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The Best Team and the Best Story Won

The Cubs ended a 108-year championship drought as convincingly as possible. And they’re only going to get better.

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Some of the stories will say that it had to happen that way — that for the long-accursed Cubs to take home a title would require a rain-delayed, one-run, extra-inning win in a seven-game World Series. That in the course of the four hours and 28 minutes it took for one team to screw up slightly more than the other, both managers would have to make inexplicable mistakes. That a hitter nicknamed “Hulk” would have to steal a base after reaching on an infield single. That a retiring team leader would have to go deep against the 6-foot-7 stopper who’d been almost unblemished in October before that inning began, and that a speedster who hadn’t homered since August would tie it with one in the eighth against a guy acquired months earlier with only that moment in mind. That another hitter, who’d already homered, would try to drop down a two-strike bunt in the ninth with the go-ahead run on third, foul it off, and scream in frustration. That two runs would score on a wild pitch, which followed three errors and a pickoff. That after all the twists and turns, the “This is overs” and “No it’s nots,” the heavens would have to open up after nine innings, with both teams’ odds of victory tied at precisely 50 percent. That when it finally, unfathomably ended, one of the worst hitters in history would have to make the last out.

The truth is, though, that it didn’t have to happen like this:

It could have been a blowout. It could have been a sweep. In Chicago, no one would have cared. After 108 years without a World Series win, Cubs fans would have taken any kind of title. Fluke team that rolls right through the playoffs after topping a terrible division with 83 wins, like the 2006 Cardinals? Sure. Shameless team that buys a title by outbidding the rest of baseball, then immediately resells its stars, like the 1997 Marlins? Not ideal, but beggars, choosers, etc. Team that wins only because its opponent throws the World Series, like the 1919 Reds? Whatever. Flags fly forever.

Cubs fans would have settled for a so-so wild-card winner that snuck into an unexciting World Series, and they would have happily accepted a victory over a team that snuck into the playoffs and limped to a pennant. Instead, they won 113 times en route to a sloppily glorious Game 7, in which players, managers, and umpires alike made mistake after mistake but most of the Cubs’ mistake-makers redeemed themselves. That 10-inning classic, whose never-again nuances should be dissected for days, backed up a comeback from a 3–1 World Series deficit, the first in more than 30 years. The Cubs took down the Cleveland Indians, the only other team with a title drought whose notoriety could come anywhere close to comparing to theirs, and they did it despite that team looking unbeatable against its first two playoff opponents. For a final challenge, Chicago faced Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen, the trio that had entered the game with a combined 0.61 postseason ERA. Kluber and Miller had allowed four runs in 47 1/3 playoff innings; the Cubs solved them for six in 6 1/3.

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All of that small-sample intensity succeeded a six-month demonstration of the many ways in which a team can be good at baseball. The Cubs won with a club that was projected to be the best in the sport and still exceeded expectations (despite probably being unlucky). No team was better at hitting, and no team was better at run prevention. The Cubs even ranked among the best baserunning teams, as they reminded us in Game 7 with a Kris Bryant tag-up here and an Albert Almora tag-up there. You have to drill down to the level of individual pitch types to find something they didn’t do well.

If you like getting giddy at great results — sorting countless leaderboards and seeing the same name at the top — the Cubs were the team you obsessed over when you weren’t watching your own. If you prefer a sound process, the Cubs were your fantasy team too. Led by Theo Epstein, who’s earned a lifetime exemption from FCC fines, the Cubs took a truism known to every team — pitchers aren’t dependable — and instead of trying to win with attrition, made fungibility work in their favor. They drafted and developed more position players than they had places to put them, and they trusted in their smarts (and, OK, some cash) to fill out their staff with future Cy Young Award winners (Jake Arrieta; Kyle Hendricks?) who’d belonged to other teams. We can’t say they left nothing to chance, because it’s baseball — there’s always a lot left to chance. But they built a team too good for bad bounces alone to derail.

Now they have not only their first title in living memory, but something else almost as sweet: strong odds of adding a second (and, like the similarly slump-busting Red Sox, of not stopping there). The foundation of the 2016 team that slugged and stole and played unprecedented defense will be back and, if anything, better: Bryant, Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Jason Heyward, Javy Báez, Willson Contreras, and Almora were all in their age-26 seasons or younger. The front-office essentials are signed to extensions, and the Cubs can afford to keep their young core in place. The aces are older, but the Cubs have unearthed new aces before.

This is the start of a run that might make us sick of the Cubs; with one win, their perpetual underdog status was stripped away, with no one on the North Side sorry to see one of the sport’s most lasting legacies go. For now, though, the Cubs’ charisma makes it easy to empathize; when they weren’t beating us, it was tempting to smile along.

Is there any way in which it could have been better? Maybe the Cubs could have won with a cleaner conscience. Epstein could have tried to assemble a superteam without first being bad on purpose, but the Cubs aren’t the only team that’s benefited from tanking. And they could have won with, oh, Henry Rowengartner coming in for the save in place of the pitcher they picked up at the trade deadline, who was suspended to start this season following domestic violence allegations and whom they’ll probably discard via free agency soon. Then again, despite what the box score says, the Cubs weren’t winners because of Aroldis Chapman, whose overused arm had no life left. In Game 7, Chapman was the player who made them most likely to lose.

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This was the October when relievers evolved, as Terry Francona stretched and prodded his pen into a weapon that could compensate for a short-handed rotation — and, in the process, pressured his peers to adapt. All month, we wondered whether Miller and Chapman would crack under the late-season load; Game 7 gave us our answer. Miller, who’d perplexingly worked with a six-run lead in Game 4, looked mortal, and Chapman, whom Joe Maddon had even more oddly deployed in an all-but-over Game 6, was reduced to slinging sliders and hitting triple digits just once. The postseason started with one manager not using his best reliever; it nearly ended with two more managers using their best relievers too much. If November was the wall, though, the Cubs broke through it, with Maddon bailed out by his Tampa Bay brother Ben Zobrist, whose 10th-inning RBI double was, by championship win probability added, the 16th-biggest hit in World Series history — well behind Rajai Davis’s dinger, which ranks fourth.

On the field, at least, the Cubs won without weak points, asterisks, or reservations. They waited and waited, and when at long last they triumphed, they didn’t do it half-assed. Instead, they pursued the platonic ideal of a championship season. I won’t say whether the 2016 Cubs were worth the wait; that’s a question each Cubs fan has to answer for him or herself, filling in for the many whose vigil lasted so long that they’re no longer around to respond. But from an outsider’s perspective, there couldn’t have been a more convincing close to a drought that wore out its welcome. It’s not often, in baseball, that we get the grounds to say this, so savor it, folks: For once, both the best team and the best story won.