Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Day Blue Defeated Red

It was deafeningly loud. Even through a cell phone speaker, the standing room only crowd echoed around my tiny studio apartment. The dreaded St. Louis Cardinals, for generations the superior side of the rivalry, were down to their last out. On second base was Matt Carpenter, a steadfast young third baseman who had established himself as one of the deadlier offensive threats in all of baseball. On the mound, Hector Rondon, the Cubs' man of consequence. He had been knocked around earlier this season, but the ball in his hand was the one to make history. The man at home was Stephen Piscotty. With three home runs to date in the series, the bat was in the most capable of hands. This was it. With two strikes, the baseball world held its breath. Rondon set with his pitch. It was to be a slider. A dangerous gamble to such a powerful hitter.
As long as I have been a Cubs fan, some 20 seasons now, the team has either left me disappointed or met my basement-level expectations. There was 1998, of course. The boys in blue had knocked out the San Francisco Giants in a one-game playoff to determine the National League Wild Card. The 106-win Atlanta Braves were awaiting their prey. As fate would have it, the Braves swept the Cubs, with Greg Maddux defeating the phenom Kerry Wood in game three. The last memory I have of that season was of the Cubs' players going around the field thanking their fans for the support all year. Something about that seemed earnest and positive, if not hopeful. I had no real comprehension of how to build a team, but I figured 'hey, why couldn't my team be right back here next year?' Oh, how wrong I was. The team dropped from ninety wins to sixty-seven. Then to sixty-five. In 2001 the Cubs won eighty-eight, only to finish in third behind the Cardinals and Astros.

Then came 2003. I really do not want or need to get into that year, but I will say there were moments that formed my deep appreciation for a great season. This, likely, is what fans of regularly successful teams call justification for the downtrodden. Baseball is a ride, and that ride will always have its highs and lows. What really matters is enjoying the good whenever it comes. The 2003 National League Championship Series stung. To be honest I still don't feel any fondness for the Marlins franchise even though they currently boast Ichiro Suzuki, my favorite active player. The wound that came after the final out of game seven was not what hurt the most. No, that would be what came after.

The Marlins won their second World Series in seven seasons. Then the Red Sox won their first in eighty-six years. Then the crosstown White Sox won their first in eighty-EIGHT years. Water was everywhere for the fellow wanderers of the proverbial desert. Then as fate would decide, the St. Louis Cardinals rose to power. A World Series title in 2006 and another in 2011. A National League crown in 2013. All the while, the team clad in red down I-55 was watching my Cubs stumble deep into an all-time depression. I sat with my friend Jordan on the day it felt like there was no way out of the hole. We watched as the Cubs celebrated 100 years at Wrigley then promptly blew the game. Wrigley Field had never watched the Cubs win a World Series, much less win a postseason series. That day I rode a train back to Indiana with several dozen Cubs fans, all nearly silent. 

I've been to a few Cubs-Cardinals games. The one I recall more was a night game, early in the 2012 season. It was a back and forth battle of wits. I was with my friend and lifelong Cards fan Ben. We had acquired a pair of lower level seats for ten bucks each- a testament to how low the expectations were for the home team that year. The final play of the game was an Alfonso Soriano base hit up the middle to drive in the walk-off, winning run. For a moment, just a twinkling of an eye, my team was superior. It was short lived. The Cubs lost 101 games that year, and I was present for the last two losses. The Cardinals were fine. They went on to lose to the eventual World Series champion Giants in the National League Championship Series. It was business as usual in southern Missouri.

This morning I awoke with a strange feeling about the day. These were not the Cubs I grew up groaning and crying over. They cared not for goats or black cats or Bartmen (or Alex Gonzalezes). They were too young and having too much fun to think about how experience always defeats youth in October. And they were too busy hitting home runs. Almost as if it had to be- the series was a dogfight. As the Cardinals took game one while I caught up with some friends back home, I felt like maybe it was too much for the young team. Jon Lester had been beaten soundly, and the series might as well unravel the next day. Then something incredible happened. The Cubs won. As my mother and I sat in her living room, tense with anticipation, the Cubs took game two. They had stolen home field advantage and their ace was set to pitch in the next game.

Then Jake Arrieta fell to earth. For a moment, the feeling was that same old here we go again. It was for naught. These kids. These stupid kids. They hit the cover off of the ball. The first six hitters in the lineup hit home runs- something that had never been done before in the postseason. Wrigley Field was shaking. As my friend Josh stood at his seat at the ballpark, a jealousy that should have been there was not to be found. Sure, I would have loved to have been there, but this was a moment for a Cubs fans, at the corner of Clark and Addison and elsewhere. The win last night set the stage for today. Another knock-down, drag-out brawl between the two best teams in all of baseball.

2-0 Cardinals.
4-2 Cubs.
4-4.
5-4 Cubs.
6-4 Cubs. 
To the ninth.

Tony Cruz ground out to Kris Bryant. One out.
Mark Reynolds strikeout. Two out.

Foul Ball. Strike one.
Swinging at air. Strike two.

Rondon delivered his slider. It bent through the chilly early-autumn air. Stephen Piscotty kept his eye at the seams as his had since he was young. His shoulders spun and brought the piece of lumber around. Baseball is a game of inches, sometimes less. A few notches in a different direction, the ball game is tied. Today was not that day. A low and outside pitch had fooled the overlooked phenom. Piscotty caught nothing but follow-through. Strike three. Catcher Miguel Montero gave a driving fist bump. The crowd swelled to a fever pitch. 

The Cubs had defeated the Cardinals in four games. It was their 101st win, tying their now vanquished foes for the most overall this season. A team that had lost eighty-nine games a year ago now stood at the footsteps of eternity.

On the north side of Indianapolis, in a five-hundred-plus square foot apartment, this Cubs fan was enraptured in the moment. I have no shame in admitting that I cried after the game on October 15, 2003. I have no shame admitting that a tear came tonight. Sports will do that. Its why we come back after every year of pain and frustration. Because maybe, just maybe, the goodness will come. I have pity on fans of teams who always win. I honestly do. They surely cannot understand what today means to me and those of likewise spirit. Baseball is good. Baseball is cruel, but baseball is good.

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