I called it the Code Blue Series when the contestants were confirmed. One team that hadn’t won the World Series since the premieres of cellophane, the Geiger counter, and the Model T Ford. The other, a team that hadn’t won the Series since the threshold of the Berlin Airlift.
“I’m sleeping with this thing tonight,” crowed Anthony Rizzo, speaking post-game, about the double play ball he caught on the relay to start Chicago’s post-National League Championship Series parties. “Are you kidding me?”
The same Rizzo who clung to the dugout rail in Game Seven of that surreal 2016 World Series, admitting to teammate and eventual manager David Ross that he was on the brink of his nineteenth nervous breakdown.
“I can’t control myself right now. I’m trying my best,” Rizzo said.
“It’s understandably so, buddy,” Ross replied, with a very knowing smile. He’d been there, done that, with the 2013 Red Sox.
“I’m emotional,” Rizzo admitted.
“I hear ya,” Grandpa Rossy replied.
“I’m an emotional wreck.”
“Well, it’s only going to get worse,” Ross advised. “Just continue to breathe. That’s all you can do, buddy. It’s only gonna get worse . . . Wait until the ninth with this three-run lead.”
Once upon a time, possibly thanks to Chicago newspaper legend Mike Royko, the maxim was that the teams with the most ex-Cubs lost. That was then, this was the 2016 Series: The Cubs—the team with the fewest ex-Cubs and the most ex-Red Sox—won. After a couple of that-almost-figures hair-raisers, none raising more hair than Game Seven.
Now, third baseman Kris Bryant—subject to the most trade rumours the past two years—is traded to the National League West-surprising Giants. Shortstop Javy Baez is traded to the National League East-leading-almost-by-default Mets, where he’ll gladly play second base for the chance to hold the keystone with his buddy Francisco Lindor at short. And first baseman Rizzo has become a Yankee.
The 2016 core is gone, Cubs, gone. Four men from that team now remain.
Ross retired as a player after that Series triumph and has managed them since last season, having days enough now when he must think Lucifer’s practical jokers have made him a too-frequent target. Right fielder Jason Heyward’s stellar defense once atoned for his feeble bat, but he isn’t quite the defender he used to be even if he’s still a shade above the league average for run prevention. Catcher Willson Contreras remains a mainstay and leads the team with his 3.2 wins above replacement-level.
And Kyle Hendricks, who pitched magnficently enough in the 2016 Series, leads this year’s Cub rotation with an ERA two ticks from four despite his twelve credited wins.
The Cubs approached Friday’s trade deadline all-in on selling while the selling was good, because their National League Central chances were anything but and the last of the true core was due to hit the open market. And the team administration has a lot to atone for, for having failed to fortify the team viably in the seasons to follow the 2016 heights.
It’s still too telling that the single most fun moment in Cubs baseball this season came from Rizzo, the first baseman taking the mound on the wrong end of a blowout, striking out his Braves buddy Freddie Freeman to laughs all around the park—especially between those two.
If the Dodgers hadn’t swept in and swept the Padres to one side in the Max Scherzer lottery, the Great Cub Fire Sale might have dominated the proceedings entirely.
But it’s hard not to think about that World Series now that Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez are gone at last. Especially after Rizzo made an almost immediate impression with his new team Friday night. (Yankee announcer Michael Kay called Rizzo “the linch pin” of the 2016 Cubs.) He broke a scoreless tie between the Yankees and the Marlins by sending a 1-0 hanging cutter into the second deck behind right field in the top of the sixth. (The Yankees went on to win, 3-1.)
It’s hard not to remember Dexter Fowler’s eighth-inning home run off then-Indians relief ace Andrew Miller in Game Four. Making Fowler the first Cub to hit a World Series homer in Wrigley since Chuck Klein—in 1935. And, making him the first African-American Cub to hit a World Series homer ever.
It’s hard not to remember Bryant—with the Indians six innings from the Promised Land— parking a 1-1 pitch into the left center field bleachers off then-Indian Trevor Bauer to start turning the mostly quiet Confines crowd on the Chicago leg of the Series into a nuclear meltdown of joy in Game Five.
It’s hard not to remember Rizzo and eventual Series MVP Ben Zobrist scoring in the first in Game Six, after Indians outfielders Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall misread and misplayed Addison Russell’s shuttlecock fly to right center. Or, after the Cubs loaded the bases to push Indians starter Josh Tomlin out, Indians reliever Dan Otero feeding Russell grand salami with mustard.
It’s hard not to remember Jake Arrieta pitching to Naquin with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the fourth, same game, and striking Naquin out on one of the nastiest divers Arrieta ever threw in his life.
It’s hard not to remember Game Seven, especially. When Ross had to atone for a horrible throwing error past Rizzo one inning by smashing a one-out homer the next. When the late rain delay prompted Heyward’s clubhouse pep speech.
When Rizzo took the free pass in the top of the tenth, took third on an RBI double, and scored after another intentional walk and a base hit to left—the base hit being Miguel Montero’s second-most important bases-loaded hit for the Cubs that postseason.
When Bryant picked off Michael Martinez’s short grounder on the dead run, with two out and a run in to close the Cub lead to a single run, then threw a little off balance and herky-jerky at that to first—and Rizzo snapped the ball in his mitt as dearly as he might have clung to the Hope Diamond after a daring heist.
Russell forced himself off the Cubs and out of the Show entirely in due course, after the sick case of his abuse of his wife exploded into headlines and forced his suspension. He played in the Korean Baseball Organisation last year and plays in the Mexican League this year.
Montero talked his way out of Chicago. First, he complained about his loss of 2016 postseason playing time to Ross and Willson Contreras behind the plate. Then, in 2017, he was gone for good after blaming Arrieta publicly for the Nats running wild on his arm on the bases in a June game. Two subsequent hiccups of comeback bids with the Blue Jays and the Nationals—retired.
Zobrist, who came to the 2016 Cubs after winning the 2015 Series with the Royals—a down 2017, a comeback 2018, retired after 2019. Now, he’s undergoing a painfully public divorce in which his wife’s accused of having an affair with the minister they engaged for marital counseling in the first place.
Arrieta—allowed to walk as a free agent after a 2017 that began his still-ongoing decline phase. Jon Lester, who somehow got past his throwing issues to first base and stood tall enough when it counted—now a National-turned-Cardinal. John Lackey, pitching for his third different Series winner—retired after fifteen seasons and a down 2017. Aroldis Chapman, the howitzer relief pitcher but a domestic abuser himself—a Yankee since 2017.
This week? The Cubs’ place in the race was probably sealed for the season when they lost eleven straight from 25 June through 6 July, but seven of the eight players they moved by Friday’s deadline also stand to hit the open market after the season. Resurgent relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel—dealt to the crosstown White Sox and right back into the races—has a 2022 option.
Maybe the real end of this generation of Cub contenders came in 2018, during the second half of which they lost 22 games in which they scored one or none. Including the humiliations of scoring a measly two runs in back-to-back losses that cost them the NL Central title and the NL wild card in one thirtysomething-hour period.
Maybe it was sealed once and for all by 2019, when they lost a pair of humiliating series in the last two regular season weekends and, as ESPN writer Jesse Rogers observed, the Joe Maddon era ended when the skipper “wasn’t able to out-manage the mistakes the front office saddled him with.”
“The Ricketts family had cut back on payroll spending while continuing to use Wrigleyville as a private cash machine,” writes the redoubtable veteran scribe Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times. “The franchise didn’t keep up with other contenders in terms of on-field talent. It settled for being very good instead of great. The idea—always—is to win. Cubs fans got that, which is why they were irritated when the club didn’t get a whiff of the World Series again.”
Maybe that was what irritated the remake/remodel/re-conquer mastermind Theo Epstein enough at last to swap the Cubs’ front office for a gig in the commissioner’s office, where he now works helping to get baseball back to where it once belonged, a balance between pitching and hitting. He won’t have his hands tied by ownership caprice anymore. We think.
It stung when Ross kept Bryzzo out of the Thursday lineup at home, denying them a final appearance before the Wrigley faithful. He said Rizzo already had the day off pre-planned and was concerned about giving Bryant’s legs a rest. Cub Country didn’t need anyone to say maybe the front office handed Grandpa Rossy an order the better to keep the deals to come from being wrecked.
We saw Bryant in tears on his cell phone in the Cubs dugout at Nationals Park Friday, receiving the news he was going west. We saw Rizzo taking his young family to walk the Wrigley Field grounds one more time the day before, before he went east. Those sights will linger for Cub Country almost as vividly as Bryan’s off balance pick and throw of Martinez’s grounder to Rizzo to finish 2016 will. (This is gonna be a tough play, Bryant—the Cubs! Win the World Series! hollered announcer Joe Buck.)
President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer says the deals helped the Cubs duck a complete rebuild thanks to the youth the deals bring back. “Was it emotionally difficult? Yes,” he said to Rogers. “Do I think it was absolutely the right thing for the organization? I do.”
Nature of the beast. Hoyer was only too well aware of other teams going all the way to the end of their team control only to require years of rebuilding. Teams like the Phillies, the Tigers, and the Giants, the last of whom have begun making noise that’ll be amplified a bit with Bryant on board.
“They ran to the end of the cliff and fell off and they had to rebuild,” he continued. “We were willing to go to that point if this was a winning team this year, but we weren’t, so with that we were able to speed that process up dramatically.”
But going from “Go, Cubs, Go!” to gone, Cubs, gone, still stings. Even if we’ll always have 2016.