Chicago gives World Series a classic 'Second City' welcome

After perhaps too much pomp and hassle, the Cubs played the first World Series game on Chicago's North Side in 71 years Friday. And lost. Their consolation? They get to do it again Saturday night. 

Nam Y. Huh/AP
Chicago Cubs fans watch during the ninth inning of Game 3 of the Major League Baseball World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians Friday in Chicago.

As the World Series swept into Wrigley Field for the first time in 71 years on Friday, the Chicago Cubs and the Windy City greeted the rare and long-pined-for spotlight with open arms and a fun-loving spirit – while also taking a moment to shake their heads and grouse a bit.

The game ended in dramatic (a perhaps typically Cubs) fashion with second baseman Javier Baez striking out with the winning run at second base. The long-awaited resumption of World Series play on Chicago's North Side ended with a 1-0 Cleveland Indians win. 

But for the hours and days before the first pitch – and even during the game – the city itself was a key part of the drama. The stage was finally set: What would an event seven decades in the making actually feel like when it arrived?  

It was a characteristic introduction for a city known for both relishing and bemoaning its Second City status. 

All in all, Chicago knows how to put put on a good showcase, and it did so with whimsy before Game 3 against the Indians. The downtown skyline shimmered Cub blue and red all week after the sun set. The brachiosaurus skeleton outside the Field Museum got into the act, donning an ill-fitting jersey on his skinny 75-foot frame. The Art Institute’s lions followed suit, fit with enormous Cubs caps on top of their manes. The Cubs’ white “W” flag billowed ubiquitously, even flapping in the rareified air outside the Opera House.

The good cheer extended to the the world’s most famous White Sox fan, President Barack Obama, who tweeted after the Cubs headed to the Series, “I'll say it: Holy Cow, @Cubs fans. Even this White Sox fan was happy to see Wrigley rocking last night. #FlyTheW.”

The Cubs relished the chance for the homestand.

“It's going to be an absolute blast,” said the usually understated Cubs manager Joe Maddon before the game. “I know that people have been waiting for this for a long time are going to savor it.”

And they did – eventually. But not without the too-familiar bouts of self-doubt and grumping.

'Schwarbummed' City

First, after a convincing Game 2 win, the Cubs had a hero in the form of Kyle Schwarber, a star who suffered a brutal collision in the third game of the season and was deemed out for the year with a knee injury. He shocked everyone by coming back for the World Series, including a Game 2 performance in Cleveland when he drove in two runs as the designated hitter.

Schwarber, looking like the 23-year-old prodigy the team had missed, was surely the factor that would propel the Cubs to their first title since 1908.

Those who have followed a franchise that has had only the briefest and most unsatisfactory flashes of success are never truly surprised by anything, but, still, the city was crestfallen when team doctors said Schwarber could not play outfield in Game 3 in Chicago and would be relegated to a pinch-hitter. “Schwarbummed,” the Chicago Sun-Times intoned.

Cubs fans even joined their nemesis White Sox brethren in scratching their heads over why national media couldn’t seem to remember that Chicago has celebrated a World Series title recently – when the South Side Sox won in 2005. The city’s elected alderman complained about rules preventing them from accepting tickets to World Series games. Ticket prices soared to astronomical heights, with a pair of dugout seats reportedly going for around $150,000. And the bars around Wrigley Field, favorites of a loyal fan base that has long relied on them as the best perches outside the vaunted stadium, outraged people by charging, in some cases, more than $1,000 cover – just to reserve a spot by a TV.

If this was the price of success, surely, this isn’t what long-suffering Cubs fans deserved.

Nonetheless, a “Cubs” spirit survived. At Nisei, a dive bar with a loyal following located about a block from Wrigley, managers eschewed the high prices and reached out to their regulars to get them a reserved spot, no charge. They weren’t the only ones.

“This is madness,” Nisei’s so-called “baseball operations manager,” Pat Odon, said a few hours before the start of the game Friday. Earlier, he had begged people to stop messaging him on Facebook, many calling the bar and offering hundreds on the spot to reserve space. The calls and messages had been ceaseless nonetheless, and few realized that Nisei doesn’t have a kitchen. To please some, managers ordered in pizzas.

He said the bar could charge exorbitant prices. But it’s not their way. “We want to take care of the people who took care of us … including [coming to watch games] during some of the worst teams in Cubs history,” Odon said.

Uncharacteristic optimism and familiar defeat

Rich Janor stood in front of Wrigley’s iconic red marquee in a white mask, white cape and full-body tights, a big “W” written on the shirt. He referred to himself as “W-man.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” he said about the Cubs. “They have to win.”

Inside, Shelly Gauss, an 80-year-old Cubs usher, said of the crowds around him: “The fans have come out of the woodwork!”

He’s one of those, among many, with a particular and uncharacteristic optimism. It feels like the right team at the right time, he said. Still, “just getting here [to the Series] is enough right now,” he said.

As fans settled in, the nervousness subsided, the ticket prices already in the distant past. The clear, picturesque night hovered in the low 60s, and a few players came out and threw balls into the stands and revved up the crowd in the immaculate outfield. The wind in the Friendly Confines blew out – a good omen for Cubs bats, no doubt. Everyone relaxed as the best team in baseball took the field.

And as the Cubs remained hitless and scoreless inning after inning, they still managed to work themselves out of jam after jam and keep the Indians off the board. That is until the seventh inning, when Cleveland pinch-hitter Coco Crisp drove in a run for the Indians. When Schwarber came to pinch hit in the eighth inning, it seemed pre-written – a home run from the hero of the series to even the game. Instead, he popped out meekly to the second baseman. The bats failed the hometown Cubbies again – in all four of the team’s playoff losses this year, they have been shut out.

And for the fans, all the pomp and high prices seemed for naught in that moment. “With this wind, we could have hit one out!” one fan said to friends as he exited. They piled into interminable lines, the new price of success, and made their way toward cars or the El, a sad bunch, the elation of the National League pennant win seemingly in the distant past.

But then they turned to one another and began to make plans for tomorrow, when the Cubs will, after all, host their second World Series game in 71 years. 

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