I awoke yesterday morning to find my brain shrouded by fog, echoes of bad decisions emanating from my stomach, and my mouth tasting like the circus had recently left town via my tongue. I staggered to the fridge for some water, and found a small, neatly saran-wrapped square of cheese pizza sitting upon the top shelf. It seemed to smile knowingly at me, and I smiled back, suddenly remembering everything that we had gone through together on Sunday night. For you see, this slice of pizza and I helped the Chicago Cubs snag their first World Series victory at Wrigley Field since 1945.
As a rule, I don’t believe in curses, superstition, or magical thinking, especially in the context of baseball. But like a caveman formulating primitive belief systems in order to explain things completely beyond his comprehension, I’m willing to throw my lot in with the supernatural causation crowd when it comes to something as utterly out of my realm of experience as a World Series weekend in Chicago, one which features the Cubs as actual participants.
If you’re a Chicagoan under 75 or so years of age, such a thing is entirely out of your realm of experience, as well; up until this year, none of us had ever seen the Cubs win the National League pennant, or win a World Series game, or win a World Series game at home. And now we’ve seen all three of those things in a matter of eight days, which is both incredibly cool and very, very weird.
Even if you’re 115 (and you most likely are not), you’ve never seen the Cubs play baseball this late in the year. No one has. No one has ever witnessed a scene like the one I saw this past Saturday afternoon on North Clark Street, where children in Halloween costumes were dodging clusters of Cubs fans in full regalia while making their trick-or-treating rounds of the local merchants. And perhaps it’s that surreal, darkly enchanting juxtaposition of Halloween and a Cubs World Series — all those “W” flags flying on front porches above jack-o-lanterns and lawn skeletons — that’s throwing me off, and convincing me to give such questions as “Which Cubs jersey should I wear tonight?” more cosmic weight than they perhaps deserve.
Every Cubs fan has their own tale of woe, so I’ll try to keep mine brief: I moved to Chicago in late 1979, and became indoctrinated into the cult of the Cubs in the summer of 1980. The pain I felt over their 1984 playoff collapse helped convince me that I should care more about music than baseball; and the pain I felt over their 2003 playoff collapse reminded me that I was still very much a Cubs fan at heart, even though I’d moved to Los Angeles ten years earlier. But as terrible and disappointing as the Cubs often were, it wasn’t until July of 2014 that I completely swore off watching Cubs games on TV — they were just so bad on every level, not even the gentle rhythms of the game nor the beautiful sight of the Friendly Confines could ameliorate the horror of witnessing Rick Renteria’s squad in action.
Then, like Michael Corleone with the mob, they pulled me back in: The front office started calling up raw-but-talented rookies like Javy Baez, Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta started finding his groove on the mound. The Cubs were still pretty awful, but it least they seemed to be getting interesting again — a notion further confirmed by the November 2014 hiring of Joe Maddon as their manager.
On July 27, 2015, the night my wife, Katie, and I moved back to Chicago, a rookie named Kris Bryant hit a two-run walk-off homer to win a game at Wrigley against the Colorado Rockies, bringing the team’s record up to 52-46. The Cubs would go 45-19 the rest of the way, make the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and knock division rivals the Pirates and the Cardinals out of the post-season. It was a good time to be a Cubs fan returning to the Windy City.
But none of the excitement of last October could prepare me for the dizzying, sometimes nauseating rollercoaster ride of this one. The 2015 Cubs were “ahead of schedule” — they weren’t supposed to get that good that fast, so their mere presence in the post-season felt like a surprise bonus. This year, though, they were World Series favorites from well before Opening Day; so while it was immensely enjoyable to watch the 2016 Cubs run up a MLB-best 103-58 record, the season often just felt like an agonizingly prolonged prelude to October, wherein the real shit would go down.
And go down it has, albeit not always in the manner that any of us expected. The San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers provided predictably stiff competition in the NLDS and NLCS, respectively, but the Cubs often seemed on the verge of beating themselves, either through the lineup’s schizophrenic approaches at the plate or through Maddon’s occasional tendency to over-think and over-manage. Maddon’s insistence on sending gas-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman to the mound before the ninth inning seemed especially bloody-minded; while your best reliever should, in theory, be able to set opposing hitters down at any key juncture of the game, Chapman seemed utterly incapable of delivering in anything other than a ninth-inning save situation — at least until Game 6 against the Dodgers, when he induced Howie Kendrick to hit into a double play to end the eighth inning, then got Yasiel Puig to ground into another to seal the 5-0, pennant-clinching win.
Game 4 of the NLCS was where the magical thinking bug started creeping into my reasonably rational brain. Having watched the Cubs look completely hopeless at the plate against Clayton Kershaw in Game 2 (completely understandable) and Rich Hill in Game 3 (highly infuriating), I decided to psych myself up for Game 4 by donning my 1978 Bruce Sutter throwback jersey — one modeled after the infamous white-pinstriped “blue pajamas” that the Cubs wore on the road in the late 70s and early 80s. The Cubs won convincingly that night, so hey, why not wear it again for Game 5? When Game 6 rolled around, and Katie wisely suggested that we catch at least the first few innings at Simon’s Tavern, an Andersonville bar that’s been around since a year before the Cubs lost to the Detroit Tigers in the 1935 World Series, I donned the “blue pajamas” jersey shortly before we walked out the door. And since I still had it on several hours later, when the Cubs recorded the final out and Simon’s exploded in a celebratory flurry of Malort shots, I knew I had to wear it for Game 1 of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians.
I had been rooting for a Cubs-Indians World Series since before the playoffs began. With two very strong and well-rounded teams, two great managers (few current skippers are more respected than Cleveland’s Terry Francona), two storied franchises with 19th century roots, two long-suffering Midwestern fanbases, all the signs seemed to point towards a classic World Series. I picked the Cubs to win in seven games, and assumed that the Jon Lester- Corey Kluber matchup in Game 1 would be one hell of a pitcher’s duel. But when Lester melted down in the first inning of what became a 6-0 Indians victory, it felt like the “blue pajamas” had lost their mojo, and a change of jerseys would be necessary for Game 2.
I pulled a 1968 Ernie Banks throwback road jersey out of my closet, which seemed to do the trick; Jake Arrieta, who’s had a rockier and more inconsistent year than his 18-8 record would indicate, no-hit the Indians into the sixth inning, while Kyle Schwarber put an exclamation point on his remarkable comeback by driving in two runs and scoring another in the Cubs’ 5-1 win. I wore it again on Friday night for Game 3, but — perhaps psyched out by the pressure of playing the first World Series game at Wrigley in 71 years — the Cubs completely abandoned the impressive plate discipline that they’d shown in Game 2, going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position while the Indians eked out a tense 1-0 win. Maybe this Banks didn’t want to “play two,” after all.
Seasonably grey yet unseasonably warm, the Saturday afternoon leading up to Game 4 seemed almost dreamlike; you could feel the whole North Side vibrating with giddy excitement and good cheer, especially the closer you got to Wrigleyville. Game 3 had been a tough loss, but surely the Cubs would bounce back tonight and win one at Wrigley, right? After much deliberation, I went with the Sutter jersey again, both because it’s my favorite and because I figured that it probably just needed a few days in the closet to recharge. And right about the time Jason Kipnis homered deep into the right field stands to put the Indians up 7-1, I took the thing off and vowed not to wear it again until 2017, and only then after it had been given a really good wash.
I awoke Sunday morning to the sound of my phone buzzing. An old friend had a pair of tickets to Game 5 and was looking to dump ‘em for double face-value, or at least two grand less than similar seats had been going for on Saturday. It was the same story all over StubHub; ticket prices were crashing harder than the North Side’s collective mood, likely because the Cubs had looked so terrible in the previous two games, and the thought of the Series ending with three straight Wrigley losses was just too damn depressing for many Cubs fans to bear.
Even at “only” double-face, the tickets were still way too far outside of our bank account’s comfort zone, so Katie and I planned instead on doing what we’ve been doing for most of the Series: Meeting up with some Cubs-loving pals at Simon’s. Whatever the possible outcome, the Cubs were still playing in Game 5 of the friggin’ World Series, and how sweet was that? And in a last-ditch attempt to shake things up, I wore my Cubs batting practice jersey with the number 8 on the back, a salute to Joe Pepitone and Andre Dawson, both of whom wore it during their Cubs tenures.
Included in our gathering at Simon’s were Bruno and Jim, two of my best friends from high school. Now living in Los Angeles and Alabama, they’d felt the magnetic pull of Wrigley and its environs — like thousands of other Chicago ex-pats, they couldn’t stand to be away from Chicago during this moment in Cubs history. Now, having endured the Game 4 blow-out from the stands, they were happy just to watch Game 5 with friends at a classic Chicago watering hole, where the owner got the party started by playing Lee Elia’s infamous 1983 “Playground for the C—ksuckers” rant at deafening volume.
Before the game began, we had a serious discussion about how what we did or said during the game would have no impact on what we saw happening on the television. “Let’s just relax and enjoy this experience,” I remember saying to everyone. Well, that concept lasted about as long as it took Jon Lester to serve up a second-inning gopher ball to Jose Ramirez; whereupon we all immediately tensed up and reverted to our preferred personal tics, like the three-step fist-bump routine that Katie and I performed each time the Cubs got on base or made a clutch defensive play.
But the key to it all, I think, was the pizza. Early in the game, Scott, the owner of Simon’s, brought in some pies for the bar from the Giordano’s franchise across the street. As the bottom of the fourth began, he insisted that we take the last remaining squares of the cheese pizza, so that he could toss out the box; as soon as we plated the two pieces and placed them on our table, Kris Bryant (who’d looked awful all series, at the plate and in the field) tied the game up with a home run to left. “Nobody eat that pizza!” Katie cried. Nobody did, and the Cubs pushed across two more runs that inning, knocking Indians hurler Trevor Bauer out of the ballgame. Clearly, we were now in the presence of magic pie.
For the rest of the game, the slices remained untouched and unmoved on our table; every time the Cubs were in a jam, we’d turn to them and say, “You got this, pizza!” And every time, unbelievably, it worked. Even when Maddon tempted fate by bringing Chapman in with one out and one on in the seventh inning, the results tilted in the Cubs’ favor; he got the team out of the jam in that inning, struck out the dreaded Francisco Lindor with a man on third to end the eighth, and fanned Jose Ramirez in the ninth to save the 3-2 victory, the first Cubs World Series win at home since before Tupperware was invented. Advantage: pizza.
As the jukebox blared “Sweet Home Chicago” and Scott ran back and forth through the bar waving his “W” flag, we exhaled and celebrated with another round of drinks — and then, like police photographers at a crime scene, we took several pics of the pieces of pizza in order to properly commemorate their location on the table. The bartender gingerly (and somewhat quizzically) wrapped the two pieces for us; Katie and I took one home, and Bruno took the other back to his brother’s place. They will be reunited at Simon’s tonight for Game 6, placed in the same position on the same table, and hopefully deliver the same thin-crust magic that they did on Sunday night. (Yeah, I know — thin-crust magic in a deep-dish town? Hey, that’s the unpredictable nature of baseball for ya.)
We’re living in a time when we “see” our friends every day on social media, yet rarely have any meaningful connection with them. But ever since the Cubs won the NL pennant, I’ve had one great conversation after another with friends I haven’t talked to in months or even years, all of them buzzing with the wonder of this unique (for us) experience. Even if our pieces of magic pizza (and our other rituals and invocations) don’t help the Cubs get to a seventh game, I’ll be content with the knowledge that I’ve experienced real magic in the joy that the Cubs’ World Series run has brought to so many people, and the way that it’s brought so many of us together. This Cubs team is stacked with young talent, who may well make more trips to the Fall Classic before they’re done. But whether they win or lose against the Indians, and whether or not they win some rings in the future, the memories of my first World Series weekend in Chicago will forever be as sweet to me as Halloween candy.
Dan Epstein is the author of “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76.”