By Matt Spiegel–
(CBS) It happened. The paradigm has shifted for good.
On Saturday night at Wrigley Field, it was proved unequivocally that things don’t always go wrong for the Chicago Cubs and their fans.
There’s more to do this week, beginning with Game 1 of the World Series in Cleveland on Tuesday, and a championship is a necessary final hurdle to complete the transition.
But make no mistake: The sports world is now different.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon makes a point to intellectualize the game every day. He writes an acronym for “Do not be a fan” on his lineup card before each game, knowing he can’t ride the roller coaster toward his decisions. But after an on-field trophy presentation as his team dispatched the Dodgers, 5-0, in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, he finally expressed his perception of the crowd’s perspective.
“Getting to the World Series is a big accomplishment,” Maddon said. “Of course, winning it would be even greater than that. But I still believe that, in seasons to come, people are going to believe more easily now. They’re not going to look for the next shoe to drop. They’ll believe that something good is going to occur, as opposed to something bad.”
That’s powerful stuff. Collective cynicism, fueled by relentless failure and outside derision, can now be fought off by citing actual events. A giant group of people have the chance to become more optimistic.
The path to this seismic shift began when owner Tom Ricketts pried executive Theo Epstein away from his hometown Red Sox in 2011. Epstein brought tremendous acumen, a defined and transparent plan, with an ever-growing front office of smart, successful people to help implement it.
He just as importantly brought the knowledge and experience of having blasted through painful baseball mythology in 2004. Been there, won that. Twice, in fact. Relentless execution of a well-orchestrated long view can trump a century of failure.
Through three awkward seasons of losing on the big league level, the fans grew so much. They were asked to be patient for 1,000 days, to have their daily couch time damaged in the short term, their companion sport made uglier. In a moment captured here at the 2012 trade deadline, many were able to zoom out from Clark and Addison, to widen the lens and see the holistic changes that could lead to a juggernaut.
What you, the fan, have been asked to set aside is no small thing.
Take the moment of last Wednesday as a template. This specific 2016 Cubs team doesn’t deserve the doubt so many felt with their team down 2-1 in the NLCS, but dread set in for some, failure beginning to feel guaranteed. The flames were fanned by taunts of White Sox fan friends and the learned cynicism of grumpy Cubs fan elders.
The collective sense of doom was palpable and, for me, completely understandable.
Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, et al have nothing to do with the specific ghosts of Wrigley past. They themselves have no “curse” to carry, no emotional weight to bear. The relationship of fan to aspiration is where the feelings come from. The aspiration of excellence and triumph have gone unrewarded for decades. The needed good breaks to win it all haven’t come. The unrequited aspiration is what haunted you.
The Cubs fan has had this dream of a title as a dark passenger for decades. That dream has gone unfulfilled, as it did for parents and grandparents. Generational gravitas often transcends logic. You yourself might be smart, but the seeming certainty of doom makes you feel stupid.
And that, that seeming certainty, is what is now irrevocably changed.
There were so many moments since Wednesday to point toward. Addison Russell’s home run in Game 4 seemed to unlock a door. Tack-on insurance runs in late stages of Games 4 and 5 showed that the contagion of confident hitting had finally spread like a welcome virus. Rizzo’s homer in Game 6 made it a 5-0 score and unleashed a foreign presumption of victory.
But I’ll always think of five outs to go in Game 6 at Wrigley Field on Saturday night, with a runner on base. Maddon called for Aroldis Chapman, and both the pitcher and the situation were enough to bring the heebie jeebies. It was a glaring instance of fear.
Yeah, five outs to go, eighth inning of Game 6. But here’s what happened: 98 mph, called strike one; 98 mph, swinging strike two; 99 mph, hard groundball to Javier Baez for a 4-6-3 double play.
Inning over. It was a hilariously emphatic “eff you” to irrational fear. Millions exhaled. It got very, very real — three outs to go, with a five-run lead.
As the clock crept toward a World Series berth, so many thought of their deceased relatives. At a time like that, those who’ve passed have some immortality, courtesy of a baseball team. It ‘s perhaps the greatest comfort sports can offer.
Congratulations to the fans of the Chicago Cubs, living or dead. It’s a whole new world.
Matt Spiegel is a host on the Spiegel and Goff Show on 670 The Score from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on weekdays. Follow him on Twitter @MattSpiegel670.