A look of marvel filled Tom Ricketts’ face late Thursday night as the Cubs chairman weaved his way through several hundred fans still cheering behind the visiting dugout at Dodger Stadium.
The Cubs’ 8-4 victory in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series had ended almost an hour earlier, but a loud and lively crowd that didn’t want the night to end kept chanting, "Let’s Go, Cubbies!" Then a chorus of "Go, Cubs, Go,” began. Then someone professed his love of Ricketts.
This was nothing compared to the spontaneous celebrations that will break out Saturday night all over Chicago if the Cubs beat the Dodgers at Wrigley Field to win the National League pennant, but it spoke to how ready for that moment Cubdom is. The anticipation is brimming, the eagerness palpable. Ricketts played along, appearing only slightly overwhelmed, high-fiving strangers and pointing at familiar faces, as every giddy person in the big blue mob of bedlam sensed the history in their midst.
A Cubs team that had overcome the adversity of back-to-back shutouts against the Dodgers in Games 2 and 3 regained its hitting stroke and swagger in time to bring a franchise defined by futility within one win of its first World Series appearance since 1945. Good luck finding somebody in town who remembers that Cubs-Tigers series. Wasn’t catcher David Ross a September call-up on that Cubs team?
Except for the understandable reluctance of White Sox fans to enjoy what’s happening, the Cubs’ success carries a universal appeal that connects people from all generations and walks of life, all of them united by a red "C" or a white "W" flag. They may have nothing more in common than an appreciation for Jake Arrieta’s beard or an antipathy for the Cardinals, but that’s enough for good conversation and a smile.
Everybody knows somebody who claims to be the best Cubs fan ever. Everybody knows of a parent or grandparent, aunt or uncle who seriously fears dying before their beloved Cubs win it all. Everybody talks about the Cubs validating President Theo Epstein’s plan, but nobody can deny how this season also possibly can fulfill a purpose for many Cubs fans who have been waiting for this for so long, for too long. To some families, the Cubs always will be about more than baseball.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had said before Game 5 that the noticeable presence of Cubs fans at Chavez Ravine was good for the game. So would the Cubs finally winning a pennant and playing in a World Series, the type of thing that transcends sports.
Winning it all remains the primary bucket-list goal and a reasonable expectation for a Cubs team that won 103 regular-season games. But first things first, and the Cubs just getting there would provide many North Side fans the highlight of their lives and the city an epic memory — one that could begin to unfold as early as 7:08 p.m. Saturday. Or, if you prefer, 19:08 military time.
"It’s within our reach right now,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "We’re not going to run away from anything.”
That includes Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw, the man whose baseball mythology has loomed over this series. Kershaw dominated the Cubs in Game 2, combining guts and smarts to give up only two hits in seven innings. The outing reminded America why so many of us consider Kershaw the best pitcher on the planet. But remember, the planet is still Earth, where even the most gifted humans have been known to fail. The three-time Cy Young Award winner makes fewer mistakes than almost any pitcher in baseball, but he still makes them. Sometimes baseball happens, even to Kershaw.
As recently as 11 days ago, for example, Kershaw gave up five runs in 6 2/3 innings to the Nationals. Four days before that, he surrendered three runs in five innings against the same team.
"Hopefully he’s not the good Kershaw and we get kind of the mediocre guy who gives up a few runs,” Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said.
The Dodgers have every right to feel as confident as they sounded after Game 5, but the Cubs have no reason to cower. They have another Cy Young Award candidate, Kyle Hendricks, pitching. They believe they now not only are curse-proof but "Kersh"-proof on offense, better equipped to handle the left-hander than in Game 2 before Cubs hitters settled down in this series. Before the Cubs treated their trip west like a visit to one of those California rejuvenation spas, replenishing themselves with confidence.
"If he’s on top of his game, it’s going to be another close, low-scoring game,” Maddon said. "We just have to do our best to eke out as many runs as we can.”
We all realize what it means if the Cubs can’t. No matter how good Maddon is at keeping players loose and relaxed, the Cubs should want no part of Game 7. Besides Last Call and Snow Advisory, the two most dreaded words in Wrigleyville this month are either Game 7 or If Necessary. And if Game 7 becomes necessary because of a Cubs loss, so begins Chicago’s great social experiment. As Hawk Harrelson might say, call your friends, call your neighbors, call your sociologists — and don’t lose the number to your therapist.