly with the mostly forgotten 1977 team—the Little Blue Machine that spent a big chunk of the summer in first place before fading in August. That was my first summer back in Chicago after college and a brief stint at the Albuquerque Journal. Ivan DeJesus and I both came up from Albuquerque that season. He was acquired by the Cubs in a trade with the Dodgers. I was a free agent signed by the Chicago Daily News.
Because I often worked a 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift, I often headed to Wrigley Field after work. This was back in the days when tickets were affordable and available, even for a first-place Cubs team. My friend Jimmy, a waiter/actor, lived on Kenmore, just over the left-field wall. We'd watch the first inning on TV. If the game looked promising, we'd go plunk down $1.50 for a bleacher ticket.
I loved that team. I called them the regular-verb Cubs. it was a French-class thing. They had Buckner, Murcer, Sutter, Biittner, Kelleher, Swisher. And they didn't hit a lot of home runs.
Obviously, this 2016 Cubs will go down in history as ``the team that broke the curse.’’ They deserve all the accolades that will come their way.
For real Cub fans, it was those teams like the 1977 squad that made the joy of 2016 possible. It’s about the journey as well as the destination.
It goes way beyond all the road construction that slowed the trip from Chicago to Cleveland on Interstate 90 this week.[/membership]