The Chicago Cubs are World Champions. That sentence still seems implausible even after they completed a powerful 103-win season and capped it off with the requisite three playoff series victories. Thousands of fans swore every year for a century that the Cubs’ time had finally come, projecting incorrectly year after year. Many others were convinced the Cubs would never win due to impalpable forces, regardless of how noticeably great the team actually was.
In the end, it was never going to be easy for whichever edition of the Cubs ascended the proverbial mountain. The 2016 postseason saw the Cubs live through a minor scare from the dangerous Giants, and comeback routinely from a 2-1 deficit against the Dodgers. But, in making their first World Series since 1945 there still had been no earth-tilting moment where the fate of curses and goats were hanging in the balance.
Even after dropping Game 1 of the World Series to the Indians, a Game 2 victory with the series headed to Chicago meant Cubs Nation was sleeping soundly at night. Losing the next two games to go down 3-1 may have seemed like the misfortune the Cubs were accustomed to getting from the tragic Baseball Gods. But such deficits had been made up before, and if momentum is the next game’s starting pitcher, then the Cubs had a lot of momentum for Games 5 and 6.
Sure enough, the talented Cubs pushed the Series to a Game 7 where their real Bartman moment was awaiting them. With a 5-1 lead shrunk to 6-4, the Cubs’ savior Aroldis Chapman gave up a game-tying two-run homer in the bottom of the 8th to Rajai Davis as Cleveland went wild. This was it. A blown lead in Game 7, a one-man bullpen run out of gas, and years of agonizing for Cubs fans. Surely this would do in the 2016 Cubs and lead to an offseason of postulating when “the year” would finally arrive.
In reality, this was the final hurdle. This is what the Cubs had to overcome if they wanted to finally be crowned champions. This was the crescendo of baseball’s longest comeback story. But just to make sure the wait was long enough, as the game went into extra frames, the skies opened up for a brief rain delay.
The rain delay was at a fascinating moment in time. A World Series tied between two franchises both desperately longing for their first title in decades, right as extra innings were to begin. It was as comprehensive of a game-reset as there is in baseball. But it was short enough to keep the tension alive. As it turned out, the Cubs got a jolt from an unexpected source during the pause.
After the game, multiple Cubs stated in interviews that it was Jason Heyward that lead a team meeting during the rain delay that reminded the Cubs what they were made of, and how close to their ultimate goal they were. Jason Heyward who struggled mightily the entire postseason and really for all of 2016, was the credited catalyst in the Cubs potentially legendary clubhouse meeting. This is a reminder that a player’s value in sports sometimes goes well beyond what is seen during games. A seemingly-ineffective player can be supporting the team behind the scenes in ways that most fans would never know. And apparently the going-rate for a player who can do those things and play stellar defense is 8 years, $184 million.
Of course, the Cubs came out and scored two in the top of the tenth and held off the Cleveland rally when Kris Bryant made a nice play on a slow-roller by firing over to Anthony Rizzo for the final out. The Cubs’ two best players connected for the final out of their long-awaited championship. Demons be damned, this team earned it. Now, anything seems possible in the post-Game 7 extra innings rain delay baseball world.
The Cubs’ pursuit of a championship has been an underlying story for years, and the main baseball story for the past two years. It will create a weird void. Perhaps the Indians will become baseball’s tragic figure. After all, they now have the longest title drought and they just lost one where they were tantalizingly close.
The 2016 postseason might mark a paradigm shift in how pitching staffs are handled in the playoffs. Two of the biggest stars of the postseason were trade-acquisition relievers: Andrew Miller of the Indians and Chapman for the Cubs. Chapman was used mostly in a traditional closer role, but Miller was used at various times in ballgames to get key outs. Both were counted on to pitch multiple scoreless innings in nearly every appearance. The Indians had the luxury of using Miller in the middle of games while still having an excellent closer in Cody Allen for the end of games. Indians manager Terry Francona was masterful in his bullpen usage although his decisions seemed unorthodox at times. It will be interesting to see if other teams follow the blueprint; looking to have one ace reliever to deploy at crucial moments in addition to a closer specifically for the end of games. Creativity was rewarded this postseason as successful teams got away from the rigid 7th inning guy-to-“set-up” man-to-closer format that was the norm as recently as last season for the champion Royals. In any event, managers should look to be much more aggressive with their best relievers’ workload in the postseason as Francona and Joe Maddon were this year.
The ironic thing about the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016 is how quickly they did it. The organization got serious about winning a championship in October 2011 when they hired president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. The two implemented a complete rebuilding plan which would ultimately rely on young talent to mature. The talent was progressing nicely when they decided to hire Maddon as manager in November 2014. Even though they were surely confident they would eventually become the best team in baseball, none of Epstein, Hoyer, or Maddon could have expected to win the World Series by 2016. After all, the club finished last in their division in 2012,’13, and ’14. The turn-around from 2012 to 2016 has been remarkable.
The Cubs have built their team with a nice mix of home-grown talent drafted by the organization and signing veterans with high price tags such as Heyward and Jon Lester. But perhaps their biggest gains have come from prospects via trade. Rizzo had merely had a taste of the majors with the Padres when the Cubs brain trust traded for him in 2012. Shortstop Addison Russell, Game 7 starter Kyle Hendricks, and Game 7 reliever Carl Edwards Jr. were all acquired in separate trades while they were still in the minors. While losing games from 2012-2014, the Cubs hit on numerous trades with an eye towards the future by gaining prospects who had already done the bulk of their developing in other organizations. When combined with homegrown talent such as Bryant and Javier Baez, the Cubs suddenly were ready to compete and spend money and thus filled out the roster with veterans like Lester, Heyward, World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, and Dexter Fowler. When teams at the bottom of the standings trade valuable players away to contending teams, it is vital that they receive valuable prospects in return. The team that it would appear has done the best job of that in 2016? The Yankees, who traded away both Miller and Chapman for prospect hauls.
Now that the “curse” has been lifted, there is speculation that a Cubs dynasty is underway. After all, the Cubs have a fantastic infield of twenty-somethings in place, multiple quality starting pitchers under contract, and a great manager in Maddon. But Lester, Zobrist, John Lackey, and Miguel Montero are aging on the wrong side of 30. Revered leader David Ross is retiring. Chapman is a free-agent due for a colossal payday (possibly going back to the Yankees). The bullpen outside of Chapman was suspect. The Cubs will be the favorites in 2017, and, obviously, contenders at worst. But it may take a few more clever moves from Epstein and Hoyer to make World Series titles on the Northside commonplace.