Scratching a 108 year old itch

By Rick Firfer

We all know that the Chicago Cubs had the best record in baseball during the 2016 regular season. But everything resets for the postseason, and the Cubs have a way of messing everything up.

It was probably easy for many Cubs’ fans to not pay attention to the NLDS. Just get your blood pressure up for no good reason. And you know what, the Cubs nearly blew that series in typical Cubs fashion to the San Francisco Giants. They hung in there, though, and reached the NLCS, same as last year.

There was plenty of Chicago Cubs memorabilia available from vendors outside of Wrigley Field.

There was plenty of Chicago Cubs memorabilia available from vendors outside of Wrigley Field.

It was time to pay attention to the postseason, even though last year the Cubs were swept out of the NLCS in four games by the New York Mets. The same thing could of happened again this year against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but holding our breath, we decided to attend this year’s NLCS games at Wrigley Field, just in case something good happened. As it turned out, that was a smart decision.

Trotting out to Wrigley for Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS proved not to be that difficult, perhaps because so many other fans were also blasé about the Cubs chances and were only going, like Dodgers fans, to see and be seen, not caring too much about the outcome. Once inside the park, however, the enthusiasm picked up considerably and there was definitely a lot of noise.

Entering the park, every fan was given a blue “W” towel to wave around and hopefully distract the Dodgers players during the game. The towels used the Cubs players’ names to artfully make up the “W,” thereby creating a nice little keepsake for the fans to take home. In fact, those towels were eventually given out at all of the home games during the NLCS and the World Series, so there are obviously a lot of them floating around out there if you want one.

A blue "W" towel was given to fans entering Wrigley Field.

A blue “W” towel was given to fans entering Wrigley Field.

Other items available for sale at the park, both inside and at vendors’ stands set up outside, were official MLB programs and pennants that the vendors repeatedly proclaimed were genuine NLCS memorabilia items. Also for sale were replica players’ jerseys, Cubs postseason hoodies just like the ones being worn by the players, official baseballs, and all of the other paraphernalia that one is accustomed to seeing for sale at a Major League Baseball ballpark. The only difference was that everything was labeled for the postseason so that it would not be confused down the road with “ordinary” stuff from the regular season.

On the field, the players took their warm-ups just like they do during the regular season, but under the steady gaze of a small army of media types instead of the relatively few reporters you would normally see hanging around the batting cage. And, of course, there was the cadre of celebrities that always shows up for these things. That included die-hard Cubs fan Bill Murray, who attended every postseason game at Wrigley this year, and “Mad Man” star Jon Hamm. Actors Gary Sinise, Vince Vaughn, and comedian Tom Dreesen, also later showed up for the World Series and spent time roaming around the field before the games talking to their MLB friends, including Joe Torre, MLB’s head of Baseball Operations. Torre, ever friendly, is one of baseball’s truly great guys.

On the spur of the moment Addison Russell gave his bat to this couple after batting practice prior to Game 3 of the World Series.

On the spur of the moment Addison Russell gave his bat to this couple after batting practice prior to Game 3 of the World Series.

The Cubs and Dodgers players were in remarkably good spirits before each game, spending quality time with reporters, interviewers and MLB sponsors lucky enough to get their attention after batting and fielding practice were concluded. Several of the star players, as well as the respective managers, also came to the official interview room to give their views on why these postseason games are generally so tough and how to get through the pressures. Some players were also kind enough to discuss their collecting interests and responded eagerly to questions about the memorabilia they hoped to gather during the postseason.

For example, Andre Ethier, when asked what he hoped to take home as a souvenir, immediately answered, “A World Series ring and trophy!” He then went on to say that while he did not have much time to scrounge around for things, his parents always did that for him, trying to pick up programs, signed balls, clothing items, newspapers, etc., so that he would have plenty to stock his recreation room at home. He did add that occasionally he would trade signed items with other players whom he admired or respected.

Another player interested in memorabilia was Dodgers pitcher Joe Blanton. Although we did not get time to discuss the nature of those interests, Blanton was kind enough to take time away from his other pre-game duties to sign some caps and other things for Dodgers fans at the railing and pose for photos while doing so.

Although the Cubs and Dodgers split Games 1 and 2 at Wrigley Field, things were a bit dicey for the Cubs until they returned from LA to punch their ticket to the World Series by winning Game 6 and setting off a huge, really huge, celebration among their long-suffering fan base. Sadly, Ethier is going to have to wait a bit longer to get that World Series ring and trophy that he wanted.

Because the American League won the 2016 MLB All Star Game, the American League champion had home field advantage in the World Series this year, so the Series began in Cleveland. The Cubs and Indians split the first two games and the Series came back to Chicago for the middle three games. Even more than during the NLCS, Wrigley Field resembled a circus with thousands and thousands of fans coming early and creating a chaotic atmosphere both inside and outside the park.

Gary Sinise (left), Joe Torre (center) and Tom Dreesen (right) take time to pose for a photo at Wrigley Field.

Gary Sinise (left), Joe Torre (center) and Tom Dreesen (right) take time to pose for a photo at Wrigley Field.

At the World Series Gala, which was held at Chicago’s Navy Pier amusement area the night before Game 3, the atmosphere was electric and all the baseball people could talk about was how historic this whole thing was. Former Cubs’ stars Ryne Sandberg, Fergie Jenkins and Gary Matthews were at the Gala soaking up the atmosphere and feeling very proud of their past connections to the Cubs organization. There was also a lot of nostalgia as the former Cubs players lamented the fact that Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, like fellow Hall of Famers Sandberg and Billy Williams, never had the opportunity to play in a World Series. They can only hope that the Cubs’ current core of young players fully appreciate the opportunity they were given this year.

Before Game 3, we were fortunate to have a few moments with Cleveland catcher Chris Gimenez to discuss his collecting interests. Gimenez was very candid in telling us that he was looking to get his hands on as many things as he could in order to remind him that he was actually a part of the 2016 World Series. He said he wasn’t sure exactly what he would do with whatever he picked up, but probably would end up decorating his home with the stuff so everyone could enjoy it. It was great to see his enthusiasm for the whole experience.

We also got a chance prior to Game 5 to ask Indians pitcher Dan Otero what he would be looking to take home from the World Series. He laughed and said he would, “Try to get some Wrigley ivy maybe…always get anything signed by your teammates….when we were at home, we had champagne bottles going around from our last couple clinches getting signed by everybody on the team. So, any keepsakes you can keep from these experiences, this is really cool. So you can reminisce and show your kids and show your family members, put it in your trophy case.”

While we did not get a chance to ask Indians’ second baseman Jason Kipnis about his collecting interests, we did get a quick opportunity to ask him what it was like to be a life-long Cubs fan (he grew up in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Illinois) and possibly be the one to stifle the Cubs’ attempt to win a championship. Although he had previously told reporters there was no conflict of interest because he was a Cleveland Indian through and through, when asked if he gave any thought to the karma of it all, he said, “You know, I am still trying to wrap my head around the whole thing. Life can certainly be interesting.”

None of the Cubs players chose to get into a discussion about collecting because of all the demands on their time, but a number of them have previously been signers at the bigger card shows in the Chicago area and they usually take some time to look around and ask questions about what is going on in the marketplace. Some of the players who have done this are Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Hammel, Addison Russell, Kyle Hendricks and Javier Baez. In fact, several Cubs players will be appearing at the Fanatics Authentic show coming up in Rosemont, Illinois in a couple of weeks.

Other events of interest that took place in and around the World Series games at Wrigley Field included the awarding of the MLB Reliever of the Year Awards prior to Game 4, and the awarding of the Roberto Clemente Award prior to Game 3. The Roberto Clemente Award is given to the player who best represents Clemente’s achievements and character through, among other things, community involvement, philanthropy and positive achievements on and off the field. Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman were on hand to help with the Reliever of the Year awards, and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred made the presentation of this year’s Clemente Award to Curtis Granderson.

World Series MVP Ben Zobrist waves to the crowd while riding the parade bus.

World Series MVP Ben Zobrist waves to the crowd while riding the parade bus.

As for the World Series games themselves, they could not have been more exciting. The Cubs dug themselves a huge hole by going down three games to one, but salvaged their hopes with a dramatic 3-2 win in Game 5 at Wrigley and then went on to Cleveland and won the next two, becoming World Champions in our lifetime, something very few fans ever expected. Afterward, Cubs Chairman, Tom Ricketts, had a great line. He asked the crowd at Chicago’s victory celebration how long it had been since the Cubs’ last championship and the crowd shouted back, “108 years!” “Wrong,” said Ricketts, “The answer is zero years.” Think about it.

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