Liverpool fans will constantly remind you of the pain they have had to endure at going 26 years without a league title. That feeling of pain is magnified for fans of Tottenham Hotspur: it has been 55 years since they last hoisted a league trophy. All of this however pales in comparison to the pain suffered by fans of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs; it had been a whopping 108 years since they last won a World Series title, baseball’s equivalent of a Premier League championship. Yet at 12:48 am local time on Thursday, 3 November, when Cubs 3rd baseman Kris Bryant fielded a weak ground ball from Michael Martinez of the Cleveland Indians and threw him out at first base, perhaps the greatest hex in the history of sports was finally lifted.
This was a curse that had overtime become embedded in American sports culture as well as almost coming to define the City of Chicago itself. Fans of the Cubs could only watch on with horror throughout the decades as numerous baseball dynasties rose and crumbled, while their beloved team remained mired in mediocrity, even earning the nickname “the lovable losers”. As their crosstown rivals the Chicago White Sox ended their 88-year World Series title drought in 2005, some of the more fatalistic Cubs fans simply concluded that never again would the Cubs ever see a World Series triumph. Due to the high superstition surrounding the drought, many commentators concluded that the only way the cubs could ever seal another title would be through an incredible stroke of luck or even a quasi-supernatural occurrence. However the truth is much more straightforward than that: put simply, this year the Cubs boasted the most talented and deep roster of any baseball side. Not even over a century of trauma for the franchise and the overwhelming weight of history and expectation could prevent this side from achieving its destiny.
In 2011, the Cubs appointed Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations. He had already had experience of ending long droughts – he was General Manager of the Boston Red Sox when they ended their 86-year wait for a World Series championship in 2004, and he immediately set about trying to change the fortunes of the moribund franchise. Initially his tenure was disappointing – they finished a lowly 5th in their division in each of his first 3 years in charge. Although throughout this his view towards long-term success never wavered. He knew that if they continued the policy he pursued of acquiring the most impressive up-and-coming talents in the country, it would pay long-term dividends. It’s for this reason that Epstein can be directly credited for the abundance of talent currently flooding the Cubs’ roster. In 2015, this young and dynamic Cubs team, fuelled by the likes of Kris Bryant, 1st baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Addison Russell (all recruited under Epstein) burst onto the scene, winning 97 of their 162 regular season games before eventually bowing out of the playoffs to the New York Mets in the National Conference Championship, the round before the World Series. The groundwork had already been laid for a title run in 2016.
However Epstein was aware of the importance of the franchise not standing still. In the off-season prior to 2016, he set about filling the roster with more experience, signing all-star right fielder Jason Heyward from their bitter rivals the St Louis Cardinals as well as Ben Zobrist from the reigning champion Kansas City Royals, who would go on to win the Most Valuable Player award in the 2016 World Series. His decision to trade for pitcher Aroldis Chapman in the middle of the 2016 season was also a masterstroke, as he was influential in closing out many wins in the second half of the regular season and the playoffs. Ultimately they would go on to win 103 games in the regular season, comfortably the best record of all 30 major league teams, before easing past both the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers on route to a first World Series berth since 1945. Their opponents would be the Cleveland Indians, another franchise suffering a long drought of their own – it had been 68 years since they last claimed the World Series. Indeed, from 1964 to 2016 no Cleveland sports franchise won a championship, before a Lebron James-inspired Cleveland Cavaliers claimed the NBA title back in June. The Indians had themselves enjoyed something of a fairy-tale run to the final round, having been written off by pundits and fans alike prior to the season. The stage was set for perhaps the most eagerly anticipated World Series in a generation, and boy did it live up to its billing.
If the Cubs were expecting a relatively easy ride to the championship, those hopes were vanquished in the first game of the best-of-seven series. Led by their deadly pitcher Corey Kluber, the Indians stifled the cubs’ offense, easing to a 6-0 rout. The Cubs hit back in game 2 though, winning 5-2 courtesy of a big performance from Kyle Schwarber, a player who had been ruled out for the season way back in April but fought his way back incredibly just in time to make the World Series roster. However with the series now moving to Chicago for the middle 3 games, things did not go as planned for the Cubs, as they were defeated in both games 3 and 4, leaving Cleveland just 1 win away from the title. In the 111 previous World Series played, just 5 sides had come back from a 3-1 deficit to win, yet true to form, this resilient Cubs side weren’t going down without a fight, as they triumphed in game 5 before the series moved back to Cleveland for its denouement. In game 6, the Cubs rose to the occasion magnificently, seeing off the Indians 9-3 to set up a winner-takes-all clash.
In baseball, there is nothing more nerve-wracking than a game 7 of the World Series, and these games have come to provide some of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport. It’s doubtful though that there has ever been a game 7 that can compare to this edition. The Cubs started where they left off in game 6, taking a 5-1 lead in the middle of the 5th inning before protecting a 6-3 lead going into the 8th inning, however in an agonising twist, the Indians ran in 3 runs in the bottom of the 8th to tie the game. Neither side could break the deadlock in the 9th inning, meaning the game went into extra innings. As if the game could get any more nerve-wracking, a rainstorm arrived, delaying proceedings for nearly 20 minutes. When events got back underway, it was the Cubs that took advantage, with veteran catcher David Ross blasting a 2-run home run, to give the side an 8-6 lead. Just 3 outs now separated the Cubs from ending the drought that had come to define the franchise over the past century, and although the Indians did muster a solitary run, this time the Cubs weren’t to be denied.
As the game ended, delirium erupted all over Chicago, a city that has seemingly been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this year, with the number of homicides in the city projected to reach a 20-year high in 2016. Crows gathered around Wrigley field, the home of the Cubs, many partying until the sun came up. In an almost poignant spectacle, many fans also wrote the names of family members and friends who were no longer alive to witness the Cubs win the championship, onto the walls outside the stadium. Perhaps the person who most clearly embodied the euphoria of Cubs fans that night was celebrity Bill Murray, who fought back tears as he celebrated the win with the team and management in Cleveland. But Murray was not alone; an estimated 5 million people attended the Cubs’ victory parade, one of the largest event gatherings recorded in human history, which just goes to show how much this victory meant to so many people. However, with the core of the team being virtually unchanged going into next year, and the weight of history now having been lifted from the players, Cubs fans should expect that their wait for a 4th World Series Championship in franchise history will be significantly shorter than their wait for a 3rd.