CHICAGO – October used to be baseball's domain, the time when the rest of the sporting world understood its second-fiddle status. Football owns the month now, the vise grip of the NFL and the allure of college unrelenting, unbreakable save for the one trump card baseball can play.
"If the Chicago Cubs are participating in the playoffs, football can wait," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "With what we've been able to accomplish here … I'd like to believe we're putting baseball at the forefront right now."
Major League Baseball's fantasy continued unfolding at Wrigley Field on Tuesday night. Not only are these Chicago Cubs advancing to the National League Championship Series after dispatching their archrivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, they're doing so with the sort of young, lovable non-losers that even the most avuncular and grizzled fan can't help but embrace.
The 6-4 victory over the Cardinals to win the best-of-five division series in four games wasn't so much a coronation as a declaration: We're here, we're real and, even if the baby fat is still melting off the faces of half our team, we're a legitimate threat to win the World Series. For the first time ever, the Cubs clinched a postseason series victory at Wrigley Field, and the atmosphere was appropriately Chicago. Thousands of people jammed Addison Street, the only thing standing between them and their 102-year-old cathedral a few police barricades and officers atop horses. Beer flowed. Voices bellowed. Delight reigned.
And nobody cared that once the clock struck midnight and the calendar turned that it happened to be the 12-year anniversary of the night Steve Bartman inserted himself into Cubs lore alongside a billy goat. As they doused one another with beers and drenched each other with Champagne and basked in the glory of ousting baseball's best regular-season team, the Cubs did everything short of swearing this time was different, that 2015 will be theirs like 1908 was.
"We've got a couple stages to go, and we're ready for it, " said Jake Arrieta, the ace Chicago rode to a 97-win regular season. "Nothing's holding us back. We're a scary team to play. Nobody wants to play us right now. We're tough to beat."
Not only are they tough to beat, a fact they proved in battering the Cardinals with home run after big home run, they're an eminently enjoyable team, too, one so larded with young talent that a run to the NLCS this season feels more like the start of something with staying power than a one-off apparition.
Game 4 on Tuesday highlighted everything good about this team, from the absurd power of Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez to Maddon's managerial wizardry to a stadium that shook more than once, its 42,411 fans refusing to bow to standard sentiment – the inevitability of the Cubs blowing important games – and screaming themselves increasingly hoarse as the night progressed.
It started in ugly fashion, starter Jason Hammel yielding a two-run home run four pitches into the game. Chicago answered with a four-run second inning, three of them coming from the 22-year-old Baez, a shortstop with spectacular opposite-field power. That Baez happens to back up the injured regular, 21-year-old Addison Russell, speaks to the team constructed by president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer: young and overflowing with talent.
Precisely the sort of team America would embrace. Matching the enormity of the Cubs' story – a team championship-less since 1908 making a run in one of America's most historic stadiums – with such a likeable, diverse group would be baseball's biggest story since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing Roger Maris' home run record nearly 20 years ago.
The Cubs are white and black and Latino, from Nevada and Florida and Indiana and Puerto Rico and Cuba and Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. "With our young players," Maddon said, "I want to believe kids throughout the United States might be more attracted to us whether because of Kris Bryant or Addison Russell or Javy Baez or Kyle Schwarber. We're the map of the world, man."
Youth makes the Cubs that much more tantalizing. In Games 3 and 4, Rizzo (age 26), Starlin Castro (25), Bryant (23), Soler (23), Baez (22) and Schwarber (22) hit home runs. Rizzo's solo shot off Cardinals reliever Kevin Siegrist in Game 4 might've been the most important, pushing the Cubs ahead 5-4 in the bottom of the sixth inning after St. Louis tied the game in the top of the inning. The most impressive, by far – and we mean far – was what Schwarber launched off Siegrist an inning later.
Last year, the Cubs took Schwarber out of Indiana University with the fourth overall pick. The industry regarded it as a distinct overdraft. The Cubs, as has proven the case again and again under Epstein and Hoyer, knew something others didn't. He rocketed through the minors because of his left-handed power, and he turned an 82-mph curveball from Siegrist around with such ferocity that cameras and eyeballs and practically everyone at Wrigley lost track of it.
"It went too far," Bryant said.
"It may be in the lake out there," Cubs catcher David Ross said.
"It's just another home run," Schwarber said.
It was just another home run like this was just another series. The Cubs hadn't ever played the Cardinals in the postseason, and certainly never slayed them in one, and for a franchise that has played little brother for decades, this carried so much more meaning than a typical division series. To chase a night like Monday, when the Cubs hit a postseason-record six home runs, with one like Tuesday, when Schwarber's home run seemed to fly over the video board in right field and onto Sheffield Avenue, almost defied words.
The Cubs are everything to Chicago. Before the game, buskers strummed an acoustic version of "Go, Cubs, Go" and urged passersby to sing along. A Hasidic Jew urged people to let him wrap them in tefillin so he could say a blessing for the Cubs. The giant No. 14 behind home plate paid homage to the late Ernie Banks, the Cubs great who never did get to see a World Series at Wrigley, the last coming in 1945.
The city loves this team because it sees something worth loving. Inside the dugout, when Castro comes to the plate, his teammates join the sellout crowds in clapping along to the beat of "Ando En La Versace," his walkup song. Pearl Jam's "Alive" strains through the speakers every game, an homage to the Cubs' ability to survive trials and travails and a shout-out to superfan Eddie Vedder, the lead singer who spent the postgame celebration double-fisting a drink on the mound and taking pictures with anyone who asked.
It's the sort of atmosphere around which the country can rally with a clear conscience. The Cubs aren't just a good story because of their history. They're a good one because their present is well worth liking and their opponent – the winner of the do-or-die division series Game 5 on Thursday between the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers – more than worthy.
"Baseball is America's pastime for a reason," Bryant said. "You never know what can happen in October."
What has happened is it's mid-October and the Chicago Cubs are still alive. The city didn't just buzz Tuesday. It palpitated. They've felt that way here before, of course, felt it every time the Cubs played their way into the postseason, and perhaps this is the same one-way street to misery that they drove themselves so many other times, including 12 years ago.
The Cubs want to believe this is different, that the celebration won't be for naught, that the eight more wins they need will come as definitively as the wild-card victory over Pittsburgh and the division-series win against St. Louis. This is a city of hope that may soon be a nation of hope, baseball's ticket back to October supremacy, something earned by a bunch of kids who care not about what happened 100 years ago or a dozen years ago but the great thing happening today.