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The return of the Cubs to the World Series

The Cubs had their first World Series game at Wrigley Field in 71 years, but it didn’t feel like a day over 70.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO — When the Wrigley Field gates opened hours before Game 3, the first thing about 10,000 people did was go to a railing, the closest railing, didn’t matter, and take a picture of the field. I’m guessing 9,999 of them had been there before, and that most had never taken a picture of an empty field before. They didn’t care. It wasn’t up to them, and I’m not sure they had control of their limbs.

If you want a picture of Wrigley Field, I can get you a picture of Wrigley Field, and they’ll be better than anything you can take with your phone in portrait mode, dummy. But the pictures those fans were taking were proof that they were there, proof that this was happening. Nothing would be more perfect than the barren field at that moment. It was the field where anything could happen, even the good things.

Confession: I have no idea what 1945 really means. There’s no context that helps me understand, no eureka moment where it all clicks into focus. There were 25,933 days between World Series games at Wrigley Field, and while that sounds like a lot of days, none of those numbers mean anything to me. It’s too abstract. All I know is that it was a long time ago, before I was born, before most living people were born. That’s about all I can fathom.

What helped me understand was watching people by the dozens act like they’d never seen this before and might never see it again. Which is all devastatingly true. And I hope that before you leave this planet, you find someone who will appreciate you and look at you with a 1/100th of the sense of wonder that these people were looking at the damned steel girder next to them.

I watched a grown woman hug the ballpark. Got right up and gave a full, warm embrace to the brick exterior, like a seasoned hippie trying to extract the life force from a giant redwood tree. It was absolutely one of the most endearing things I’ve seen in years.

On the ground around the perimeter of the ballpark, people have paid money to have their messages etched in bricks, so that people could walk over the inscriptions for a few decades.

I don’t know anything about Josephine Bugajski, but I’d like to think that she was at the ‘45 World Series as a 26-year-old, that her heart sank when Hank Borowy couldn’t get out of the first inning of Game 7, and that she piled out of Wrigley Field with the rest of the sad Cubs fans thinking, "Next year! Next year, for sure." I’d also like to think that she lived a very, very full life — 82 years! — filled with milestones and success and heartbreak and everything we all deserve.

That would have been her last World Series game, though. And it’s not like 2001 was just last week, either.

The idea of 1945 starts to make sense. Look, I know you’re probably tired of listening to this, but trust me, it really was different. There were no illusions that you were anywhere but one of the oldest ballparks in the world, experiencing a once-in-a-century moment, and everyone was floating around on puffs of air, inches off the ground,

And then the game started.

* * *

Because baseball games haven’t been too kind to the Cubs for the last century, see. There are booby traps and pits and vipers. The template for Game 3 cheering went like this:

Before anything happened
Raucous, rafter-shaking noise. This was the Cubs’ year, and everyone knew it.

At the slightest hint of trouble
Sharp inhale. Nervous fidget. A groan or four. This happened when the Indians would get a single, or when a call wouldn’t go the Cubs’ way. This was what’s known in baseball circles as "waiting for the other shoe to be thrown at your face." Cubs fans know it quite well.

At the slightest hint of Cubs success
Raucous, rafter-shaking noise. We’re talking when a hitter would work a 2-0 count. When there was a single. When there was a pitching change and the Indians looked slightly vulnerable.

Those were the three stages, the different forms of Cubs fandom. It was excruciating and beautiful, repeated over and over, as necessary, for the rest of the game.

The Indians won, 1-0, and you could hear the breath being sucked out of the people watching with every pitch.

* * *

I had a predetermined idea in my head of Wrigley Field as a brocession of bros, drunkened bros, loud bros, all very boisterous and demonstrative, all hopped up on fermented what-have-yous. And that does exist, sure, out in Wrigleyville. There was a hundred-person line to get into Murphy’s, one of the few bars without a cover charge, and that was four hours before the gates opened. I’m sure that was boisterous and demonstrative, alright.

But inside, oh, no, it was a cornucopia of people who were sick with Cubs, couldn’t stop thinking of Cubs, didn’t fit in with any demographic other than Cubs.

Do you know how serious this game was? Marlins Man wasn’t there. At least, he wasn’t plopped down behind home plate, visor askew, because (I’m guessing) there wasn’t anyone willing to sell those tickets for the right price. I was half-expecting the Cubs to fall victim to First World Series Home Game Syndrome, in which there’s a disproportionate amount of hyper-rich people who are there because there is the place to be, which would dampen the overall enthusiasm and noise.

I honestly don’t remember seeing a lot of kids. That’s not a joke, it’s something I noticed late, but it checks out. Those kids were elsewhere. It's as if every parent with a World Series ticket collectively said, "Love you, kid, but you didn't earn this. Now be good to the sitter or we burn all of your toys."

If there were posers, bandwagoners, or Johnny-come-latelys, they blended in remarkably well and shut up. At least until it was time to scream.

* * *

Getting out of Wrigley is something out of an Upton Sinclair novel, a warning that society shouldn’t function quite like this. You sure get to know everyone around you, even if just by musk, packed in tightly for close to 45 minutes until you get fresh oxygen.

In other words, you get a pretty good read on the mood of the crowd.

That crowd that was deliriously, obnoxiously loud, just a couple hours before? Some of them were talking about movies. Some of them were talking about high fastballs. Some of them were talking about post-game plans for drinks. There weren’t a lot of disillusioned, hopeless faces, though. I swear. I looked, too. That would have made for some great copy.

Instead, they were in purgatory. On one hand, the Cubs are still the best team in the world, the clear favorites, and they’re in the same spot they were in the NLCS, down 2-1 and needing a sustained rally, which they’re capable of.

On the other hand, they were just in the middle of an impossible, 71-year Wrigley Field dream in which the perceived magic is entirely dependent on decades of the Cubs not doing anything right. The reason there was that sense of wonder is because nothing good ever happens to the Cubs. It’s a paradox that’s easy to ignore when everything looks promising. It’s a paradox that gives you a wedgie when there’s a hint of trouble.

Also, that 71-year dream just has to do with the pennant. I have absolutely no idea what 1908 means, and neither does anybody else. I can almost learn how to fathom 1945, but 1908 makes me twitch. It’s especially horrifying.

For one night, though, the Cubs weren’t where they were supposed to be. That was the blessing. That was the curse. It’s why the highs before the game felt so high. It’s why the lows of the game felt so, well, Cubs, even if we’re outgrowing what that’s always supposed to have meant.