A few years ago, Harry Caray’s bespectacled face began to hum.
In the downtown restaurant that bears the late broadcaster’s name and still serves as a center of gravity for the Cubs diaspora, the massive white bronze bust that greets patrons in the lobby strangely began to emit a buzzing, Morse-code like pattern.
Wait staff stopped to marvel. Puzzled diners shook their heads. Grant DePorter, the CEO of Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group, recorded the sound and sent it off to a military friend for an ultimately unsuccessful attempt at decoding.
But the symbolism was unmistakable. It was 2009, and the Ricketts family had just bought their beloved Cubs.
Cubs Nation was starting to buzz.
Thursday night, Mr. DePorter needed no military cryptologist to decipher the sounds of euphoria emanating from the North Side of Chicago – or from the royal-blue-clad army that had invaded Cleveland’s Progressive Field in startling numbers.
The team that won Game 7 of the World Series early Thursday morning was the fulfillment of the Ricketts family’s promise – and in that way bore little resemblance to the teams of Caray’s day. They are young and rich in talent. They boast the league's fifth-highest payroll ($186.4 million). And they owned baseball’s regular season with 103 wins.
But true to the teams Caray knew well, they won the World Series in the most typical way possible for a franchise that came to embody heartbreak and “almost was” after going without a title since 1908. These Cubs were maddeningly imprecise and flawed. And it took them a long time to finally get it done, making their longsuffering fans wait through a rain delay and an extra inning.
What wasn’t typical was their ability to somehow, someway eke out an 8-7, 10-inning win over the Cleveland Indians despite questionable pitching changes, committing could-have-been-fatal hitting and fielding errors, and failing to close out a game that was set up on a cosmic platter for them to take.
No one said winning a World Series after 108 years was going to be easy.
Tilting against the Windy City
DePorter, who has done as much as anyone over the years to change the sense of perpetual doom surrounding the Cubs, sat with family and Caray’s widow, Dutchie, at a small corner table of his restaurant and surveyed the bedlam that broke out as a crowd that had been treated to each excruciating minute finally let loose. Local and national television crews shone bright lights onto tear-filled faces.
DePorter’s quest to infuse Cubs fans with a sense of hope has been suitably quixotic. He has insisted that the Cubs would break their 108-year drought this year because the universe was screaming it at him. The distance between foul poles at Wrigley Field is 108 feet, he notes. The diameter of Stonehenge matches the number. There are 108 stitches in a baseball. It’s all over the Odyssey and in outer space, he adds.
In 2004, he moved things along when he bought the foul ball caught by fan Steve Bartman – who some blamed for the Cubs demise in 2003 – at auction for around $114,000. He blew it up on national television.
“It was a painful way to win it,” said DePorter, who keeps his whimsy buried behind accountant’s glasses and dark suits. Below the suit on Wednesday, DePorter wore a pair of former Cubs pitcher Fergie Jenkins uniform pants. (The pants are 4-0, he says). “It’s going to take a long time to absorb,” DePorter said of the ramifications of the championship, something he has long pined for. “Now we’re back to zero. We have the making of a dynasty.”
Dan Suh grew up in the Chicago suburbs and flew into town from Los Angeles to be at Harry’s for the game. He ended up in a tearful ball on the bar’s floor after riding the roller coaster of Game 7, a game that had the Cubs up 3-1, then 6-3, just to see things knotted at 6-6 going into the 10th inning. After a 17-minute rain delay, left fielder Ben Zobrist doubled to score a run, and pinch hitter Miguel Montero followed with another RBI to put the Cubs up 8-6. It took two more pitchers, and another run scored by the Indians, but Cubs pitcher Mike Montgomery finally forced the Indians’ Michael Martinez to ground out, and Harry Caray’s began to pump out the first of several renditions of “Go Cubs Go.”
Mr. Suh was in and out of the restaurant, at one point so unnerved that he watched through the window so he could have some time alone. “How do you root for your dreams to come true?” Suh asked.
Suh promptly asked the restaurant to stop playing the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” during the rain delay with the game knotted at 6. Some things aren’t funny.
A new king of 'almost was'
The Cubs win, of course, overshadows Cleveland’s own “almost was.” The franchise hasn’t won a title since 1948, now the longest title drought in Major League Baseball. Unconventionally but effectively, Indians manager Terry Francona had relied on primarily four pitchers throughout the series and playoffs, starter Corey Kluber and relievers Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw.
It worked brilliantly. Until Game 7.
“In the end this was the Cubs finally starting to hit,” said ESPN analyst Tim Kurkjian. “You could make a case that this was the biggest night in baseball history, and then we got the game to match it. I will never forget this for the rest of my life.”
Cubs fans agree.
Victor Comforte immediately thought of his grandfather, a Cubs fan who passed on 10 years ago. “Now we get to experience what Boston experienced,” he said, referring to the Boston Red Sox overcoming their own 86-year drought in 2004.
Now, the near-family dynamic created around the Cubs bond, long forged by those who could amiably grouse about their team’s pitiful plight, will change.
Dutchie Caray, thinking of her husband, mused to a MLB Network producer: “At least he wouldn’t have to say ‘wait til next year’ anymore.”
But DePorter’s wife, Joanna, who helps oversee the restaurant, laughed when asked what her husband would do now to fill his time, and thought for a moment.
Maybe, in the end, not much has changed at all.
“We wait for next year until we do it again.”
[Editor's note: The spelling of Mr. Suh's name has been corrected.]