Flying High With The W


Brett Starkopf

Oct. 13 was the first time the Cubs won a playoff series in Wrigley Field history.

Brett Starkopf

For 27 years, I have been a Cubs-ist. Cubbie blue has run through my veins hereditarily as I inherited it from my father and he his father. My grandfather, my dad’s mother, and mom’s father lived their entire lives without seeing the Cubs in the World Series. I’m aware that doesn’t make me any different than the people who are also second-, third- or fourth-generation Cubs-ists, but it just reaffirms how special Oct. 13 was. Never before had the Cubs clinched a series at Wrigley Field. Not once in the 101 years since the “Friendly Confines” opened its doors had there been reason to really celebrate.

Baseball is a religion in my family with Spring Training, Opening Day and the Postseason all being holidays. Walking into the ballpark that fateful day, I imagine I felt the same way some Jewish people feel at the Western Wall, Catholics at St. Peter’s Basilica and Muslim’s at Kaaba. There was this energy all around so uplifting that even the most self-hating Cubs fan was starting to believe. My closest friend Matt — who at 14-years-old we made a pact that one day we would live in the city, have season tickets and watch the Cubs win in the playoffs — said to me walking to the game, “we don’t deserve this” (we meaning him and I, not the Cubs. The Cubs most definitely deserve this). He was right. He is right. He and I don’t deserve this. I only have 27 years of fandom. Between the two of us, we have 54 years of fandom, one-half the amount of years since the Cubs’ last World Series, and only three years of heartbreak (2003, 2007, 2008). My dad went through 34 years without playoff baseball and he grew up watching Santo, Banks, Williams and Jenkins.

Walking to Wrigley Field all giddy because we are about to witness a potential Cubs home-clinching playoff game, Matt and I start to feel the electricity as we grow closer and closer to the corner of Clark and Addison. We parked nearly a mile away at my old house off Addison and Ashland, the butterflies in my stomach start fluttering. Throughout the walk to deter our minds from the Cubs, we play games.

“If they make a Space Jam 2, assuming LeBron plays the role of Michael Jordan, what current NBA players do the Monstars steal their talent from?”

We ponder the answer for the 20-minute walk, which felt like five because of the excitement. We reach Clark Street. Holy Cow, we’re actually here. Ear-to-ear smiles grow across our face as we near the ballpark. “Oh my god, oh my god, we’re actually here” we exclaim in the same octave as a 13-year-old girl at a Taylor Swift concert when she plays, “Our song.”

The flags on the stadium are blowing from left field to right field so lefties shouldn’t have a problem hitting the ball far. We wait in line outside of Gate D on the corner of Addison and Sheffield. It’s 15-minutes before the gate opens and fans start filing in line behind us. Multiple conversations begin to blend with each other but I can make out tidbits of what is being said:

“Wind is blowing out, should be good for Rizzo.”

“Any lefty should be loving today.”

Right on cue the conversations seize, heads bow and fans cower away from the sound of an explosion. Our collective attentions are diverted to the rooftop seats at 3617 N. Sheffield where a window was just shattered by a batting practice ball. Please let it be Schwarber who hit that and not Heyward.

 After watching the Cardinals take batting practice and the grounds crew meticulously manicure the field, my excitement turned into nervous energy. This game is really about to begin and I am really here to watch it. My favorite Cub of all time, Kerry Wood, throws out the first pitch (it’s a strike) the national anthem commences, and “let’s go Cubbies clap, clap, clap-clap-clap” chants immediately begin as Rizzo leads his team onto the field.

Jason Hammel toes the rubber for the home team. If he goes four or five innings we’ll be fine. Four pitches later and the Cubs trail by two runs thanks to a two-run home run by the second batter of the game, Stephen Piscotty. However, there was not an air of deflation from the Wrigley faithful.

It was an interesting setting to say the least. Normally, I’m used to counting out the Cubs in the playoffs when they are down. Not by choice, but by experience. On paper, when a team who’s putting out a pitcher who has been decent at best, two slumping sluggers and an inconsistent back end against the best team in baseball (record-wise) with stellar hitting and a good bullpen up, surely the latter will win.

But it didn’t feel that way.

The odd 3:30 p.m. start time factored in the Cubs’ advantage, as there was only a smattering of Cardinal red. In fact, there was so few red there that it stood out more, like a dead pixel on a computer monitor. I was fortunate enough to be seated next to a Cardinal fan. He grew up in St. Louis, but lives in Chicago with his wife. Truth be told, I was hoping to sit next to a Cards fan so that we could have some sort of banter back and forth.

Deuces were wild in the bottom of the second. With two on and two out in the bottom half of the frame, Jason Hammel comes to the plate batting in the eighth spot. The Cards fan to my right leans over and says to me, “Good thing the pitcher is batting eighth, right?” Crack. Single up the middle, one run scores. “Yeah, it’s a good thing.”

John Lackey, the Cards pitcher, is noticeably frustrated from the mound. If the noise wasn’t so deafening I swear you would be able to hear him cursing on the mound from all the way in the 400-section. Javy Baez steps to the plate still with two outs and two on. First pitch he sees he drives into the right field bleachers. Cubs up 4-2. The already rambunctious crowd has become raucous in the best sense.

Heading into the top of the six, the score remains. A seasonably cold night was made warmer by the Baez blast in the second and the 16-ounce 312. We only sat down in between innings, as we would cheer every strike thrown by the Cubs’ pitchers and every ball thrown by the Cards. There were two on, two outs for Tony Cruz, who replaced Yadier Molina at catcher. Cruz, a notoriously poor hitter had struck out twice previously. He was facing Trevor Cahill who has pitched well this series. How Cub would it be if the Cards worst hitter ties the game up? I was almost right, his double up the right field line brought the Cards within run. Uh-oh, this isn’t good. Not good at all. Brandon Moss then pinch-hit for Adam Wainwright.

“Isn’t Moss a good hitter?” Matt said to me.

“I hope not tonight,” I manage to say in between bites of my thumbnail.

Crack. Moss singles to right field. Jorge Soler, who, truth be told isn’t the best fielder in the league, scoops the ball and fires a rocket home to gun out Tony Cruz. The game is tied at four a piece heading in to the bottom of the inning after Moss’ single but the throw by Soler gave the Cubs all the momentum. Cubs’ fans were cheering as if they had just tied the game.

Things got way interesting. Kris Bryant batted second in the inning and just missed a home run to the right-center field gap. We sat down after we thought for sure he got a hold of one. Rizzo’s up and facing Kevin Siegrest, the pitcher he hit a home run off of in Game 3. Never before in the postseason has a player hit a home run off the same pitcher in consecutive games. Until now. Cubs are winning once again, with three innings to go. Is this really happening? A team that was supposed to finish around .500 is just three innings away from playing for the pennant. That was a long way away and it was up to the bullpen.

I have since switched fingers to gnaw on for my thumb very nearly started to bleed. I’m at the point of hyperventilation. Admittedly, I am not strong enough to be a Cubs fan. Matt felt the same way going into the bottom of the seventh still up one, with Kyle Schwarber to bat.

“I will feel much better if we see a Schwarbomb right here,” Matt said.

The very next pitch, Schwarber hit the ball to the moon. Well, actually, it landed on top of the right field video board but still, I had never seen a ball hit so hard in all my life watching the Cubs and I remember seeing Glenallen Hill play. I think we figured out who broke the window. Sitting in section 434, we had a great view of the right field video board. The ball bounced on top of the board, off the “w” on the Budweiser sign and came to rest for the remainder of the postseason.

“Is the ball hitting the “w” a sign?” I asked anybody in earshot.

“I think so,” Matt said.

Matt was right. Schwarber’s bomb turned it up to 11. The stadium was rocking. I was almost convinced the roof of Wrigley would fall down. Eighth inning comes and goes 1-2-3. Pedro Strop closed the door in 10 pitches.

I’m beside myself. I don’t want the Cubs to bat. The only way I would breathe a sign of relief is if they scored 10 runs. People all around are counting down the outs. “Three more outs!” Stop that! Don’t you remember what happened last time we counted outs at Wrigley? Game 6, 2003 NLCS, please for the love of all things Holy Cow, stop counting the outs!

 Rondon is in to close the game against the Cards’ 8-9-1 hitters. Tony Cruz grounds out to Bryant at third, two outs to go. Mark Reynolds, in true form strikes out. One more out. The guy in front of me turns around to let me know that. Matt Carpenter comes up and singles to left. Look what you did, man! This is all your fault!

 Stephen Piscotty comes up. First pitch strike. No way. Second pitch, strike. This can’t really be happening. Third pitch. Breaking Ball. Piscotty swings and misses. Strike three.

Cubs win.

The. Cubs. Win. For the first time at Wrigley, the Cubs clinched a postseason series. I know it isn’t the Series but it’s a series — a series that must be won if they want to play for a chance to play in the Series. The Cubs have gone further now than anybody had expected, they beat a team that many predicted to win. And I was there. Wearing the same Cubbie blue that runs through my veins, high-fiving everybody around me that sports the same blue, that relinquished hope in 2003, 2007 and 2008, that relished the accomplishments of the members of the Baby Bears that are babies themselves — Bryant, Schwarber, Russell, and the likes.

That final out reminded me why I am a fan of this team. It reminded me that there is hope. It reminded me that next year is here.