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Hope Is All We Have

The Cubs beat the Indians in a classic Game 7 of the World Series, capping a magical season and helping one fan rediscover what baseball can mean for a father and son

My parents’ house sits on an acre and a half of land about 45 miles outside of Chicago. Cutting the grass there was my job for a while, until I drove our forest green John Deere riding mower straight into an oak tree. My dad took over after that, and he always made sure that the three-hour trip around the lot coincided with daytime Cubs games.

He listened on a yellow-and-black Panasonic tape player that happened to have an AM/FM radio. It was a hardy machine, designed for construction workers and at least a decade old by the time that Mark Prior landed on the Cubs. Technology never mattered much to my dad; his friends used to joke that his cellphone didn’t dial out.

In the year before he died of brain cancer, my dad used another, smaller tape player to record the thoughts he wanted to leave for my two younger brothers and me. He told the stories of his life, stories I’d heard for 20 years, but ones he felt I needed to hear again. He recited the aphorisms I’d heard throughout my childhood, the lessons that he felt we needed most.

Before Wednesday, it had been years since I listened to those tapes. As much as I loved hearing his voice, the sound of it always crushed me. He seemed so tired, so broken. But as I sat in my apartment, watching the clock tick by in the hours before the Cubs were set to play in Game 7 of the World Series, I knew I had to dig into my closet to find them. I wish I could say I think about my father every day, but that isn’t true. As time goes by, the distance between us grows. Over these past seven months, though, as I made countless trips to Wrigley Field during my first full summer living in Chicago, I’ve felt him more than I have in a long time.

As I listened, I heard sayings that were familiar when I was young. "The harder you work, the luckier you get" was his favorite. About 15 minutes into the tape, my dad started talking about hope. He wondered what place it had, knowing that he had only a few months to live. He wondered if all the trips to the doctor, all the pills, all the poison, were worth it. As his voice cracked and his chest heaved, he said words that replayed in my head all night. "Hope," he said, "is all we have."

I will admit that I’m a bad Cubs fan. Our family had season tickets when I was a kid, and my reaction to shaking hands with Mark Grace, years later when I was an intern at the Boston Globe, remains my most unprofessional moment in a press box. Growing up, the Cubs were a fixture of my summers, but mostly they connected me with my father at a time when little else could. During the 2003 season, I was 16 and an insufferable asshole of a teenager who railed against him with everything I had. In those days, when we seemed to have nothing to talk about, a chat about Kerry Wood always helped to mend whatever tear had formed.

Before last spring, though, it had been seven years since I’d watched a Cubs game from start to finish. It was Game 3 of the 2008 NLDS, a 3–1 loss at Dodger Stadium that completed a sweep orchestrated mostly by Manny Ramírez hitting home runs off his shoe tops. My father died a month into the 2009 season. Without him, baseball just didn’t feel the same.

Kris Bryant (Getty Images)
Kris Bryant (Getty Images)

Another Chicago team brought me back to the city in April 2015. With the Bulls playing the Bucks in the first round of the NBA playoffs, I came to town to cover the series. One of my first days back was April 17. The Cubs happened to be hosting the Padres that afternoon, and all week I’d heard about a hitting prodigy named Kris Bryant, who was set to make his major league debut. Bryant went 0-for-4 — with three strikeouts — in a 5–4 Cubs loss. It was a forgettable outing, but as I took in my first game in nearly a decade, it was hard not to notice the ripple that went through the crowd every time Bryant stepped to the plate.

When I moved back to Chicago three months later, the city was already in the throes of Cubs mania. Catcher Miguel Montero had declared that spring that "We are good," and the North Side seemed to believe him. As future Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta mowed down the National League in the second half of the season, and every surefire Cubs prospect — from Bryant to Javier Báez to Kyle Schwarber — had his moment, it was easy to fall hard for the once-lovable-losers. When the Cubs played the Cardinals in Game 4 of the 2015 NLDS, I changed my flight out of LaGuardia and spent 10 hours in the terminal to ensure that I didn’t miss a pitch. In the moments after Schwarber clubbed a home run into Lake Michigan, I’m fairly certain airport security was on call.

This summer, I dove headfirst into the Cubs. I made it to 20 games during the regular season, and another four during the playoffs. I watched every game I could, and made trips to Clark Street Ale House when the negotiating battle between Dish Network and WGN robbed me of broadcasts. Every visit to Wrigley was a reminder of why I fell in love with the Cubs when I was young, and as I stood in Section 228 during Game 6 of this year’s NLCS, I couldn’t help but think about my dad, bouncing on that mower, Pat Hughes and Ron Santo coursing through his ears.

I started thinking about him during the seventh inning Wednesday night. The Cubs were up 6–3, and Bryant had just popped a ball foul behind home plate. It didn’t make sense that such a throwaway moment would trigger me that way, but nothing about sports and how we feel about them ever makes much sense.

Watching Bryant all season and knowing that Cubs fans and the baseball world were taking in the early days of what’s sure to be a special career was probably the best part of my summer, but it was only one piece of a magical seven-month run. I’ll never forget sitting at Parlor Pizza in the West Loop on May 8 and watching Báez hit a walk-off home run against the Nationals while wearing pink cleats. I was at Wrigley twice during Ben Zobrist’s tear in early May. I was there to see Kyle Hendricks start at least five games, and eventually, the jokes about him doing my taxes gave way to an understanding that he’d become one of the best pitchers in baseball.

The joy that Chicago derived from this Cubs team came mostly from the 103 wins and the knowledge that this was the best team in the majors, but this group also made it easy. These Cubs were fun, and Wednesday night I got to watch the team that made me fall in love with baseball again — the team throwing punches on the base paths, with Javy hitting tape-measure bombs and Grandpa Ross making the end of his career count and Zobrist never flinching and roaring into the sky — win the World Series.

There were moments of doubt, both during the last week and at times Wednesday night. When Rajai Davis uncorked his eighth-inning, two-run shot over the railing in left field, our group of 20 watching at my best friend’s apartment a block from Wrigley Field fell silent. We spent the next several minutes bitching about Joe Maddon’s Game 6 strategy, whining about his decision to yank Jon Lester, lamenting that after months of having to hedge our morality to root for Aroldis Chapman, who was suspended earlier this year under MLB’s domestic violence policy, he was the one to toss the Cubs’ season away.

Robert Mays
Robert Mays

Our resignation didn’t last long, though. Just like after the Cubs dropped Game 4, the mood quickly turned. There was no reason to give up, and with Schwarber, Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo due up in the top of the 10th, that feeling of optimism was pervasive. When Schwarber ripped a leadoff single into right, the room erupted. When Bryant advanced pinch runner Albert Almora Jr. to second on a sacrifice fly to center, there were high-fives around. And when Zobrist rocketed a double down the third-base line, we all knew this was it.

I alternated between screaming and holding back tears in the bottom of the 10th. Mike Montgomery’s trip to the mound after Carl Edwards Jr. stumbled created a stir, then so much more. I could barely watch when Michael Martínez pounded a ground ball into the dirt, and as the ball rolled into Bryant’s glove, I dropped my head and started to cry.

About an hour after the madness began, my younger brother found his way to where we were. Less than a week earlier, when I confirmed that I had two tickets to Game 4, he was the first person I asked to go. That was a somber night, a 7–2 Cubs loss, but as we walked back to the Addison stop on the L, I started envisioning how the Cubs could still pull this off.

Before he went home in the early morning, my brother stretched out his arms and pulled me close. "Dad," he said, "would love this." I nodded, tears welling in my eyes. "He would have," I said. All I could think about was the words I’d heard on that tape, words that defined this week and the past century of watching and loving the Cubs. Hope is all we have.

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