The Wonder of Game 7

Some day, after the tears have dried and the hangover has lifted, after disbelief has transformed into nostalgia and the books have all been written, this might go down as the greatest baseball game ever played. It is much too soon for that now. There have been countless wonderful games in the grand history of this game — Carlton Fisk waving it fair, Jack Morris shutting them down, Billy Hatcher hitting the foul pole, Bill Mazeroski running happily through a throng of delirious fans, Salvador Perez pulling the ball past a diving third baseman, and a thousand more. For now, it is enough to say that this Game 7 belongs with those.

But even now, in the misty aftermath of that four-hour-and-28-minute psychedelic trip that was Game 7 between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, we can say this without hesitation: No game in the long history of this sport or perhaps any other inspired more people to shout (or text or tweet or whisper) the phrase, “Oh my God!” so many times.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” Jeff Garlin shouted in the seconds after the game ended. I know this because he sent me a video. Garlin is a comedian, a writer, an actor — The Goldbergs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, the captain from Wall-E, etc. — but more so, he is a Chicago Cubs fan. The Cubs have been his joy and his pain all 54 years of his life. For our purposes here, he stands in for millions of others who lived and died Cubs baseball over the last 108 years.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” he shouted as he stood awestruck in front of his television.

“Jeff,” his wife Marla said. “Stop.”

“I can’t!” Jeff shouted. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

How many times did OMG — in any and all of its forms — come up on this night? The first batter of the game, Chicago’s Dexter Fowler, homered to center field. The last batter of the game, some time early the next morning, was a player named Michael Martinez, a 34-year-old journeyman with a .197 career batting average. How did we get from here to there? OMG.

The thing that defined this World Series — other than sheer weight of the Cubs’ 108-year World Series drought facing up against Cleveland’s 68-year World Series drought — was the naked desperation on display. These two teams would do ANYTHING to win this series. Use the closer in the fifth inning? Yes. Start a hitter who had not faced major-league pitching for 200 days? You bet. Use the team’s best starting pitcher three times in nine days? Without hesitation. “The loser is nothing,” Prince Humperdinck says in The Princess Bride.

And that desperation was what made Wednesday night’s game so marvelous and agonizing at the same time. Cleveland manager Terry Francona did start his ace, Corey Kluber, for the third time in nine days, and this time Kluber did not have it. The effects of a tired arm are not easily measured; it’s not something that always shows up in a fastball’s miles-per-hour reading. Kluber’s pitches did not fool Cubs hitters at all. In Game 1, he struck out eight Cubs batters in the first three innings with pitches that looked like balls but mutated into strikes and pitches that looked like strikes but then lunged out of the zone.

None of that happened on Wednesday night. The cutter/slider thing he threw to Fowler was 92 mph, right at his normal speed, but the ball disobediently dove into the middle of the plate, and Fowler did not miss. That made it 1-0. Kluber stopped the damage there with three flyouts. But even that was a bad sign. Kluber is decidedly not a fly-ball pitcher.

Cleveland tied the game in the third inning, as Kluber awkwardly maneuvered through the Cubs’ lineup. Then came the fourth inning. This is when the game produced its first goat — a likable 36-year-old outfielder on his sixth team named Rajai Davis. He was playing centerfield when Addison Russell hit a 175-foot fly ball. The distance is important because, at the time, Chicago’s Kris Bryant was on third base, and 175 feet is generally not deep enough for a runner to tag up and try to score.

But Bryant did tag up and try to score. Davis seemed a bit stunned by this. He took an extra tick to release his throw. And that throw was high. Bryant slid in easily to give the Cubs the lead again.

The next batter, Willson Contreras, hit a long flyball to center that bounced off the base of the wall. It was well-hit and so it is not clear whether Davis could have caught it under ideal circumstances. But that question never came up because Davis took a Magellan-like route around the Cape of Good Hope and did not come close to catching the ball. It was a double and it scored another run. That’s 3-1 Cubs.

It goes without saying that we will hear from Rajai Davis again.

The Cubs made it 4-1 in the fifth inning when Kluber left his cutter/slider thing up in the zone and the mercurial Javier Baez poked it the other way for a home run. Baez was the eye-candy of these playoffs. He was always doing something mind-blowing whether it was striking a cobra-quick tag on base-stealers or trying and failing to barehand catch a double-play flip, swinging at some pitch several miles outside of the strike zone or hitting the home run that seemed to seal Cleveland’s fate. The Cubs added another run against Cleveland super-weapon Andrew Miller to make it 5-1, and surely the ghosts of Chicago’s North Side could finally stop rattling their chains.

Well, no, not quite. Cleveland scored two runs in the bottom of the inning on a Jon Lester wild pitch. It is a testament to the sheer volume of this game that we do not have the time to stop and linger on a wild pitch that scored two runs, but as Willy Wonka says, “We have so much time and so little to see. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.”

In the sixth inning, David Ross hit a long home run to center field. David Ross. I suppose the best way to sum up the absurdity of Lester’s personal catcher hitting a home run in his last big-league game is to say that he became the oldest man, at 39 years and 228 days, to hit a homer in Game 7 of the World Series. He beat the record (by three whole days) of a guy known as Pops, Willie Stargell, whose homer in 1979 still breaks hearts in Baltimore all these years later. That made it 6-3. And that seemed to end things for sure.

So, how many OMGs do we have already?

* * *

All right, let me interrupt very quickly to speak personally: The bottom of the eighth inning was one of the greatest sports moments of my life. I don’t say that as a writer. I say that as a Clevelander, as a lifelong Tribe fan who grew up idolizing Duane Kuiper, a second baseman who dived for every ground ball (including other people’s ground balls) and hit one glorious home run in his long career. I say that as a Clevelander who, until I was approaching 30 would have listed the greatest baseball moments of my lifetime as follows:

1. Len Barker’s perfect game.

2. Joe Charboneau’s rookie of the year season (when he hit 23 home runs and told stories of opening beer bottles with his eye sockets).

3. Cleveland making the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1987 with the banner headline, “Believe It! Cleveland is the Best Team in the American League” (I did believe it; they were not. They lost 100 games).

4. Jack Brohamer once playing catch with me.

5. Seeing Buddy Bell hit a long home run live and in person.

It’s not exactly a cavalcade of awesome, is it? After I got older, Cleveland did get very good, twice winning American League pennants with an all-time great lineup. But even that version of the Tribe fell short. Yes, the Cavaliers did break Cleveland’s championship drought in 2016, and it feels greedy to ask for more than that. But to see Cleveland’s baseball team win — that would be beyond words.

* * *

So, back to the bottom of the eighth, Cleveland was down three runs, two outs recorded, Chicago’s cyborg, Aroldis Chapman, in the game ready to throw 103 mph, and what hope is there really? Cleveland did have a runner on base, but they also had utility outfielder Brandon Guyer at the plate. Brandon Guyer basically excels at one thing: Getting hit by pitches. Who wants to watch a guy get hit by one of Chapman’s pitches?

Only then, on a full count, Guyer laced a double into the gap, scoring a run and cutting the deficit to two.

And up came: Rajai Davis. There was something interesting about Chapman — he wasn’t throwing 103 mph. Instead, his fastball was coming in at around 98 mph. This could have been exhaustion; Cubs manager Joe Maddon had somewhat inexplicably used Chapman the night before even though his team had a five-run lead at the time. It could have been nerves. It could have been just one of those things, but there is an ocean’s difference between a 103-mph fastball and a 98-mph fastball. The first is superhuman. The second is something major-league hitters see just about every night.

Davis fouled off a fastball … and another … and another … and another. Davis is a slap hitter, a player who all his career has relied on ground balls and great speed. But he’s 36 years old now and he taught himself a new trick here toward the end of his career: How to turn on an inside fastball.

Chapman threw him a 97-mph inside fastball.

And Davis turned on it.

And that was the happiest sports moment to actually happen IN Cleveland in at least a half-century.

Davis’ home run off Chapman was such a perfect moment it did not feel real. My phone buzzed and buzzed and buzzed, text after text after text, and do you know what EVERY SINGLE ONE of those texts said? “Oh my God.” There was nothing else to say.

As a Clevelander and as a storyteller, I’d like to leave it there, leave it at 6-6 in perpetuity, both teams winning their first championship in forever. But sports demand resolution, out or safe, touchdown or no, goal or save. So, we go on.

The game went into extra innings, and the rains came, and the Cubs players apparently gathered around and regained their sense of purpose. They will go down as one of the greatest teams ever now — 103-game winners in the regular season, enders of a whole slew of Chicago curses and all that. They scored two runs in the top of the tenth, helped — I’m sad to say — by two intentional walks from manager Terry Francona.

I loathe the intentional walk in all circumstances but particularly in these, when the game is on the line and the only goal is to use one of the sport’s loopholes to avoid facing the other team’s best hitters. Francona ordered Anthony Rizzo walked, and World Series MVP Ben Zobrist followed by rifling a ground ball past third base for a run-scoring double. After a second intentional walk, this one to Addison Russell, it was Chicago’s Miguel Montero who provided the single that scored Rizzo for the second run of the inning. That made it 8-6.

Cleveland did put a scare in the Cubs in the bottom of the inning because it was that kind of game, but in the last it came down to Michael Martinez facing Cubs reliever Mike Montgomery, only 26 years old but someone who kicked around in the minors for eight years and was traded three times. The fact that the final out of this epic poem came down to Montgomery vs. Martinez tells you that this was truly a game of attrition.

The temptation is to say this was a Series that neither team lost. Cleveland got to extra innings of a Game 7 even without their second and third starters — how far would the Cubs have gotten in these playoffs without Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta? Then, the Cubs came back from down 3-1 with the panicked shrieks of Chicago howling in their ears. You want to say that this was a triumph for both teams, but we all know that isn’t true. The Cubs’ drought is over. Cleveland’s baseball drought limps on.

Still, we had Game 7. This beautiful and boring and riveting and flawed game of baseball, invented by nobody and everybody, taught to children by Civil War soldiers, national pastime when America was ascending, symbol of hope for integration before Birmingham and “I Have A Dream,” this game of messy labor fights and various scandals but also of Henry Aaron and triples and hot dogs smeared with mustard, this game, even now, in the CGI world of 2016, this game can still grab us by the hearts.

Martinez nubbed a ground ball to Kris Bryant who smiled as he fielded it and threw across the diamond for the Cubs’ championship. And Jeff Garlin, along with countless others across America, shouted “Oh my God!” Because it’s baseball.

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