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My Top Sports Moment of the Decade: The Chicago Cubs Win the World Series

9 minute read
Sean Gregory is a senior sports correspondent at TIME. His work has been cited in the annual Best American Sports Writing anthology nine times. His stories have won awards from the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, and his work was named a finalist for Deadline Club and Mirror awards for excellence in magazine writing and reporting on media, respectively.

The 2010s offered no shortage of indelible sports moments: Canada defeating the U.S. in overtime on home ice to clinch men’s hockey gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Japan rallying to win the 2011 women’s World Cup in a penalty shootout against the United States, just months after an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster ravaged the country. Auburn’s Kick Six to win the 2013 Iron Bowl over Alabama. American Pharoah winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years. Kris Jenkins’ shot that won Villanova a national championship. Arike Ogunbowale’s shot that won Notre Dame a national title. LeBron James chasing down Andre Iguodala and delivering the city of Cleveland its first title since 1964. Tiger Woods’ win at the Masters. Megan Rapinoe’s pose, Carli Lloyd’s hat trick and back-to-back World Cup titles for the U.S. women’s soccer team. Serena Williams’ dominance. And so many others we could mention.

Read more: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team is TIME’s Athlete of the Year 2019

But even amid all this excellence, one moment stands out: the Chicago Cubs winning the 2016 World Series, ending a 108-year streak without a championship that so many people — in the Windy City and elsewhere — just figured they’d never live to see ended.

Baseball provides a unique connection to its fans. The games live with you almost daily over the long summer months. During the season, there are 162 opportunities to feel the sting of defeat, or the euphoria of victory. The swings can leave you dizzy, moody, confused. So in the case of Cubs fans, a century-plus of failing to win can only wear you down. Which means the World Series win, and absolution of all that suffering, will last a lifetime.

In the minutes after first baseman Anthony Rizzo squeezed his glove to record the last out of Game 7 and clinch the Cubs’ World Series, Bill Shannon, a Wrigley Field “bleacher bum” for six decades and retired machine tool company executive from Rockford, Ill., called the win “one of the greatest moments of my life … you don’t know if you’re ever going to see it. I kept thinking of my all my friends at Wrigley, and so many that are gone. I feel privileged to have witnessed this. I felt like I was fighting with the Cubs every step of the way.”

After the Cubs clinched, novelist Scott Turow walked into the backyard of his suburban Chicago home and yelled, “It finally happened!” at the top of his lungs. He wished his dad was alive to see it; he’s glad his son and grandsons did. “It’s still an absolute high point for me as a fan, and a peak that there’s nothing even close to rivaling,” Turow says three years later.

Even if you didn’t sing “Go! Cubs! Go!” after wins and spend decades throwing visiting home runs back onto the field at Wrigley, Chicago’s victory stood out as pure sports theater. After the Cleveland Indians thumped Chicago, 7-2, at Wrigley Field in Game 4 of the 2016 Series to take a 3-1 series lead, hope seemed lost. “We needed today,” said one Cubs fan, John Stutz, as he filed out of Wrigley that night, before the final out. “Right now, all the air has gone out of the balloon.” But the Cubs eked out a tense 3-2 win in Game 5, and as the series shifted back to Cleveland, Chicago’s bats woke up: the Cubbies won Game 6, 9-3, dominating from the outset.

That set up an unforgettable Game 7. An estimated 75 million people tuned in to all or part of the deciding game, which was played in the final days of a bitterly contested presidential campaign. Chicago jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the fifth inning. But Cleveland got to Chicago’s bullpen. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, and Chicago just four outs from ending the Curse of the Billy Goat, Cleveland’s Rajai Davis lined a 98 mph pitch from Chicago closer Aroldis Chapman into the left field seats to tie it up. Progressive Field in Cleveland went berserk — the Indians were trying to end a 68-year World Series draught of their own, thank you. Cubs fans recoiled in horror. It seemed certain that Davis had just written the next chapter of Cubs suffering.

Before the game could head to extra innings, however, rain arrived, causing a 17-minute delay. During the stoppage, the Cubs held a players-only meeting in the weight room to lift their spirits. The huddle paid off: The Cubs scored twice in the top of the 10th. In the bottom half of the inning, with the tying run on first base and two outs, Cubs reliever Mike Montgomery got Michael Martinez to hit a soft ground ball to third; Kris Bryant zipped the ball over to Rizzo ending the game and setting off a cathartic celebration.

The Cubs gave America’s pastime a rare front-page moment in what was a complex ten years for the sport. Baseball emerged from the steroid-stained aughts to settle into a healthy economic space: look no further than Mike Trout’s $426.5 million deal (one that approaches the GDP of Tonga) as a sign of baseball’s financial strength.

Still, the sport’s cultural clout has declined this decade. Since the retirements of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, the sport has lacked A-list stars to move the off-field needle like LeBron James or Tom Brady do. Trout might finish up his career as one of the best baseball players of all time: he won a third MVP award this season. But he has made it clear that self-promotion is not a top priority. Plus, his team — the Los Angeles Angels — has made just one postseason appearance since Trout reached the big leagues in 2011. Meanwhile, Brady and LeBron have had standing reservations at the Super Bowl and NBA Finals.

And at a time when baseball is grappling with forces that are changing the sport, Chicago’s win touched on a basic human instinct to root for the feel-good story. Big data and technology have roiled many industries in the 2010s: media, transportation, manufacturing, and sports, especially baseball, among them. A more advanced analytical approach to decision making — served notice by the 2003 book Moneyball, which chronicled the advantaged gleaned by the small-market Oakland Athletics — went mainstream. (Moneyball was also made into a movie in 2011, starring Brad Pitt; it received six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.)

Every team, it seemed, plucked its share of quants out of MIT or derivative trading desks to set strategies. They figured out that certain “launch angles” at which the ball leaves a bat optimized power. As a result, MLB players hit a record 6,776 home runs during the 2019 season, an 11% increase over the previous high, set in 2017. With so many players swinging for the fences, players struck out a record rate: 23% of all 2019 plate appearances ended in a K. (Players have set new strikeout records every season since 2008).

More precise data enables teams to better exploit pitching matchups, which begets more pitching changes — teams used an average of 4.41 pitchers a game in 2019, another record — which begets longer games: on average, an MLB game took 3 hours, 10 minutes this season, yet another record. Teams can suss out the probability of where players are likely to hit the ball, when they don’t smack it out of the park. So fielders are now “shifted” to certain positions on the field to prevent base hits: only 13.9% of plate appearance resulted in a single (you guessed it: that’s another record). With defenses now situated in optimal positions, players have further incentive to hit the ball out, since you can’t shift a shortstop into the left field seats. This dynamic further drives up home run and strikeout rates.

For many fans, these results have damaged the on-field product. Much like, say, the manufacturing industry, tech has left baseball more automated. Optimize your launch angle. Play the numbers. Efficiencies, however, rarely win hearts and minds. No one longs for longer baseball games. Strikeouts and home runs can grow stale. What about unpredictable “small-ball” that features singles and stolen bases? (Stolen bases per game were at their lowest levels in 48 years.) Commentators cite esoteric stats like WAR and VORP and FIP and BABIP and—oh my gosh, who turned baseball into math homework?

Baseball has flirted with ideas to improve the game, like a ban on defensive shifts, and a pitch clock to speed things up. The game finds itself in a time of transition and self-reckoning.

All of which increases the importance of the 2016 Cubs. The team certainly embraced modern analytics, but team president of baseball operations Theo Epstein never discounted the human element. “If you have scouts that do a great job, dig really deep, he can find three examples of when a high school kid faced adversity on the field, three examples of when he faced adversity off the field, and how he responded,” he said while standing on Wrigley Field before Game 3 of that World Series. “That might give you a bit better information to project how he might respond when all of a sudden he’s not the best player in pro ball. Does he want to quit and go home? Or does he want to figure out what his foundation is?” Epstein also hired a manager, Joe Maddon, known for connecting with his players. “Don’t let the pressure exceed the pleasure,” was his mantra.

But most crucially, the team’s run highlighted the euphoric charms of America’s pastime. Lovable losers, with their Bleacher Bums and Harry Caray and curses about goats and silly songs, will earn their day. It’s an analog tale for our digital age. Sports will grow even more sophisticated in the next ten years, and witness more disruption. But a hard-luck team can always win a World Series, or Super Bowl, or World Cup, and lift millions to their feet.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com

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