After 17 years as a vendor at Wrigley Field, I’ve figured out how to launch conversations with a stadium’s worth of potential beer drinkers. A couple of years ago, I came up with a line that always killed. “I’m doing great,” I’d say in the first inning or so. “It’s summer, I’m at the ballpark, and the Cubs aren’t losing yet.”
I haven’t used that line a single time this year.
Last Saturday night, in the eighth inning of the first game of the National League Championship Series, the Chicago Cubs’ flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman gave up a two-run, game-tying single to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez. A few seconds later, I got a text message from a friend. She wanted to know if the Cubs were about to blow this. “Oh, we’ll beat them. Eventually,” I replied. Sure enough, in the bottom half of the inning, catcher Miguel Montero hit a pinch-hit grand slam. Cubs win!
It has been a very weird October at Wrigley for many reasons, among which are these:
- The Cubs are in the League Championship Series for only the fifth time since the LCS came into existence.
- Cubs fans actually think they will win.
In all the hours I’ve spent making the rounds during the regular season and the playoffs, I’ve heard no talk of curses or choking, no gloomy references to previous letdowns. The only patrons who’ve sounded defeatist have been the opposing team’s fans who, when pressed, will confess that they expect their team to lose to the juggernaut that plays its home games on the North Side of Chicago. In the vendors’ area before Game 2 of the NLCS, the union steward polled us on our availability if the series returned to Chicago for a potential Game 6 and Game 7. He prefaced this question by saying, “To be clear, I don’t think the series is coming back. Cubs in five.”
He was wrong. The series is coming back to Chicago on Saturday, and the Dodgers have been a respectable opponent. After winning Game 1, the Cubs were shut out in consecutive games by three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and local man Rich Hill. But their bats came alive in Games 4 and 5, both blowout wins. While there’s no guarantee the Cubs will win on Saturday, given that Kershaw is starting for the Dodgers, it feels like they’re going to win. The Cubs fans I know are going into this weekend feeling excited about a likely World Series berth, not watching through tented fingers in anticipation of the latest Cubs screw-up.
This optimism has been honestly acquired. The 2016 Cubs were the best team in baseball by a wide margin. Their 103 wins were the most in the majors, and the most wins by a Cubs team since 1910. This wasn’t a fluke 103-win season, either. The 2016 Cubs have the best defense in baseball, the best ERA in the majors, and the best OPS+ in the National League. Three of their starting pitchers will likely earn NL Cy Young votes. Third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant is favored to win the NL MVP. They are led by arguably the game’s best manager.
None of that makes the Cubs a lock to win the World Series. Baseball is a fickle game. MVPs strike out. Star pitchers get hurt. Fans reach into the field of play to grab foul balls. But the Cubs will win because this team is not a one-hit wonder. The roster is young and stacked, and team president Theo Epstein is the smartest executive in baseball. The Cubs could lose to the Dodgers in the LCS or to the Indians in the World Series. If they do, I have a hard time imagining they won’t win it all in 2017, 2018, or 2019. This is the only year I can remember at Wrigley in which “We’ll get ‘em next year” feels less like an empty promise than an inevitability.
Cubs fans and optimism have traditionally gone together like Old Style beer and taste buds. That’s understandable given that the franchise hasn’t appeared in the World Series since 1945 and hasn’t won a title since 1908. “Curses” have nothing to do with the team’s futility. The sad truth is the Cubs have just been bad at baseball. In the last 72 seasons, the team has finished in first place seven times, in last place 16 times, and in second-to-last place 18 times. Though the Steve Goodman song “Go Cubs Go“ has lately become the team’s official anthem, Goodman actually wrote a better Cubs song called “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” one in which he repeatedly calls them “the doormat of the National League” and suggests death is preferable to watching the Cubs crush their fans’ hopes “year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year.” Though Cubs fans always want their team to win, they assume they’ll somehow find a way to lose.
This fatalism was validated in 2003, the last time Cubs fans felt as sanguine as they do today. That year, the Cubs charged to a 3–1 lead in the NLCS. A berth in the World Series seemed inevitable, with young pitchers Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Carlos Zambrano leading the Cubs to glory. And then: a boneheaded fan-interference incident and a booted groundball in Game 6, and Wood crumbling under pressure in Game 7, possibly thanks to overuse in the regular season. The Florida Marlins moved on. The Cubs went home. Since then, I have refused to let myself get excited over any baseball thing. Not when they made the playoffs in 2007 and 2008. Not when they got back to the postseason last year. But this season feels different. This season is different.
All throughout the playoffs, I’ve been selling beer in the left-field box seats, and I’ll occasionally make it down to the section where notorious ball-grabber Steve Bartman sat in 2003. Normally, this would serve as a reminder that, when it comes to Cubs baseball, heartbreaking failure is always just a couple of seats away. Many fans treat that section with trepidation—a “hold your breath as you pass the graveyard” sort of thing. But Bartman’s name has hardly been invoked at all this October. If he suddenly appeared back in Section 4, Cubs hat on and headphones wrapped around his ears, I bet the fans around him would buy him drinks. (Hopefully they’d buy them from me, because I need the money.)
I won’t be at Wrigley this weekend, but if the Cubs do make it to their first World Series since 1945, I will be there. I’ve already got my opening lines ready. “I’m doing great,” I’ll say. “It’s October, and the Cubs are in the World. Series.” And then I’m gonna pause, lower my voice, and lean in toward the customer as I finish the pour. “And you know what?” I’ll say. “We’re going to win.”