Baseball is a funny game. The perfect intersection between figures and folklore – moments are reinforced by numbers, every story has a statistic. The sheer amount of baseball played every season means that almost no event is seminal, therefore meaning that everything has a reference point, namely, a stat. Critics of the sport would argue that the game’s minutiae are overanalysed, and that such a dearth of acronyms and decimal places are unnecessary, but upon closer inspection, one could argue that it is this that is at the heart of baseball’s mystique.
This combination was perfectly highlighted in the 2016 World Series – Baseball’s biggest prize – contested between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians and concluded one month ago. The two sides had gone a combined 178 years without lifting the ultimate prize before Cubs 3rd baseman Kris Bryant threw a ground ball to Anthony Rizzo at 1st, wrapping up a ridiculous 8-7 victory for the Chicago side. The Cubs had been made to wait for their World Series title since 1908, a stretch oft attributed to the Curse of the Billy Goat, placed on the side in 1945. This in itself perfectly encapsulates the combination of the ridiculous and the rational, prevalent throughout Baseball: whilst numbers are pored over in each and every tiny aspect of the sport, a curse placed on a team by a local bar-owner after he was refused entry to the ground with his pet goat is considered to be the deciding factor in the Cubs’ drought. And it looked for a time as though they would be made to wait for their first World Series title in 108 years after the Cleveland Indians’ Rajai Davis tied the scores at 6-6 with a 2-run homer in the bottom of the 8th inning, eventually taking game to extra innings after the Cubs had led since the very first at-bat of the evening.
An incredible night of baseball, which has been described by many in the succeeding hours as the most memorable in the history of the sport, perfectly encapsulates all 7 games of the World Series itself, along with the Cubs’ journey to the title over the last several years. It has been nothing if not dramatic. Of the 162 game regular season this year, the Cubs won 103, losing only 58 – the best record in all of baseball. However, four years ago, in 2012, the team had just finished the year bottom of their division, having lost over 100 games. The turnaround from perennial whipping boys (they finished last in their National League Central division for five seasons running from 2010-2014), to the best team in the game in just a couple of years is phenomenal, and is largely attributed to the arrival of two key backroom staff members, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Manager Joe Maddon (left), who have been with the Cubs since 2011 and 2015 respectively. In fact, Epstein has begun to make a habit for breaking World Series curses, having arrived in Chicago after helping to lift the 86 year Curse of the Bambino at the Boston Red Sox.
Both Maddon and Epstein, along with the rest of the Cubs baseball organisation, have helped to build a young side that many believe could go on to dominate baseball for years to come. Five out of the nine starting batters for Chicago in game 7 were under the age of 25, and only two were over 30. In baseball years, this is an unprecedented feat. These young men played a huge part in the Cubs’ comeback from 3-1 down in a best of 7 World Series – in the final three games of the series, Kris Bryant (24), Addison Russell (22), and Javier Baez (23) all hit home runs of seismic importance (notably Russell’s grand-slam blast in game 6). Couple this with the perfect amount of experience provided by veterans David Ross (the catcher who hit a home run in his final game before retirement, and became the oldest to do so in a World Series game 7), Ben Zobrist (who was voted series MVP and drove in the Cubs’ go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning), and pitchers Jon Lester and John Lackey, and the Chicago side’s winning formula is complete.
It is nigh on impossible to write concisely about all of the events of this years’ World Series game 7, due to the fact that each and every act is embroiled and enriched by what has come before it. Every moment had huge microcosmic significance, and events of the past couple of months for the Chicago Cubs will be pored over, analysed, and relished for months and years to come. Ben Zobrist’s bunt in the 4th inning of game 4 of the NLCS series agains the LA Dodgers, which effectively ended 22 consecutive Cubs scoreless innings and provided the catalyst for their comeback from a 2-1 game deficit; the 8-out save by Cubs’ closer Aroldis Chapman in game 5 of the World Series, securing a 3-2 victory; and Dexter Fowler’s (right) first at-bat home run in game 7. These are but a few of the multitude of turning-points throughout the Cubs’ postseason. In the end, a 178 game season for the Chicago Cubs ended in a 1-run victory.
Despite all of this, the celebrations of Cubs fans worldwide at their team’s first World Series win in 108 long years, the mutual respect of the entire baseball community for this series is striking. Notorious Cubs fan Bill Murray, speaking on the Davis home-run to tie the scores in the 8th inning of game 7, said that “I thought okay, great, let’s make a game of this thing. These fans from Cleveland have been great, and their team are great. Let’s go seven games and let’s go extra innings!”. His love and appreciation for such a wonderful spectacle mirrors the reaction of baseball fans across the board. Finally, Indians’ manager Terry Francona simply described his involvement in the series as “an honour”, a hugely magnanimous response to a crushing defeat for his team. This is the beauty of baseball: there is a deep rooted respect for the game held by everyone who is involved, because something could happen any second, that changes the course of its history.
Congratulations to the Chicago Cubs, World Series Champions 2016.
Glossary of italicised terms:
World Series: A best of 7 game series between the winner of the National League and American League – Major League Baseball’s two different league structures. NB. The teams in these leagues are by no means split by geographical boundary, the two organisations were merely founded separately.
Ground Ball: A routine defensive baseball play when a ball is hit into the infield (the area within the diamond formed by the bases itself) and fielded.
Two-run homer: A home run that is worth two runs, as there is already a man on one of the bases. When a home run is hit, all of the base runners (players on base) advance to score a run, therefore meaning that the maximum amount of runs that can be scored from a single home run is 4.
Extra Innings: A baseball game is 9 innings long, with each team hitting and pitching 9 times. If the scores remain tied at the end of the 9th inning, extra innings are played in a sudden death format until a team triumph. One of the romanticisms of baseball is that, in theory, it could go on forever.
At-bat: Another name for a batter’s turn to hit.
National League Central Division: The division within the National League that the Cubs play in. Each League (National and American) is split up geographically into 5 team divisions. Teams can play any other team from the either league throughout the season, but their statistics are only recorded and ranked within their division. The winner of each division then advances to the Postseason, or the knockout structure leading to the World Series.
Curse of the Bambino: The curse supposedly placed on the Boston Red Sox when legendary hitter Babe Ruth was traded to the New York Yankees in 1919.
Grand-Slam home run: A four run home run, where the bases are loaded before the home run, thereby allowing all runners to advance and score.
MVP: Most Valuable Player
Bunt: A batting play when the hitter, rather than swinging the bat normally, grips the barrel of the bat with one hand and the handle with the other. The objective of the bunt is to drop a pitch down into the ground into an awkward position for the fielding side, either allowing the hitter to get on base, or sacrificing oneself in order to allow other runners on bases to advance.
Save: When a specialist Closing Pitcher successfully protects a lead at the end of a game.