Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Go Cubs Go

On October 25, 1986, the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox played Game 6.

Baseball fans know the game, but for those who aren't familiar with it, the Red Sox were on the verge of winning their first World Series since 1918. Boston was up 5-3 in the 10th inning when a series of unfortunate events, including an untimely error by Bill Buckner, led to the Mets coming back to win 6-5 and force a Game 7, which the Mets would win to claim the World Series.

It's among the most memorable World Series games ever played.

At the time, I was a seven-year old kid who convinced his parents to let me watch the game. It was the end of daylight savings time, which I'm sure had something to do with the decision to let me watch. My dad swung the television towards the our screened-in back porch and we sat outside watching the game.

I have no idea how long I lasted and I'm quite sure I didn't get to stay up to the end of the game, but it's my first real memory of watching baseball.

I'm not really sure how I became a baseball fan. My mom was (and is) a fan of the NFL's Green Bay Packers while my dad was (and I guess kind of still is) a fan of the NBA's Boston Celtics. Neither seemed to be much of a baseball fan and to this day I'm not exactly sure why or how I got in to it.

That Spring of 1987, I started watching the Chicago Cubs. There wasn't any real reason for it other than they were on in the afternoons after school on WGN so I could catch the last five innings or so of a lot of games. That was the year Andre Dawson hit 49 home runs and would go on to win the MVP award that, at the time I thought he deserved, but now realize he was far from the best player in the league. It didn't matter that the Cubs finished in last place that year. I was eight and Dawson was hitting home runs and really, what little kid doesn't love home runs.

My parents indulged me, letting me watch more than they probably should have, though there were times they'd make me let my brother get to watch something other than baseball when we came home.

That next year, for Christmas, I asked Santa Claus for season tickets to the Cubs for the 1989 season, despite the fact that I lived in south Georgia. However, I also asked for round trip airfare to get me to and from the games, though I neglected to think about food and lodging and, you know, being nine and flying halfway across the country by myself.

All through high school I remained a Cubs fan, even as the home-state Atlanta Braves would go on to become one of the most dominant franchises in all of sports. Starting in 1991, the Braves would win their division for (checks my math) 173 consecutive seasons, or so it seemed to me. The Cubs, meanwhile, would make the playoffs in 1998, but otherwise had a pretty lousy decade, which was par for the course for them seeing as how they (spoiler alert) haven't won a World Series since the first Roosevelt administration. No, not FDR's first term, Teddy Roosevelt, all the way back in 1908.

The great home run chase of 1998 with Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire was fun and the Cubs managed to make it to the playoffs, but they were swept by the Braves in three games, so that wasn't quite as fun.

In 2003, the Cubs were expected to be good. They were on the cover of Sports Illustrated (which I hung on my cubicle wall) and lived up to expectations. They won the division title and then defeated the Braves three games to two to advance to the National League Championship Series. My wife, (we'd been married less than three months), made sure we went to one of the games in Atlanta. It's still the only Cubs playoff game I've ever been to.

The Cubs would come within one game of making their first World Series since the 1945, but they lost two games at home to the Florida Marlins (including the infamous Bartman game) to continue the longest drought of reaching a championship game/series in all of major professional sports.

I was devastated. I thought for sure this was the Cubs year. It was going to happen. Only it didn't happen.

A few years later, in 2007 and 2008, the Cubs again returned to the playoffs, but once again, failed to make it to the World Series. I was excited about those playoff teams, but didn't have the same hope that I did a few years earlier.

Things got progressively worse for the Cubs until five years ago.

October 25, 2011. That's when the Cubs introduced Theo Epstein, the architect behind the Boston Red Sox, teams that won two World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, as the President of Baseball Operations for the Cubs. 

Epstein brought with him more than skills and knowledge and a staff of people who knew what it takes to win. He brought hope, though it wasn't immediately clear to a lot of people at the time what he was doing. Epstein inherited a team of overpriced, aging players and in the span of a few years, tore the team down to the ground and rebuilt it. I won't bore you with the moves he made, but through solid drafting, trading players at their peak value for young prospects, and an owner willing to spend when the time was right, the Cubs would win 97 games in 2015 and make it to the National League Championship Series where they would again lose, this time to the New York Mets.

Which brings me to this year. The Cubs came in to the season as the heavy favorite to finally reach the World Series. After a regular season in which they won a league-best 103 games, they dispatched the San Francisco Giants in the first round of the playoffs, setting up a series with the Los Angeles Dodgers with a World Series berth on the line.

The Cubs won the first game before becoming just the second team ever to be shut out in back-to-back games in the playoffs in games two and three. However, Chicago would go on to win three straight to reach the promised land.

Which leads us back to tonight, October 25, 2016. Exactly 30 years ago to the day of the first baseball game I can truly have any memory of, and five years after the most importing hire in the history of the Cubs organization, the Chicago Cubs will take the field in a World Series.

Their leadoff hitter, Dexter Fowler, is African-American. He would not have been allowed to play in the major leagues in 1945 as the league didn't integrate until two years later. I've been able to watch pretty much any Cubs game I wanted to this year thanks to the magic of MLB.tv, which lets fans stream games of any out-of-market team. The first World Series wasn't televised until 1947, meaning no one has ever seen a Cubs World Series game on television.

I don't know what to expect as the World Series begins. All I know is my son, who just turned eight, will be with me watching the Cubs play in the World Series on October 25, 2016.

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