Tuesday evening, when I was leaving Wrigley Field, I walked down Waveland Avenue high-fiving total strangers. Perhaps you did the same, wherever you were, if not literally, then at least in spirit. Every single one of their faces bore a smile that was returned, the feelings behind those grins implicitly understood.
Only after I got home did I realize I had made a similar walk 12 years ago, down the streets bordering the ballpark, after leaving Games 6 and 7 of the NLCS that year. How different that feeling was -- the faces I remember seeing that year had stunned looks, empty eyes, too dumbfounded from what had happened in that series to even cry.
This feels different. This Cubs team cares nothing for history; most of them are too young to have thought about it nor do they want to. They simply play their best game of baseball. Miguel Montero perhaps said it best:
"Babe Ruth played in this stadium," Montero said Thursday, referencing Ruth's called shot in the 1932 World Series. "A lot of history here." A lot of bad history, Montero was told. "Players don't care about that stuff," Montero said. "I don't know about any of that and don't really want to know. I don't believe in any of that anyway. We believe in what we're building here, and that's all I worry about. I'm not a superstitious guy. When we play good, we win. When we play bad, we lose."
And for the players, he is absolutely right. As long as they focus on their task at hand, defeating the New York Mets in the NLCS, they'll be fine, just as they have been all season. Their manager, the sublime Joe Maddon, will make sure of that as well. The best part of Maddon's baseball genius is setting the right tone for every single player on his club. He's done so all season; I see no reason why that would change now. Speaking of Maddon and managers, here's an interesting note about the upcoming series:
Maddon replaced Terry Collins with 29 games to go in that season, the second time he'd led the Angels on an interim basis, but current Angels manager Mike Scioscia got the fulltime gig in 2000 and Maddon returned to coaching, eventually becoming bench coach under Scioscia before leaving to manage at Tampa Bay in 2006... replacing Lou Piniella, who became Cubs manager the following season.
In a roundabout way, this leads me to my next point, which is going to be touchy-feely, as I sometimes get. You'll forgive my strong emotions here, I trust, or feel them along with me.
Baseball history in general and Cubs history in particular are two of my lifelong interests. I don't think anyone can understand completely what makes the Cubs fan who he or she is without understanding what's come before us. This is one of the reasons I've written so many things here about Cubs history; not only do I enjoy reminiscing and researching and writing them, but I hope I've helped those of you who didn't live through past eras in our favorite team's past to understand where we've been and why that helps make this year's journey even more special.
And that brings me to the subject of the New York Mets.
Not one of the players on either team was alive in 1969; that's 46 years ago, nearly half a century, a long time in baseball terms. Many of you weren't either. The "we owe you one" I've alluded to regarding the Mets is for those of us who were, who lived through what was supposed to be just as magical a season as 2015 has been so far.
I was 12 years old during the 1969 season, not turning 13 until after it ended, an age at which many people solidify their fandom for sports teams and begin to fully understand the meaning of winning championships. The Cubs had been bad for two decades, and just as I was fully immersing myself in baseball, they got good. Suddenly, too -- 103 losses in 1966 turned into 87 wins and brief contention in 1967, to the point that 40,000 fans refused to leave Wrigley Field after a win over the Reds put the Cubs in a first-place tie with the Cardinals, the first time they'd been there so late in the year since 1945, until the scoreboard operators put the Cubs flag on top of the N.L. standings.
The Cubs fell short that year and got off to a bad start in 1968, only to roar to an over-.500 finish with a 48-33 second half, still the only team in Cubs history to be 10 games under .500 and finish with a winning record.
This set the stage for 1969; even with the Cardinals coming off two straight pennants, many felt it was the Cubs' turn.
And for five glorious months, it was. Things still revered in Cubs lore happened: Willie Smith's Opening Day walkoff homer; a 19-0 win over the Padres that was the biggest Cubs shutout since 1906; Dick Selma leading the Bleacher Bums in cheers; Ken Holtzman's no-hitter August 19, after which the Cubs were 77-45, 32 games over .500 and eight games ahead of the Mets. It seemed as if the party would never end; I remember my dad promising me he'd find playoff tickets, though I have no idea how he would have done so.
And then it all stopped. Not only did the Mets get hot -- 33-11 after August 19 -- but the Cubs collapsed, going 15-25. The details are well known and don't need to be rehashed yet again, I've done that many times here already.
The Cubs and Mets don't really have a rivalry anymore, not since they were separated into different divisions beginning in 1994. They play just two series a year and in many seasons since 1969, they've both been awful. Really, the only time the two teams competed for the same playoff spot since 1969 was 1984, a season some of you a bit younger than me might remember well. I do too: the Cubs took three of four from the Mets in New York in late July and then swept a four-game series from them at Wrigley a week or so later, a set that featured a memorable brawl between Keith Moreland and Ed Lynch, the latter eventually becoming Cubs general manager, another link between these two franchises. Even though the Cubs knocked the Mets out of the division race in 1984 (going 12-6 against them), that season also ended in failure for our side.
The 1989 Cubs and Mets also vied for the N.L. East title, but I remember the Cubs' closer competition that year being the Cardinals and Expos, and that year also wound up in a Cubs NLCS loss.
So though no one connected with this year's Cubs has anything to do with those past failures, they live on in my heart and soul. Maybe it shouldn't hurt anymore, but it does. It's why I've said about the Mets, and I'll repeat, as I did on Twitter Thursday evening: "We owe you one."
Of course I want the 2015 Cubs to win for who they are and what they've done, and I think they have a very good chance to defeat the Mets and go to the World Series.
But beating the Mets in the NLCS won't just be the thrill of a lifetime of being a Cubs fan. It will help mend the broken heart of the 12-year-old kid still inside me. If you're my age or older, I'm sure you get that. If you're younger, just enjoy this magnificent ride and hope it lasts a few more weeks. Go Cubs.