I have attended 136 World Series games over three decades, 135 as a frantic sportswriter squirming to file a story on deadline — and one as a Chicago Cubs fan living the dream.
The dream was realized on Oct. 28, 2016, when the Cubs served as the home team in the Fall Classic for the first time since 1945. I scored a standing-room pass and secured a spot behind the grandstand seats along the right-field line, where I met some kids just out of college.
One had from flown in from Denver. The other had been granted permission to suspend his honeymoon at a mountain resort in the Canadian Rockies. Talk about a guy on a roll: Not only had he obtained a standing-room ticket to a World Series game at Wrigley Field, he had married the perfect woman.
As vantage points go, it was a bit compromised. Whenever the Cubs threatened to do something at the plate — say, work the count to 2-1 — the fans in front of the standing-room section stood up as well, requiring those of us shorter than 6-feet-8 to imagine the scene. Having grown up following the world’s most futile professional sports team, I knew that drill.
Besides, I was there not so much to watch but to savor the experience, which meant making an entire day out of a night game. Some other fans — like, tens of thousands of them — had the same idea. By noon, every restaurant within a half-mile of Wrigley Field was packed, even though many were demanding a $100 cover charge.
I finally found a place, somewhere near the border between Illinois and Wisconsin, where a bar stool was available at no cost.
“Thank you, God,” I said to myself, but I’m not sure God was listening. God was busy tinkering with the weather, arranging an unseasonably mild evening that found the American flag atop the center field scoreboard flapping in a 35-mph gust out of the Southwest.
A hitter’s paradise, in other words. Any ball lofted into the jet stream was destined to end up in the bleachers.
But between the electricity of the scene and the temptation to connect for an easy home run, the Cubs, whose lineup is stocked with free swingers yet to turn 30, were unable to hit a ball as far as the warning track.
They lost, 1-0, giving the Cleveland Indians a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-seven format. Although I had standing-room access for the next two games in Chicago — as well as the two “if necessary” games in Cleveland — I chose to watch the rest of the Series with family and friends.
Another ride on the Red Line from the North Side to downtown Chicago meant standing in a train car, squashed with strangers. I’m OK with interacting with strangers, but when they’re so close to me I can feel their hearts beat, television presents an appealing option.
The Cubs lost the next night, putting themselves in the kind of 3-1 deficit that augers imminent doom.
“You can’t win three in a row in one game,” I told anybody in my life who was asking if they still had a chance — and everybody in my life was asking if they still had a chance. “Win one, relax, get away from the home-crowd pressure cooker, and just play ball.”
Which is what happened. The Cubs stayed alive in Game 5 and took the Series back to Cleveland, where they stopped hacking at low-and-outside junk in the anticipation of seeing pitches they could handle.
But baseball being baseball, there had to be a weird twist. Just as his hitters composed themselves, manager Joe Maddon revealed his mad-scientist side, taxing the arm of closer Aroldis Chapman in a Game 6 blowout.
For a few hours, Game 7 had the look of an Easy Street conclusion to an inspired comeback, but Maddon gave a way-too-early hook to Kyle Hendricks, who was relieved by fellow starter Jon Lester, who gave way to the very gassed Chapman.
Offered a Chapman fastball absent its ferocious velocity, Rajai Davis hit the two-run, eighth-inning homer that tied the score at 6-6, which it remained through the ninth. And then came rain.
As the grounds crew rolled out the tarp, I was certain the Series would be decided by a prime-time, extra-innings showdown the following night.
“Take me somewhere,” I told my brother. We’d been watching Game 7 at our sister’s house, and he was looking at a 25-minute drive home.
He dropped me off somewhere with eight TV screens and nowhere to sit. But the tarp was off the field. There would be no tomorrow.
The Cubs scored twice in the top of the 10th. Cleveland responded with a rally that pushed one run across the plate and forced reliever Mike Montgomery — acquired in a midseason trade with the Mariners — to make the most meaningful pitch in Cubs history.
The pitch turned out like this: A routine grounder to third, so routine that Kris Bryant smiled as he delivered his throw to first.
I hugged somebody to my left, somebody to my right. We didn’t know each other, and we’d never meet again, but we hugged.
It ranked as the moment of the year — the moment of a lifetime — surpassed only by a grocery store line in the morning. Seems all the newspapers were sold out, and the next batch was minutes away.
When the papers arrived, I noticed the Chicago Sun Times needed only four words, on a front-page headline, to grasp the essence of my most treasured memory of 2016.
The headline read: “What A Wonderful World.”
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath