There is no shame in losing what might be remembered as the greatest baseball game of all time. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908 because they were deeper in their starting rotation and had better hitters in their lineup. They are worthy champions, and they had millions and millions of people rooting for them all across America.
But like other fans of the Cleveland Indians, I am crestfallen now. My team held a 3-1 lead in games and needed just one more victory for its first World Series title since 1948. Cleveland had two opportunities to celebrate a World Series crown on its home field for the first time since 1920. In those two games, the Indians never even held a lead; in fact, for most of the 19 innings played in Games 6 and 7, the home team trailed by multiple runs.
Yet in the bottom of the ninth inning, in one of those rare sporting events that transcend sports, all the Indians needed was one lousy run and they would have been champions.
Cubs 8, Indians 7. Just pressing the buttons to write those numbers hurts.
The Curse of the Billy Goat is over. The Curse of Rocky Colavito – or is it the Curse of Chief Wahoo? – lives on.
The last two times the Indians have played in a World Series, they lost Game 7 in extra innings. All other Major League Baseball franchises combined have seen their championship hopes die that particular way only twice. The Atlanta Braves lost 1-0 to the Minnesota Twins in the 10th inning of Game 7 in 1991, and the New York Giants lost 4-3 to the Washington Senators in the 12th inning of Game 7 in 1924. That’s it.
A handful of other ballclubs, most notably the 1986 Boston Red Sox and 2011 Texas Rangers, blew chances to win a World Series in extra innings in a Game 6. Cleveland, however, is plotting new courses on the choppy waters of postseason heartbreak. The Indians have played four games, one in 1997 and three in this Series, that would have clinched a world championship – and they lost all four. They have become baseball’s answer to the 1990s Buffalo Bills.
Even grown men struggle to cope with such a cruel fate. As Mike Hargrove, manager of the Indians team that lost to the Marlins in 11 after blowing a 2-1 lead in the ninth, told mlb.com columnist Tracy Ringolsby in the lead-up to this Series: “I had a guy ask me two months ago how long it took me to get over Game 7 and the way we lost it and I told him, ‘Well, just as soon as it happens, I’ll let you know.”
Mind you, the game to which Hargrove referred took place 19 years ago.
That’s what made this World Series so special. Both franchises were trying to exorcize the demons of their past. Both fan bases (including me) were haunted by memories of previous disappointments. Never before had a major sports championship been determined by two franchises that had gone a combined 176 years without one.
The end result was the most-watched baseball telecast of the Internet Age, a ballgame seen by multitudes who normally don’t pay much attention to America’s Pastime. An estimated television audience of 40.05 million tuned in, the most for baseball since 50.34 million viewers saw the Braves-Twins Game 7 of 1991. Wednesday’s overnight Nielsen rating was a whopping 25.2. Even the NBA Finals Game 7 this June drew just an 18.9.
And what a show those people saw. Books will be written about this game. Documentaries will be made about it. It had daring base-running, unexpected twists and turns, and the highest level of drama the game can offer. It was neither perfectly played – four errors, three by Chicago – nor perfectly managed – what was Joe Maddon thinking? Each team finished with more than 10 hits, and runs were scored in every inning but the second, seventh and ninth. This was one of those epic sporting events that will never be forgotten, and I feel honored to know that my team was a part of it.
The Indians brought further honor upon themselves by the way they persevered, in both this game and the postseason as a whole. They had the lowest payroll of the 10 teams in the playoff field, and their highest-paid player, star outfielder and former MVP candidate Michael Brantley, missed all but two weeks of the season. Injuries also shelved second and third starters Carlos Carrasco (for the entire postseason) and Danny Salazar (who could make only two cameo appearances in the Series). Yet the pitching staff somehow managed to dominate the Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays in the American League playoffs, then the Cubs for three victories, in an unlikely run to the brink of a championship. Before the World Series started, Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo announced on MLB Network that oddsmakers in Las Vegas had installed Cleveland as a 2-to-1 underdog. The Indians were short-handed, but they nearly pulled off what would have been a colossal upset.
As throngs of Clevelanders assembled on the plaza outside the ballpark, hoping for a celebration, the expectation was that for the Indians to win, pitching had to rule the day. Instead, the Chicago hitters did. Ace Corey Kluber and reliever Andrew Miller – whose postseason numbers prior to Wednesday ranked among the best ever – combined to give up six runs and 10 hits, three of them homers, over 6 1/3 innings. Even some of the outs they got were hit hard. After striking out eight batters in the first three innings of Game 1, Kluber, for the first time in his career, had an outing with no strikeouts at all. Against Kluber, Dexter Fowler became the first player to lead off Game 7 of a World Series with a home run. Against Miller, David Ross, at 39, became the oldest player ever to homer in a World Series Game 7.
But on a night when history was made several times over, Cleveland’s comeback was historic, too. With two Indians in scoring position in the fifth, Jason Kipnis hustled around the bases to score from second on a wild pitch, cutting the deficit to 5-3. It was just the third two-run wild pitch in postseason history – and the first since 1911.
Then there was Rajai Davis. Just as Carlton Fisk’s home run, in a losing cause in 1975, gave that great World Series its most enduring image, Davis’ two-run shot with two out in the eighth inning will be the most enduring image of this one. The speedy outfielder, who hadn’t gone deep in two months, jolted Cleveland into a sudden joyful frenzy by hitting the first tying home run in the eighth inning or later of a World Series Game 7.
If I ever get a chance to meet Rajai Davis, I want to thank him for giving me a thrill unlike any other I have experienced in more than 40 years as a sports fan. Cubs 6, Indians 6. Wow!
Now I was a true believer again, and much of the nation surely joined me in thinking that Cleveland was really going to win it all. Then, with a runner on third and two out in the top of the ninth, Fowler hit a grounder up the middle that looked eerily similar to Edgar Renteria’s single to center that decided Game 7 of the ’97 Series. Oh no, not again! Not this time. Shortstop Francisco Lindor made a dive, smothered the ball, and threw to first just in time to get Fowler.
The Indians had their best chance in the bottom of the ninth, when the top of the order came to bat against Aroldis Chapman. The fireballer from Cuba had just given up a home run for the first time since joining the Cubs in a trade in July, and he was worn out from being overused by Maddon over a three-game, four-day span. The second batter he would face, Kipnis, grew up a Cubs fan in the same suburban Chicago neighborhood as the infamous Steve Bartman. I thought about how jinxed the Cubs must be if the Indians’ second baseman were to win the Series with a walk-off shot for the ages. Davis’ tying blow and Lindor’s inning-ending play had me filled with hope, so much so that I wanted to believe I could make Kipnis hit a home run by the sheer force of my will. On the third pitch, when Kipnis made solid contact and pulled the ball, I exclaimed, “YES!” – only to see that the ball was a foul into the stands down the right-field line. Four pitches later, Kipnis struck out.
That’s as close as I’ve ever come to celebrating the Indians’ winning the World Series.
A sporting event of this magnitude can inspire people to seek divine intervention to influence the outcome. I must admit that prior to Game 7, I myself said a prayer for the Indians to win. However, I’m pretty sure that more people around the world were praying for the Cubs than for the Indians. I also remembered that years ago, a highlight show featuring the Cubs on a hot streak included a call by the legendary Harry Caray during which he announced on the air, “The Good Lord wants the Cubs to win.”
The way the game ended, it sure seemed that way.
In the eighth, Cleveland had strung together an infield single by Jose Ramirez, an RBI double by Brandon Guyer, and Davis’ heroic drive inside the left-field foul pole – all with two out. It appeared unlikely that the Cubs could recover from such a devastating collapse. Then, just as the Indians were seizing the momentum and electrifying their ballpark with positive energy, the rains came. After the final out in the bottom of the ninth, the suspense was suspended for 17 minutes, enough time for the Cubs to regain control of their emotions.
“I really feel like in some ways that rain delay was kind of divine intervention,” Chicago general manager Jed Hoyer said afterward. “The game was going really fast for us at that point. Dexter had just missed winning the game for us (in the ninth) – Lindor made a heck of a play. And to get that little break right there, it helped us a lot.”
Chapman, for one, was in tears, but the Chicago players, led by outfielder Jason Heyward, encouraged and supported one another during a brief clubhouse meeting. When play resumed, five of the first six batters reached base. The Cubs scored two runs in the 10th inning; the Indians, just one. Two days later, Chicago celebrated with a parade that had been nearly 11 decades in the making.
Ever since June, when the Cavaliers won the NBA crown to end the city’s 52-year sports-championship drought, my wife had been encouraging me by saying, “This is the year of Cleveland.” She turned out to be half-right. This was the year for Cleveland to be part of two unforgettable, historic championship series in which the winner came back from a 3-games-to-1 deficit to achieve something that hadn’t been done in a long, long time.
For the city in northeast Ohio that was once an industrial juggernaut, the wait for a World Series championship is now at 68 years and counting. That’s as long as the New York Rangers’ 1940-1994 Stanley Cup drought, with the entire lifespan of an adolescent added on. Perhaps if the Indians replace their Chief Wahoo logo, which some find offensive, they will replace the Cubs as the most popular sentimental favorite in all of sports.
I still have faith that the “Believeland Windians” will someday win the World Series. But as Cubs fans could tell me, there’s no guarantee I’ll live long enough to witness it.
Sources: deadline.com, FOX Sports, mlb.com.
Filed November 4, 2016