Shhh ... don't tell anyone the Cubs are for real
Young bats, top of the rotation and a little bit of magic are a winning combo
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- This northern Indiana city is more associated with Notre Dame football than anything involving baseball. Still, as I drive through the little downtown, the latest reminder is to my right as to why this Cubs thing might be, could be, seems to be …
I can't say it.
OK, I'll whisper it: The Cubs probably are for real. Probably? Since I was born and raised in this city, where I hugged everything associated with the Cubbies through most of the 1960s, I don't want to jinx them.
They already have that billy goat to overcome.
Anyway, I'm looking to my right with a smile. I see the quaint ballpark with the old synagogue behind left field, and I recall when this combination became a part of Western Avenue in 1988. That's when South Bend got its first Minor League team. It belonged to the White Sox, which sort of made sense. With Chicago just a two-hour drive away, Sox fans are throughout town.
I wasn't alone, and nothing has changed. While many in South Bend like the White Sox, most love the Cubs.
We're back to that Cubs thing. With their Major League team sprinting toward the playoffs by holding a seven-game lead for the second Wild Card spot in the National League, one of their Class A teams replaced the D-backs this year in town as tenants inside what is known as Four Winds Field.
This remains huge news in South Bend, even with the University of Texas preparing to kick off here Saturday night against Notre Dame. When locals aren't donning sports paraphernalia with a leprechaun or the words "Fighting Irish," they are wearing stuff associated with the South Bend Cubs. No wonder, the city's Minor League darlings already have obliterated seasonal and single-game attendance records for the ballpark. The last home game this season is Friday night, and the South Bend Cubs are expected to break the previous Four Winds' single-game record of 8,143 spectators that was set earlier this summer.
The place has 5,006 seats.
That's just one part of that Cubs thing. There are a slew of them, which suggests the Major League Cubs really are mythical this season.
"So why are you afraid to say what you really want to say about the Cubs?" a friend asked me earlier in the week after I shared a dream from the night before.
It involved the Cubs. With my mind whirling deep into baseball slumber, the Cubs were not only in the playoffs, but they were about to advance into something huge. Whether it involved the NL Championship Series, the World Series or becoming kings of the universe, I don't know. I do remember that I was playing right field at Wrigley Field during a crucial moment of a decisive game. The hitter ripped a shot that was just fair down the line. I lost the ball in the ivy, but I recovered to fire what I thought was the ball toward the cutoff man.
It wasn't the ball. It was a light bulb. (Don't ask).
Prior to transitioning from devoted Cubs fan to the loyal disciple of the Big Red Machine after my family moved from South Bend to Cincinnati in 1968, I was prone to fantasize about all things Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins and the rest. But a dream like this, with the Cubs on the verge of achieving greatness with my help? Never.
So this means … what?
Going backwards, this means the South Bend Cubs, that dream and that light bulb are connected to the Cubs wearing pajamas this week on their flight back to Chicago from Los Angeles. Moments before, Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers. Remember, too, he is the first Cubs pitcher in 65 years to take a no-hitter into the seventh inning three times during a given season, which means this a Cubs season for the unique and the rare. Which brings us to Joe Maddon, their first-year manager, who motivates with the bizarre.
Maddon invented the pajamas idea, and he has done other such things -- not only for the Cubs, but for a Rays team that he led to success before joining the North Siders. One of his all-time best moves off the field happened with the Cubs in late June. During a road trip against the Mets, he brought a magician to the visiting clubhouse to lighten the mood of his slumping team, and the Cubs won seven of their next nine games.
This is the same Maddon who shrugs over that billy goat story, which claims the Cubs have been hexed since their last World Series appearance in 1945. They haven't won it all since 1908. And there was their collapse of '69, and Leon Durham struggling at first base in the '84 NLCS, and Moises Alou battling a Cubs fan for a foul ball in 2003.
Maddon doesn't care. Neither do the Cubs' trio of super rookies -- Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant -- who join old timers on the roster such as 26-year-old Anthony Rizzo in living in the now.
No problem there. The Cubs lead the Major Leagues in walk-off wins with 12, and their 29 one-run victories are tied with the Pirates for the most in baseball. Bryant provided two of those walk-off victories with game-winning homers, and Rizzo does everything you can imagine as an NL MVP Award candidate. Elsewhere, Russell is superb with his glove at shortstop, Schwarber is splendid with his bat, and Arrieta joins Jon Lester to form one of baseball's top 1-2 pitching combinations.
Here are other parts of that Cubs thing: Before this season, the legendary bleachers at Wrigley Field were removed, refurbished and replaced. There are new video boards. As a result, the Cubs thrilled the crowd this summer with the sight of the late Harry Caray leading the crowd in song during a seventh-inning stretch. Not only that, Ernie Banks died this year. So Mr. Cub is somewhere positioned in that ivy-covered place in the sky to urge the baseball gods to keep his old team vibrant down the stretch.
But keep all of this to yourself.
Actually, it's difficult to hide.