Whatever happens in the World Series, the curse of the Chicago Cubs ended Sunday night in Chicago, for reasons that take a little explaining from this 59-year-old man-child, now finally reaching the Promised Land of his youth.
After flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman retired the Cleveland Indians in the ninth to save a 3-2 nail-biter in Game 5, my son, Tommy (whom I afflicted with undying Cub loyalty when he was a New Jersey 6-year-old) and I used our press passes to rush onto the field to witness catcher David Ross—playing his last home game before retirement—kissing his wife. It capped an excruciating but ultimately exhilarating weekend of baseball, featuring encounters with Ferguson Jenkins, Theo Epstein, John Paul Stevens, and some Greek Town goat meat presented to me at Sunday brunch that I dared not consume.
I actually own a life-size goat made of shiny chrome car bumpers by Chicago sculptor John Kearney. I bought it years ago in part to help exorcise the curse that Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis placed on the Cubs after they wouldn’t let him bring a smelly billy goat onto the field for Game 4 of the 1945 World Series, the last time until this year that they made the Fall Classic.
All baseball fans now know that the Cubs are trying for their first world championship since 1908. But only true Cub fans feel the pain of putting on that wan smile and saying, year after year: “Hey, any team can have a bad century.”
Back in the 1930s, the Cubs weren’t so bad. I wandered over to Section 114 on Saturday night to find a cherubic bow-tied 96-year-old man in a Cubs jacket. Retired Justice Stevens, one of the most brilliant minds ever to serve on the Supreme Court and still extremely sharp, sat not far from where as a 12-year-old he witnessed Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in the 1932 World Series. He has the ticket stub framed in his office to prove it. “He did point,” Stevens told me. “It really happened.” Stevens filled me in on the details of the razzing from the Cubs and Yankees benches that led to the most famous single play in the history of the game.
As long as I had him, I did a little political business. I asked Stevens if it was true that in 2011 he called Gov. Pat Quinn to urge him to sign a bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois. He said it had never been made public before, but confirmed “a long call” to Quinn and praised the governor’s courage in making his state a leader in recognizing that capital punishment is a broken system. I didn’t have the heart to ask him about the constitutional crisis that may ensue if the candidate supported by Cubs owner Joe Ricketts—Trump—were to win. To the relief of Cub fans, Ricketts’s children include Clinton supporters. Fortunately, Wrigley this weekend was largely a Comey-free zone. We had enough else to worry about.
I grew up seven blocks from Wrigley Field. My first classic Cubs game was 50 years ago this fall, when my fellow Jewish southpaws Ken Holtzman and Sandy Koufax squared off. Holtzman, with a no-hitter into the ninth, won, but the Cubs were 59-103 that year, the inverse of their stellar 2016 record. In the years that followed, I watched National League Hall of Famers like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, and Pete Rose humiliate the Cubs. It didn’t matter. This was the character-building business I had chosen.
Until 1988, Wrigley Field had no lights. Day baseball meant that in exchange for completing a couple of household chores, my mother would pack me a brown bag lunch and give me a dollar for admission to the bleachers—one three-thousandth the average ticket price for this year’s World Series. It got me out of the house for a good chunk of the summer but I didn’t have a lot of company. Attendance averaged about 7,000 in mid-1960s, though it sometimes dipped below 800 fans. (Wrigley Field is now filled to the gills with 41,000). Starting at age 9, I could walk to the tattered ballpark with a friend in time for batting practice, where in the pre-basket era we would use our mitts to try to reach down over the ivy-covered wall to catch fly balls. One day in 1967 I tried and failed to catch a fly ball a la Steve Bartman but in a way that helped the Cubs win. I was dubbed “the fourth outfielder” by the next day’s Tribune. Not bad for a fifth-grader.
My friends Billy and Casey and I would spent many summer days lounging across three hard bench rows without adult supervision, unless you include being educated in Cub lore by the original Bleacher Bums, a collection of graveyard-shift workers and the unemployed later slimed in a profanity-laden rant by 1983 Cubs Manager Lee Elia.
The first big disappointment came in 1969, when I witnessed almost every home game of the Cubs’ epic collapse. They blew a 10-game lead to the Mets, who went on to win their first world championship. On Saturday night, Jenkins, who won 20 games six times for the Cubs (including an astonishing 30 complete games in 1971), kindly explained to me the simple source of the slide, eerily familiar to today’s Cubs: “What happened was that we stopped scoring runs.” He added that Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw released a black cat from the dugout to cross the Cubs path.
That curse stuff wasn’t just a media concoction. While every expansion team with garish uniforms got its moment in the sun, the Cubs rarely contended. In 1984, they were one win away from the pennant when a ball dribbled through the legs of Leon Durham. In 2003, they were five outs away when the Cubs collapse was wrongly blamed on Bartman’s interference, instead of an error by shortstop Alex Gonzalez on a double-play ball and weak pitching by Mark Prior. That year I was inconsolable but tried to do my Newsweek duty. After the game, I went down to Bartman’s section to interview the usher and look under his seat to see what the soon-to-be infamous suburbanite was eating. Nachos.
How traumatic was that episode? In the eighth inning of Game 6 of this year’s National League Championship Series, with the Cubs leading 5-0, a Dodger hitter fouled the ball almost exactly where Bartman sat. You could hear 41,000 intakes of breath.
The fear of collapse was even more palpable in Games 3, 4 and 5 of the World Series, when the Cubs scored a grand total of five runs. With the series tied at 1-1, they lost the first two games at home and seemed at risk of being swept. Even with the pennant in hand, that would have given us PTSD all the way til spring training.
That’s why I found myself awkwardly stifling my congratulations when I met Theo Epstein on the field before Game 3. It was premature. Easier to talk to him about how he learned to play the guitar.
In the eighth inning of Game 5, with the Cubs ahead 3-2, Chapman spaced out and didn’t move to first to cover the ground ball. Would that base runner be the beginning of the end—the inevitable, predictable, ineluctable end of all Cub seasons? More suffering seemed just a sub-100 mph fastball away.
Then Chapman settled down and—hallelujah!—the Cubs won Game 5, their first World Series victory at home since 1945. There would be no humiliating sweep, no wan smiles and explanations to children about life’s disappointments. If they lose in Cleveland, the Cubs will still have made a respectable showing in the World Series with a young team the will contend at least for the rest of this decade.
It’s over, ain’t it? In a good way. The billy goats and black cats have been consigned to the dustbin of baseball history, powerless to haunt our dreams.