I have a confession to make.
In the eighth inning of last night’s game I was ready to throw in the towel. The Cubs were down 4-1. Jack Flaherty was back in the game despite being at 102 pitches. And then my friend Ken Schultz asked me how many ballparks I’d been to and I couldn’t even answer the question because my head was shrouded in dread and doubt. All I could think was, “Who is this person asking me to do something crazy like count the ballparks I’ve been in? Doesn’t he know that the Cubs season is over?”
I’m merely reporting the facts when I tell you I actually couldn’t answer the question. The only math my head could do at that moment in time was playoff math, and that math looked terrible. I literally couldn’t pause, take a deep breath and think back to all of the wonderful places I’ve seen the greatest game ever invented played. Instead I mumbled something inadequate about not being able to recall exactly, maybe 11, and an apology about being so down on the Cubs at that moment.
Oh, the answer, for the record is 12 active stadiums, 14 if you count the ones that are no longer with us. It’s a fact I can normally recall automatically, and often think about on a whim.
But the difference between the Cubs of the eighth inning and the Cubs of the ninth inning was everything to me, and if my hearing is correct, about 40,000 other fans agreed. This team is far from done, and it would be tremendously unwise to judge what this team can accomplish in their final nine games based on eight innings in which they were stymied by the hottest pitcher in baseball. Even though the comeback came up short, who am I to judge the season over on the night Anthony Rizzo came back?
I have seen some incredible, wonderful things in sports, and in particular at Wrigley Field in the last five seasons. Walk offs, grand slams and walk off grand slams. Javy tags, Javy slides and dozens of times Willson has said no. I’ve seen every likely hero, every unlikely hero and Travis Wood play left field.
I have never seen something as unexpected and emotional as the moment the Cubs announced that Anthony Rizzo was leading off and playing first base less than four days after he was carried off the field with a sprained ankle. I want to be clear here, this is real life, not a storybook. So let’s be real: Rizzo didn’t hit a leadoff home run (he saved that until the third inning) and he couldn’t field the ball the way we’ve all come to expect, but he reminded everyone outside of New York why he’s so good at first base almost immediately with a tag on Kolten Wong that should have resulted in an out.
Rizzo got the Cubs offense started, but let me be very clear, he wasn’t there as a prop. This wasn’t a show to boost morale (although it certainly had that effect). For anyone who was wondering if Rizzo could possibly play tomorrow listen to the man in his own words:
Rizzo on his quick return: pic.twitter.com/ArCvToTCyO— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) September 20, 2019
All he wanted was a chance. Here’s what Patrick Mooney reported on Rizzo’s availability for Friday:
Anthony Rizzo expects to play through the pain on Friday afternoon vs. the Cardinals: "We don't have a couple more days. We got to win now."— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) September 20, 2019
It is exceedingly rare to see an athlete put a team on his back even when that back is broken. Kirk Gibson’s performance in the World Series came to mind, as did Willis Reed’s Game 7 comeback for the Knicks and Zdeno Chara playing in this year’s Stanley Cup final with a broken jaw. But those moments are rare even in the postseason - this is just Rizzo in September.
And then there is the truly wild part of all of this: It wasn’t just Rizzo.
Javier Báez scored the tying run tonight, wearing some oven mitt glove contraption but insistent on pinch running and giving the Cubs an unparalleled chaos machine on the basepaths. Ben Zobrist came back to the team just in time to be eligible for the postseason in a year where we all would have understood if he felt he should retire to focus on his family. It’s also not just the veterans. Nico Hoerner has been in the major leagues for 11 games. He was called up after fewer than 500 minor league plate appearances, and zero at Triple-A, when the Cubs lost Addison Russell to a concussion. What has Hoerner done in those 11 games? Slashed .289/.333/.467 in 48 plate appearances while filling in for El Mago at short and not making an error. Oh, and please don’t forget that Nico made great contact in the ninth against Andrew Miller, a few degrees left or right and that ball is in the gap for a walkoff double.
It’s weird to feel cautiously optimistic after a huge loss. But here’s what I know. Anthony Rizzo is going to carry the Cubs as far as he can on a sprained ankle and Javy is going to run through walls if it can help them score. Ben Zobrist is still the player I’d most like to see at the plate with runners on in a big moment and Yu Darvish is pitching like a man who deserved more than six years and $126 million.
I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here. The Cubs have a really hard road ahead and are currently out of the playoff hunt. But I can’t help but remember what their 2016 World Series Rings say: We Never Quit.
I’m not quitting on this team just yet, and neither should you.