The Cubs Force is strong in my family. My grandfather had it. My grandmother, too.
My father…he doesn’t have much of it, but he has some of it. My brother…well, actually, he has none of it.
But the rest of the Theis clan…my aunts and uncles and cousins, even my beloved wife, they all have it. And they’ve got it bad.
And now…the Cub Force is strong in my children, too.
It’s like handing down a genetic defect, really. Or a disturbing personality trait. Or a particularly unnerving eye color.
You don’t mean to do it. It’s just something you inflict on your kids unintentionally.
True story: One night last week, during a very close Giants/Cubs playoff game, I looked over at Milo and saw how tense and upset he was and I made a point of sincerely apologizing to him, from the bottom of my heart, for raising him as a Cub fan.
Because the curse….the legendary and pervasive and seemingly unending curse…it isn’t just on the team, my friends.
It is on the fans as well.
And sometimes…it hurts.
I feel no need to establish my Cubs bona fides. I am a third generation Cub sufferer and between me and the rest of my family, we have gone through more Cubbie heartbreak than any group of people should have to endure.
But none more so than my Uncle John and Aunt Mary Jane. No Cub fans in the city of Chicago have suffered more than the two of them. They have, in their lifetimes, sat through the best and the absolute worst that the Cubs have to offer.
How bad has it gotten for them? Bear witness:
John and Mary Jane were actually in attendance at Wrigley Field the very night of the infamous “Bartman Incident.”
Oh, yes. They were there. Five outs away from beating the Marlins and seeing the Cubs move on to the World Series and there sat John and Mary Jane, watching one of the greatest collapses in the history of major league baseball unfold before their disbelieving eyes.
[Side note: It is important to emphasize that Steve Bartman, the poor sap, had absolutely nothing to do with the collapse of the Cubs during the 2003 playoffs. As any true Cub fan will tell you, it was Alex Gonzalez bobbling what should have been an inning-ending double-play about five minutes later that actually cost us the game. Please bear this in mind later in the story.]
But I’ve had my own, personal share of Cubbie heartbreak over the years. I moved back to Chicago after college just in time to see the rise- and spectacular fall- of the 1989 Cubs (still my favorite Cub squad of all time) when they ultimately got stomped by the Giants during the playoff series.
Between 1989 and 2009, I attended every single Opening Day game at Wrigley Field. Froze my ass of most of the time, too.
I watched and wept through the playoff losses to the Braves in 1998. The 2003 Marlins fiasco. The 2007 collapse against the Diamondbacks. The 2008 Dodgers defeats. And, of course, last year’s heartbreaking NLCS sweep by the Mets.
In short- I’ve got my Cubs scars and I’m not afraid to show them.
So this year, finding myself in Los Angeles with my son Milo when the Cubs posted the most winning record in all of baseball and moved on to the playoffs against the local L.A. team…
….well. We just had to try and see our beloved Cubbies play here in town.
******** GAME THREE **********
The Cubs played the first two games of the 2016 playoffs against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Wrigley Field and they were both, by any measure, thrilling games.
Game One was a game that will forever shine in the hearts of Cub fans everywhere, if not just for the win, for the swing of a single bat in the eighth inning.
Oh, my friends.
On behalf of every living Cubs fan, let me just say that when Miguel Montero smacked that eye-popping grand slam in the eighth to put the Boys in Blue ahead by four runs (which Dexter Fowler soon followed with a long ball of his own), there were ecstatic Cubbie faces from sea to shining sea.
That’s not the way things usually work out for us. No, in the past, what would happen was: Montero strikes out, stranding three runners, and we all say “Oh, darn. Wouldn’t it have been great if he hit the ball?”
And then black cats and goats and bees and bats descend on Wrigley Field in a buzzing, whirling mass and we lose the game in spectacular fashion. That’s always what happens.
We don’t expect grand slams to be hit by pinch hitters in clutch situations. We simply aren’t used to that level of joy.
But we were willing to get used to it.
The final: Cubs win, 8-4 at home. Series score: Cubs 1. Dodgers 0.
The next night, for Game Two at Wrigley, things did not fare nearly as well for the good guys. It was a true pitchers’ duel and when the dust cleared, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw had mastered the best hitting team in the game and eked out a 1-0 win. (Oh, and John and Mary Jane were there to watch it, of course. Suffering is what we Theises eat for dinner.)
Series score: Cubs 1, Dodgers 1.
Then…the series moved to L.A.
Now, I should mention that, prior to the Cubs flying in to Los Angeles for Game Three, Milo and I already had tickets to see them play here. My father had urged us (and staked us) to buy tickets to one of the games through StubHub if- and only if- we could find an affordable pair of seats.
So even before the playoff games began in Chicago, I researched what it might cost to get Milo and I into a game out here. And I did so with great trepidation, knowing that if I tried to get tickets to a game in Chicago, I would have had to ask Milo to forego college in order for us to afford a pair of seats.
But here? I won’t say they were cheap, exactly. But they were easily going for about a third of what they would cost if I tried to get seats at Wrigley.
The only real question was…which game do we see? The teams were scheduled to play three games here: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (if necessary). Thinking over my options, I decided to try and get tickets to Game Four because….
C’mon. You know why, right?
Well, all my Cub fan friends know why.
Because…if the Cubs swept the series, Game Four in L.A. would have been the clincher. Absolutely had to pick that game, right?
So we bought the tickets and were all set for Game Four at Dodger Stadium.
When Tuesday (the day of Game Three) rolled around, I went back to StubHub, purely out of curiosity, just to see what the tickets were going for that night and…
…hmmm. Not bad. Not great, but not bad. “Boy,” I thought, “It sure would be fun if we could…if we could….”
That’s when I had my epiphany.
Milo and I were going to play a little game. And that game is called:
Here’s how you play:
You get in your car and you start driving toward the stadium where you want to see a game. All the while, you have the StubHub website open on your smart phone. The theory is, the closer you get to game time, the lower the prices will drop on the tickets you want to buy.
The catch is: They stop selling tickets on the site about ten minutes before the game begins. So if you drive all the way there and don’t time it exactly right, you could blow your chance to get into the game and have to fight your way back out of the neighborhood with stadium traffic.
So there we were, driving towards Chavez Ravine with the StubHub site open on Milo’s phone, watching the ticket prices fall incrementally every few minutes. And sure enough, the closer we got to the stadium, the lower the prices fell.
$120 a ticket….$115 a ticket…$110….$100…$90….
“Should we get them now?” Milo asked.
“Hold on,” I said. “We’re still a mile or so from the park. Let’s see what happens.”
We got in the long line to get into the Stadium parking and started easing forward.
$85 a ticket…$80…$75….
I felt like Red Leader from Star Wars. “Stay on target…stay on target….”
Finally, we got close to the gate…and the tickets dipped down to $69 apiece.
“Now. Do it. Grab ’em.”
Milo punched a few buttons and…
…we were in.
The elation of that moment, when we realized that we had played and won our fast and furious round of StubHub Chicken, would last…about four innings. Then things went straight into the crapper. But we had no clue of that at the time.
For now, walking into Dodger Stadium for Game Three, bedecked from head to foot in our Cubs gear and ready to watch Jake Arrieta show these Dodgers what pitching was supposed to look like well…there’s just no feeling like it.
We were way out in the left field bleachers, about halfway up, which allowed us a commanding and satisfying view of the field. We were surrounded by Dodger fans, as you’d expect, but there were a lot of Cub fans there as well.
As I explained to Milo: We are legion.
I won’t give you the entire play-by-play of the game, of course, because (a) you’re probably well aware of what happened that night and (b) it is just too depressing to relive. Let me just say this:
It was awful.
When Arrieta began to unravel and the Dodger runs started piling up…oof, it was like a punch in the gut.
To be sitting there, so miserable, so bereft as the Cubs offense went inning after inning without a run on the board and to watch our pitchers, one after the other, continue to give up hits, runs, homers….it was simply torture. (Also, Dodger fans, when they see you dressed up in your Cub gear, love to yell “Bartman” at you for some reason. They think it drives us mad. Go figure.)
All the while, I’m texting Sara back in Chicago who, along with Milo and I, was dying just a little bit inside with every Dodger run. It was misery in Cubville.
Now let me be clear: When I’m in Wrigley Field cheering for the Cubs, I am very…enthusiastic. Ask anyone. You go to Cub game with me, you’re in for a loud and eventful afternoon.
Frankly speaking: I’m obnoxious.
(There are rules, however. No swearing, for example. You got kids there, come on. But beyond that? Hoo boy. Things get nuts.)
Sitting there in Dodger Stadium, amidst a sea of guys exactly like me, I came to a very swift conclusion:
It’s only funny when I do it.
God, I hated them so much. I deeply and bitterly resented their joy. I positively despised their ecstatic and thunderous cheering. As Milo and I sat there, watching the score tick up to three….four….five….six to nothing…my hatred flowered like a black rose and I wanted nothing- nothing more in life – than to see a late-inning, stunning comeback that would silence these awful, terrible, happy people.
Until that time, even as a Cub fan, I had always had a special place in my heart for the Dodgers. Once upon a time, their fans had suffered as we had suffered. We were the Lovable Losers, they were Dem Bums. We were simpatico. Brothers under the skin.
No more. In the space of two hours, the bromance was over.
Now, I wanted the very skies to open up and a fiery hail to rain down upon them. I wanted thirty thousand bolts of lightning to strike them all at once and silence their deafening cries. I wanted birds of prey, fierce raptors to cascade down into the stadium and claw at them mercilessly until they just gave up one. Stinking. Run.
But it was not to be. The Dodgers prevailed, the Cub bats were dead and the slow march back to the car was a heavy slog.
We could only hope that the next night…things might be slightly better.
We were in the hole. The series now stood at Dodgers 2, Cubs 1. It wasn’t a “must win” game but…it felt like it.
On the hill, we had John Lackey, the veteran right hander we had picked up from St. Louis earlier in the year. Not our best arm, but a fierce competitor and a guy who had seen his share of post-season games.
And with Dodgers rookie left-hander Julio Urias facing us, the only question was: Would the Cubs offense finally come alive?
Almost all of our key players- particularly first baseman Anthony Rizzo- had been asleep at the plate. The entire team hadn’t scored a single run in two games. Could they- at long last and under this kind of pressure- finally turn things around?
The answer? Oh yeah. And then some.
And then…just a little bit more.
It started in the fourth, with a bunt single by Ben Zobrist, which broke up Urias’ fledgling no-hitter. Then Javie Baez blooped a single into left field. Contreras then followed suit, allowing Zobrist to score on a lousy throw to home. After Jason Heyward grounded out, driving in Baez and moving Contreras at third, up stepped Addison Russell, the Cub shortstop, with the score 2-0.
Russell was having a terrible post-season. His timing was off, his hitting was almost non-existent and he had been moved further and further down the lineup as the playoffs progressed. He was really suffering at the plate.
Russell jacked a two run homer to deep center field to put the Cubs ahead 4-0 in the fourth. Milo and I, for the first time in three days, could breathe a little easier.
Not relax, mind you. But breathe. Just a bit.
The next inning, the Cubs’ first baseman, the so-far disappointing Anthony Rizzo stepped up after striking out twice earlier in the game and…well, we weren’t really all that excited. Why should we be? He hadn’t really hit anything since the regular season ended.
Rizzo ran up the count to 3-1 (on a long, fly ball that hooked just foul) and then, on the next pitch, took what he thought was ball four. He actually dropped his bat and started for first but…the umpire called it a strike and Rizzo had to pick up the bat and step up again with a full count.
He was having a rough post-season, there was no doubt about…
Rizzo suddenly, inexplicably came alive, sending the next ball screaming over the center field fence at the exact same spot where Russell had drilled his homer. Rizzo’s dry spell was over and the once cocky Dodger fans were now in a pretty deep funk.
Deep, that is, until their team roared back and answered with two runs in their half of the inning. The score after five: Cubs 5, Dodgers 2.
With just a three run lead, Milo and I were suddenly nervous again. In all honesty, it didn’t take much. But our tension would only last an inning.
Because in the sixth, Rizzo (clearly making up for lost time), came up with the bases loaded and….zap. Two more runs driven in and the score was 8-2.
Then the circus came to town. It was ugly and it was embarrassing and even the Cub fans knew better than to laugh.
With Bryant at third, Rizzo at second and Zobrist safe on an infield single up the line, Javier Baez stepped up to the plate with one out. He proceeded to loop the second pitch into center field that almost dropped for a single….
…but Dodger center fielder Joc Pederson made a spectacular diving catch and came up throwing, to try and nail Bryant tagging up from third.
Pederson’s throw was wild, though, and dribbled all the way to the backstop where it was retrieved by the reliever Avilan, Bryant safe by a mile. Rizzo was trucking towards home after the bad throw though and Avilan tried to toss the ball to the catcher to stop him but…he missed his target, too. The ball scooted away and Rizzo scored as well.
The score: Cubs 10, Dodgers 2.
As the great orange Trumpkin might say: It was nasty.
And that, folks, was the ballgame. In fact, by the time the seventh inning stretch was over and we all sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the stadium crowd was pretty much 2-1 Cub fans. Most of the Dodger faithful had left. After all, there’s faith…and there’s a blowout.
Milo and I (and every other Cub supporter) stayed right to the end, of course, as we needed as much good juju as we could get after the previous night’s debacle. We weren’t just enjoying this victory, we were reveling in it.
By the time they finally wrung down the curtain on the evening’s festivities, we knew two things for sure:
This series was going back to Chicago.
And we were coming back tomorrow for another round of StubHub Chicken.
It must have been pretty comical: Milo and I lining up to park at Dodger Stadium, reaching the gate…and then zooming back down the hill to get back in line…and then doing it again and again because we didn’t have tickets yet.
For this, the third game in L.A., the StubHub Chicken game wasn’t working. The ticket prices were not coming down to a level I considered affordable (given that I make my living talking in a closet) so…we kept going back down the hill and joining the back of the parking line, hoping that the prices would finally came down to a reasonable level.
Finally, at 5:00, after driving up and down the hill a few times with no luck, the sale at StubHub ended. We were, we thought, locked out.
But we weren’t giving up. There were two other websites offering tickets and one of them, we happily discovered, had a pair at $80 apiece so…we grabbed them.
Only to be informed, seconds later, that we were too late. They were gone.
And by then, the game had started.
We could probably have kept it up and finally gotten a pair of tickets if we had been persistent. But we would have had to drive around for a while until the ticket sellers gave up and, even then, probably wouldn’t have gotten into the stadium until the third inning so…we decided it wasn’t worth it.
We wanted to watch the game and didn’t want to spend our entire night motoring up and down that ridiculous hill so…we headed back down into Silver Lake, called up an old buddy from Chicago, Ben Carr, and on his recommendation plopped ourselves down in a sports bar on Sunset to watch the game.
I won’t take you through it. You know what happened. The Cubs turned in a beauty, backed by formidable pitching of Jon Lester and supported by the bats of Rizzo and Russell (again) as well as my newest, bestest buddy, Javier Baez.
(When Baez pulled up at second after knocking in three runs on a base-clearing double in the eighth and looked, momentarily, as if he’d been injured, I will guarantee you that every Cub fan in America stood up and hollered “Nooooooo!” at the same moment. Thankfully, he was fine but…damn. Milo and I don’t need that kind of tension.)
As the game wore on and the Cubs started taking a bigger and bigger lead, the Dodger fans in the bar weren’t all that nuts about me, frankly, but I managed to make friends eventually. One guy next to us, seemingly taken with my…enthusiasm actually bought me a beer (which is the sports equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire).
But by the end, the Dodger fans in the bar and I were all old chums, swearing our respective teams would whup each other in the Chicago rematches.
And there we leave it, my friends…the series evened up, 2-2. It will all be decided in the Friendly Confines over the next couple of days. (Remember to watch for John and Mary Jane in the stands!)
Milo and I were blessed to be able to catch two games in Dodger Stadium during the Cubs’ trip out West and neither of us will ever forget the experience. (Thanks, Dad!)
Now…we hand it off to our loved ones in Chicago and pray for a happy ending.
I can hardly wait. And I will, no doubt- along with my son, daughter, wife and family- dread every single moment of it.
*********UPDATE – GAME SIX********
Milo and I have spent the past week together, watching this playoff series unfold game by game. (Two of them, as you’ve seen above, live and in person at Dodger Stadium.) We’ve been cheering, grumbling, jumping up and down, sulking, glaring pensively at the TV, scaring nearby animals with our feral cries..it’s been quite a roller-coaster ride of emotions this week, no question.
Tonight, with the potential series-clinching game in Chicago, I had been looking forward to watching the game with Milo again, but…tonight was the Homecoming Dance and, well, there are some things you just have to do in high school and dressing up fancy to go meet your friends is one of them.
Luckily, the game began at five and the dance at seven, so were were able to watch most of the game together here in our little Northridge apartment.
We were nervous, of course, because…well, we’re Cub fans and we knew what to expect. LA was throwing their ace at us again, the formidable, three time Cy Young award winner (and announcer Joe Buck’s BFF) Clayton Kershaw. True, we had one of our best guys- Kyle Hendricks- on the hill for us but…the last time Kershaw pitched in Wrigley Field, it was also against Hendricks and Clayton had pretty definitively silenced our bats so…we were nervous.
The game kicked off and…the Cubs wasted little time. Dexter Fowler led things off with a double, Kris Bryant singled in the first run and all of a sudden..things were happening. We were scoring runs in the first dang inning!
I felt bad for Milo…the poor kid was trying to get dressed, get his suit looking good, brush his hair and all that…and I kept whooping with delight in the next room and distracting him.
When Anthony Rizzo lined the ball to left and the Dodger outfielder Andrew Toles drifted over to catch it, I figured (like everyone else) that it would be an easy grab for the first out of the game but…Toles took his eye off the ball for just a moment, it bounced off his glove, hit the ground and by the time they were done scrambling for it…Bryant was at third and Rizzo was hugging second.
I hollered bloody murder.
“What…what?!?!” Milo yelled from the next room.
“Toles…he dropped…it should have been…Rizzo hit the…oh just, just watch the replay.“
Neither of us could really believe it. One run. Men and second and third. No outs.
Who’d thrown about six pitches.
Next batter, Ben Zobrist, hit a sacrifice fly to center and Bryant, tagging up, scored, too. By the time Kershaw finally got out of the inning, the Cubs had drawn first blood and it was 2-0.
Next inning, it was deja vu all over again as Addison Russell, like Fowler before him, led things off with a double. Two batters later, Fowler pulled a Kris Bryant, smashing an RBI single to bring Russell home. 3-0 Cubs.
My oh my.
Milo had half an eye on the game, half on his outfit and a third eye on the clock.
Then Willson Contreras came up in the fourth and….ka-BOOM. A ball went screaming over the left field wall. Cubs up 4-0.
“Conteras homered!” I screamed.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” yelled Milo from the other room. He stormed in looking furious. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” For a minute, I didn’t think he was going to go to the dance at all but…he looked mighty sharp. How could he not go?
Next inning…it was Rizzo’s turn. Bricka-POW! Good-bye Mr. Spalding! Cubs 5, Dodgers 0 and…hey, we gotta split! The dance was about to begin!
I should mention that, all this time, Hendricks was just as solid as a rock. Unflappable, practically unhittable and totally in control. All that, with all of Chicago baseball history pressing down on him. It was an awesome sight.
So confident in Hendricks was Manager Joe Madden (and buffeted by a five run lead), he let Hendricks take his licks at the plate in the sixth inning so he could keep pitching. The kid was dominating the Dodgers and there was nothing they could do.
I dropped Milo off at the school in the sixth inning (promising to text him all the news as it happened) and dashed over to this neighborhood bar called “Taps” to catch the end of the game. I had to be amongst people, even if they were sympathetic to the other side.
Sure enough, when I walked into the place, it was like the old Western cliche where every head turns and conversation grinds to a halt. (I wanted the old record scratch sound, too.) I was the only Cub fan in the joint and I was not feeling exactly…welcomed at that moment.
I kept my head down, found a quiet place at the bar and tried to stay quiet.
In the meantime, my phone was exploding. Texts to and from my wife and daughter in Chicago, my aunts, uncles and cousins all across the country, Facebook messages and posts from Cubs fans from sea to shining sea.
I was alone…but I wasn’t lonely. I felt like the whole Cub Nation was in that bar with me.
The end of the game kept closer and closer. Nine outs away. Then six.
Then Hendricks, with one out, walked a man in the eighth and..that was it. Madden walked to the mound, relieved him of the ball and sent for the reliever, Chapman. Wrigley Field, as a man, reared up on its hind legs and roared their appreciation for the exiting starter. Kyle had come through in great style under enormous pressure.
And here it was…the moment when they either destroyed us all over again by blowing this game in truly spectacular style (as only the Cubs know how) or…they finally break the curse.
Three outs away. Then two.
And I couldn’t help it. Being that close…sensing that my beloved Cubbies could be on the cusp of history…thinking of my grandfather, buried with a Diehard Cub Fan membership card in his pocket…realizing that the long wait- a wait that had lasted my entire life- might finally be over, I started to well up.
Sitting there, my back to the Dodger faithful, the tears began to come. Two outs away from destiny.
Then Chapman walks Ruiz. And you start to think, “No…no it can’t be. Not in the ninth freakin’ inning…”
And then…Dodger Yasiel Puig grounds the first pitch he gets to Addison Russell at short…who flips the ball to Baez at second for one…who then turns and fires it to Rizzo for two and…
The Cubs win the pennant! The Cubs win the pennant!
Well, I just completely flippin’ lost it.
My phone rang. It was Sara and Gwen, cheering and crying in Chicago. Text messages from all my relatives started pouring in, each more jubilant than the last. Even my Dad, who had stayed up to watch the game on the East coast, called from New York to join in the fun.
Finally, the messaging and joyful phone calls slowed and I sat there, alone and quiet in my little neighborhood bar, my eyes wet with joy, the only Cub fan- maybe the only happy sports fan- within a square mile.
One of the Dodger fans sitting at the table behind me- a big guy with a dark beard and an LA cap- walked up to the bar, motioned to the bartender and said, “Hey…” She looked up. He looked at me and said “His next one’s on me.”
I was completely gobsmacked. I stammered out my thanks.
“Hell of a series,” he said, smiling through his disappointment. “Just do me one favor.” And then he leaned in close and said: “Kick Cleveland’s ass, okay?”
In my current emotional state, all I could really manage was:
“I’ll do everything I can.”
There is Joy in Mudville, my friends.
The curse (at least the 1945 curse) is no more.
The Chicago Cubs are the champions of the National League.
The Chicago Cubs didn’t just win the wild card or the division or the divisional series. Nope.
The Chicago Cubs have won the National League pennant for the first time in 71 years.
The Chicago Cubs…
…and I can’t believe I’m saying this, even now…
The Chicago Cubs…are going to the World Series.
Hey, Chicago…whaddaya say?