Watch the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the World Series during extra-innings. Nov. 2, 2016. (Chicago Tribune)
Life cannot give you everything. It is too fleeting, too cruel, too rooted in reality to allow the fulfillment of fantasy. But baseball, in doses both large and small, can serve as a salve, as a distraction, as a reason to believe in infinite possibility. Baseball can give you everything.
On Wednesday evening in Game 7 of the World Series, inside a ballpark packed to its capacity with fans of the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians, baseball displayed the wealth of its gifts. The sport elicits exhilaration and provokes despair. It shocks and it torments. It leaves 29 teams despondent and one team euphoric.
For the first time since 1908, a 108-year stretch that transformed black cats and billy goats into symbols of futility, the Cubs stand as the team experiencing euphoria. To end the streak, the Cubs absorbed a series of knockout blows from the Indians, survived a collapse by their flame-throwing closer and weathered a storm sweeping off Lake Erie in an 8-7 victory in 10 innings.
"It was just an epic battle," said World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, who ripped the go-ahead RBI double off Cleveland reliever Bryan Shaw in the 10th. "I can't believe, after 108 years, we're finally able to hoist the trophy."
But you can believe in baseball, a sport capable of providing nights like Wednesday and series like this one, which lasted the maximum number of games and extended into extra innings. The final moments of the evening were excruciating for the Cubs and wicked for the Indians, who had rallied from a hole that looked too deep to emerge from.
Four outs from a championship, Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman coughed up a three-run lead in devastating fashion in the eighth. After Indians outfielder Brandon Guyer hit an RBI double, fellow outfielder Rajai Davis hooked a 97-mph fastball, a sign of Chapman's diminished velocity, off the railing atop the elevated wall in left field. Pandemonium reigned at Progressive Field.
The comeback only set the stage for the finish, an outcome delayed by a 17-minute rain delay. The Cubs looked rejuvenated after the wait, with Zobrist and catcher Miguel Montero teaming up to drive in two runs off Shaw. Davis flicked an RBI single in the bottom of the 10th, but the Indians could go no further. The Curse of the Billy Goat was over.
"We killed it," Montero said. "It's done. It's over. You can't really believe in that, man."
The coming days will determine this game's place in the sport's pantheon. The performance of the players evoked wonder. The decisions of the managers provoked puzzlement. The night ended with thousands of Cubs fans ringing a road stadium, howling the strains of their anthem, "Go Cubs Go."
Zobrist etched his name into Cubs lore. By recording the final out, Mike Montgomery became the answer to a trivia question. Theo Epstein, the architect of the Cubs roster, added an achievement to a resume that already included ending Boston's 86-year drought in 2004. Cubs Manager Joe Maddon fulfilled the vision he set forth in spring training when he encouraged his team to "embrace the target."
"I am late to the party," said Maddon, who was hired before the 2015 season. "I came here when all the digging had been done."
Even before the eighth, the game had plenty of story lines. In his final big league game, Cubs backup catcher David Ross thumped a crucial home run. Jon Lester appeared in relief for the first time since 2007. Indians relief ace Andrew Miller gave up multiple runs in a game for only the second time all season. Cleveland Manager Terry Francona removed his starter too late. Maddon removed his starter too soon.
The prologue cannot be ignored, even if the climax will be remembered. Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler opened the night with a solo homer off Cleveland's Corey Kluber, who was starting for the third time in this series. The Cubs got to Kluber for two more runs in the fourth. Francona sent Kluber back out for the fifth, only to see Cubs second baseman Javier Baez crack another homer.
Into the game came Miller. The Cubs did not cower. Third baseman Kris Bryant stroked a single and was running on the pitch when Anthony Rizzo singled. Bryant sprinted home to give Hendricks a four-run lead.
The advantage appeared safe as Hendricks worked through the fifth. He issued a two-out a walk to designated hitter Carlos Santana. Hendricks had thrown 63 pitches and retired seven batters in a row before the free pass. But with the top of the batting order set to face Hendricks for a third time, Maddon opted for a fresh arm.
His first choice was Lester, who had started Game 1 and Game 5. The foray into relief did not go well. Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis tapped an infield single in front of home plate. A throwing error by Ross put runners in scoring position. Both came home when Lester bounced a curveball in the dirt and Ross tumbled over trying to fetch the wild pitch.
Ross did not wait long to redeem himself. With one out in the sixth, he homered off Miller and the lead expanded to three. But Lester and Chapman could not protect it. The evening would only become more fascinating.
As the rain fell, the Cubs gathered in the weight room, as outfielder Jason Heyward convened a meeting. As Zobrist retold the story later, Heyward implored his team to forget the eighth inning. Ignore the collapse. Embrace the final moments of this season.
"We're still the best team," Heyward told the group. "We're going to pull this thing out."
He was right. After the delay, Francona chose to stick with Shaw, who had picked up two outs in the ninth. Shaw lacked sharpness and the Cubs showed little mercy. The two runs came swiftly.
The end did not, not exactly. Davis' hit cut the lead to one. It was up to Montgomery against light-hitting outfielder Michael Martinez. The last pitch of this baseball season was a curveball that caught enough plate to induce a swing. As the ball bounced toward Bryant, a smile crossed his face. A few minutes later, as the Cubs doused themselves in champagne, the Indians rubbed red eyes and exchanged weary goodbyes.
Baseball is not always like this. The games can bore you. The season can drag. But there can still be nights like this, when the only cruelty is that the season has to end.
"It was like a heavyweight fight, man," Zobrist said. "Just blow for blow, everybody playing their heart out."