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2016 Chicagoans of the Year

Chicago Cubs

The World Champions

Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune

For the weary faithful, the tell came in the bottom of the eighth inning of the second game at frigid Progressive Field in Cleveland. The Indians’ Mike Napoli singled, and the camera caught him and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo exchanging an inside joke. Rizzo flashed a sweet smile.

A joke? A smile? How could he? Didn’t Rizzo know that millions of fans across Chicago were pacing in front of the television, swigging Scotch from the bottle, waiting for a rabbity ball to hop through a Cubs infielder’s legs? Had no one ever taught him that the Historical Imperative doesn’t refer to the inevitable triumph of the proletariat, but to the certainty of the Cubs failing?

No. He was a kid having fun. He was playing a game. And even in the crucible of tension that was the seventh game of the World Series—even as Rizzo himself remarked, laughing, to a miked David Ross in the Cubs’ dugout, “I’m an emotional wreck”—the Cubs did the ultimate un-Cubs-like thing: They tapped their exuberance to bounce back.

That exuberance comes as the invaluable gift this team has given Chicago. More than breaking a curse, the Cubs accomplished something far tougher—they fulfilled great promise, in the process shaming the (well-earned) sour world view entertained by old fans like me. Much of the credit belongs to club president Theo Epstein and his brainy executive crew and to manager Joe Maddon. Rarely has anyone in public life handled both hard questions and chitchat as gracefully as this baseball lifer.

The fans got it. In the third inning of the fifth game, a Cleveland batter popped a ball down the right field foul line, and Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward leaped at the wall to catch it—a terrifying replica of that disastrous pop fly down the left field line with five outs to go in the 2003 National League Championship Series. This time the surrounding fans yanked their arms back as if they were about to touch a red-hot stove. Heyward made the catch.

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Maddon’s grace obviously extends behind closed clubhouse doors, but much of the team’s character owes directly to the players and perhaps reflects a deep recognition that millions play baseball—in pickup games in ragged empty lots, at family picnics in grassy backyards. It’s a game. Two of these Cubs have survived cancer (Rizzo and Jon Lester). Another lost a sister to whom he was devoted (Javier Baez). The gray-bearded Ross, a father of three, says he is hanging it up after a long career, despite enjoying one of his best years ever. “Being a dad is important to me,” he told the Tribune’s Chris Kuc.

In a cynical era, it’s anomalous to celebrate heroes. But at this unthinkable moment, let’s borrow from Simon and Garfunkel’s haunting refrain: A city turned its lonely eyes to Wrigley Field—and found joy.

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Join Chicago in congratulating the Chicagoans of the Year with a special luncheon on Tuesday, Dec. 6, at the Four Seasons in Chicago. Space is limited. Reserve your seat now.

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