David Ross, the grandfatherly catcher, admits to never having paid much attention in history class. Kris Bryant, the precocious young slugger, isn’t much for math, struggling to count back the years since the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series.
For a franchise so saddled by its own history — of bad baseball, bad breaks and billy goat curses — the latest iteration of the Cubs has carried on in a blissful cocoon of ignorance.
“History doesn’t really weigh on this club,” Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president for baseball operations, said before Game 6 on Saturday. “We’re just trying to win tonight’s game. These guys, a lot of them are in their early 20s, and they’re not burdened by that stuff. The organization isn’t. It’s just about trying to win and keeping it simple.”
In the end, doing simple better, to use one of Manager Joe Maddon’s pet phrases, carried the Cubs all the way to the World Series for the first time since 1945.
The Cubs got there with a 5-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers and their fearsome ace, Clayton Kershaw. The Cubs jumped on him early, added home runs from Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo, and protected the lead with artful pitching from Kyle Hendricks, who allowed just two hits over seven and a third innings.
The Cubs’ opponent in the World Series will be another team with a history of hard luck: the Cleveland Indians, who have not won a championship since 1948. Their futility, of course, pales next to that of the Cubs, who have not won a World Series since 1908. But when the Series begins in Cleveland on Tuesday night, someone’s long wait will be near an end.
“Magic number’s four — four games,” Rizzo said. “Cleveland, that city is deserving of the World Series, too. This is going to be a clash of two cities with a long drought and this is really good for baseball. It’s going to be amazing.”
When a 6-4-3 double play ended it — Russell to Baez to Rizzo echoing Tinkers to Evers to Chance — the Cubs poured out of the third-base dugout and mobbed each other on the infield as Wrigley Field shook to its century-old foundation.
For close to an hour, most of the capacity crowd stayed in place, soaking in the scene and singing along with the team’s victory anthems — “Go Cubs Go” and “Sweet Home Chicago” — as the players celebrated on the field.
“There’s a lot of pent up angst and emotion in this city and really all over this nation, Cubs fans that have been loyal over the years,” left fielder Ben Zobrist said. “We know that, but the bottom line is you have to execute at the right time and stay here in 2016. These guys have done it all year long with all the expectations on our backs.”
The Cubs rolled to the best regular-season record in the major leagues, winning 103 games and clinching a division title with more than two weeks to play, but they have had to prove their mettle in the playoffs.
In their division series, they rallied from three runs down in the ninth inning to finish off battle-tested San Francisco, which had won a record 10 consecutive elimination games. And in the National League Championship Series, after being shut out in back-to-back games, the Cubs bounced back from a two-games-to-one deficit.
The pivot point for the turnaround was a fittingly simple play: Zobrist’s bunt, which was their first hit of Game 4. It started a four-run rally in the fourth inning, and the Cubs scored 23 runs in winning the final three games.
“That’s the butterfly effect right there,” Maddon said. “It was a bunt this year.”
Although the Cubs were home on Saturday, with a loud, insistent Wrigley Field crowd urging them on, they knew it would not be easy to beat Kershaw, who had shut them out in Game 2 at Wrigley Field, allowing just two hits in seven innings.
They would also have to beat back history. The last time the Cubs had been in this position — playing a Game 6 at home in 2003, needing one victory to capture the National League pennant — they had unraveled, blowing a 3-0 lead to the Florida Marlins after a fan named Steve Bartman interfered with a foul ball.
On Saturday night, the seat down the left-field line that had been occupied by Bartman — Section 104, Row 8, Seat 113 — was empty until just before game time.
“I sat in it,” said Nancy Mazzone, whose seat was one row in front. “I felt not-bad vibes. It’s all good.”
When a fan arrived to sit in the so-called Bartman seat, he identified himself as Bryan. He said he was 38 and worked for a family-entertainment company, and he was wearing a No. 14 cap in deference to Ernie Banks, one of the great Cubs players who never made it to the World Series.
Bryan was asked by one of a half-dozen reporters present if he knew the history of the seat he was now occupying.
“I kind of do now,” he said. “We’re going to stay out of the way.”
The mix of anxiety and anticipation was hard to ignore as the crowd filtered into the old ballpark. The Cubs had been on the brink before, not just in 2003, but in 1984 when they needed one win over the San Diego Padres to reach the World Series, but lost three in a row.
“I don’t want to have to say next year — not again,” said Kristine Fuller, 70, a retired nurse whose children chipped in to buy her a ticket to Saturday’s game.
As it turned out, it was not the Cubs who were overcome by jitters, but the Dodgers. Left fielder Andrew Toles dropped a fly ball that led to a run in the first, and Josh Reddick was picked off first base in the second.
The baby-faced Hendricks, who graduated from Dartmouth with an economics degree, has made a career out of a pinpoint but pedestrian fastball and operating in the shadows — all the way back to high school when it was his teammate, Tyler Matzek, who was chosen 11th overall in the draft.
Hendricks had not lasted more than five and a third innings in four previous playoff starts, but he was masterly Saturday night. He allowed a single to Toles on the first pitch of the game, but on the second pitch, Hendricks, who induced more soft contact than any pitcher in baseball this season, got Corey Seager to ground into a double play.
“Kyle pitched a perfect game,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said.
Hendricks did not allow another hit until Reddick singled with one out in the eighth.
Maddon then strolled out to the mound to a chorus of boos and replaced Hendricks with closer Aroldis Chapman. The first batter Chapman faced — pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick — hit a line drive that second baseman Javier Baez alertly fielded on a short-hop instead of catching it on the fly, which allowed him to turn an easy double play and end the inning.
“The outside forces felt different,” Hendricks said. “You felt the buzz around the stadium, definitely the energy. It was loud in there. At the end of the day, all I was trying to do was simplify and make good pitches. I was able to stay in that zone, kind of stay in my bubble.”
The Cubs showed no deference toward Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young Award winner. Dexter Fowler lofted a fly ball down the right side that bounced just inside the line and into the stands for a ground-rule double to start off the bottom of the first. Bryant followed with a line-drive single to right, scoring Fowler with the only run the Cubs would need.
After Toles dropped Rizzo’s fly ball, Zobrist hit a sacrifice fly to score Bryant, and the Cubs had what seemed like a gift: an early advantage that would limit any anxiety from the crowd.
In the second, Fowler, a .409 career hitter against Kershaw — the highest mark of any active player — hit a two-out single. That scored Addison Russell, who had rattled a double off the left-field wall, and gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead.
Contreras hit a solo home run in the fourth, ripping a line drive down the line that he celebrated with a bat flip, although the ball barely cleared the wall. When Rizzo homered to right-center in the fifth, Kershaw sank to his knees and exclaimed, “No!”
That made the score 5-0. All that was left was for Hendricks to continue carving up the Dodgers and for Chapman to finish them off. The fans passed the time with a rousing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and rose to their feet for the entire top of the ninth, bellowing, “Let’s go, Cubbies.”
By then, there was little anxiety — only anticipation, with some fans wiping away tears and others crossing their fingers until, finally, Yasiel Puig hit a slow bouncing ball with one out.
When Rizzo took the throw from Baez, who had been fed by Russell, the celebration that was generations in the making commenced.
It seemed to be worth the wait.