He broke out in a smile, a peaceful, calm smile. It was early on a November morning, the 343rd pitch of the seventh game of one of the most memorable World Series, and the ball Michael Martinez hit squibbled towards him, through wet grass and the tying run sprinting towards second base, and Kris Bryant broke out in a childlike look that for that moment in time slowed all the history and the white noise surrounding the play as if it were in slow motion.
It was as if this 24-year who was raised on “The Science of Hitting .300” fearlessly understood that he was again a child caught in a still moment in time he dreamed of when he was ten years old.
Later, walking down Cleveland’s 9th Avenue, I could not get that smile out of my mind. And flashed back to the morning of October 25, 1986, six years before Kris Bryant was born, the morning of the sixth game of the World Series, the Red Sox playing at Shea Stadium, 68 years since they’d last won it all, when I called Ted Williams for a piece for Sports Illustrated on what one would do if the Olde Towne Team won.
“I will take a long sip of my drink, lean back in my chair and fall off in a peaceful sleep,” Williams replied at his Florida home.
Ted never had that peaceful lean back in that chair in his office, a chair next to a table that had a picture of Williams and Babe Ruth together at Fenway Park; that night’s squibbler ended up on the right field grass. I thought about the connection of Bryant to Williams, who never experienced what it means to be world champion, and how taking BP on the night of Game Seven of the World Series, Bryant, whose frame and the angle of his swing is so reminiscent of a 24-year old Williams, called up his inner Ted. “I smelled the bat burn last night (Game Six),” Bryant told me. “McAllister threw me a high nineties four-seamer, I fouled it straight back, and I took a quick moment to smell the barrel for the burn.”
Somewhere up there, I hope Ted was up there, watching with Ernie and Ron Santo and caught it.
Because baseball is about the link from The Babe to Kris Bryant and all the glimpses our brothers and fathers and grandfathers took from all its rituals, from jumping over the foul line to reading the box score and knowing who made the last out because Gene Mauch taught you, as he taught Joe Maddon. Or how in January, 1959, Tito Francona, Sr. asked Tiger general manager John McHale for a raise from $6500 because his wife was pregnant, McHale hung up on him, 21 years later McHale’s Expos drafted Terry Francona in the first round of the draft and Tito, Sr. told McHale, “now you will have to pay for my wife’s being pregnant” as Terry, a future HOFer, managed a team that brought noise and pride to a city.
Because, while we understand the need for quickened paces, the fact that players, not clocks, determine the outcome and closure. To this one of the greatest and most significant games ever played, reminds us why this is the one major sport determined by the ones who play it at the level those who dreamed of Kris Bryant’s intrepid, yet peaceful smile. By the way, I know that when Kris’s dad Mike Bryant was growing up in Acton, Massachusetts and playing center field in the New York-Penn League, he threw tennis balls against walls and dreamed of that same kind of moment. I know. I did the same thing ten miles west-north-west of Acton.
What Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod, Jared Porter, Kyle Evans and all the refugees from Epstein’s reign in Boston—not forgetting Eric (Mr. October) Hinske have done is astounding. Theo moved baseball organizations to another level of scouting, analytics, international aggression, and self-analysis (Theo ever embodies the motto a sign he had in the Fenway basement baseball ops meeting room, “Just Remember, We Don’t Know (—)” while surrounding himself with brilliant people whom he empowers.
Chicago is different. Part of it is that Tom Ricketts has no need for credit; Theo, Jed and company run baseball, Ricketts runs the business. When he took over as the Boston general manager in 2003, he inherited Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon.
In Chicago, he inherited a team between a rock and a hard place, but Jim Hendry left him two teenagers named Javier Baez and Willson Contreras. Instead of throwing out what was there, they tried to build a development machine, and one of the stories of the 2016 World Champion Cubs is the development of the 212 year olds Baez and Contreras; remember, Contreras wasn’t converted to catcher until he was 18, in 2012 in his fourth professional season, caught 267 games in his entire life before Game Seven, and may well be the successor to Buster Posey as the best in his league when and if Buster moves out from behind the plate.
They never missed on the draft, unlike Houston, because McLeod, Epstein and Hoyer so value, makeup as well as tools, and because their business model predicted that great hitters don’t make it to free agency, pitchers do. So their first round picks included Albert Almora (who Maddon sees as a star), Bryant, Kyle Schwarber).
One of their first trades was for Anthony Rizzo, who McLeod drafted and signed in 2007 out of high school (at the time, McLeod told me, “he may have the best makeup of anyone I’ve ever signed) and, with Hoyer, traded for from Boston for Adrian Gonzalez before grabbing him from San Diego. They traded for Dexter Fowler. Jeff Samardzija for Russell. They traded for Travis Wood. They traded Ryan Dempster, now a Cubs executive, and Scott Feldman to the Rangers and Orioles, respectively, for Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, potential 2015-2016 Cy Young Award winners. They traded for Mike Montgomery, who got the final out of the 2016 World Series.
They signed Lester, John Lackey, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and David Ross. Lester has three rings, Zobrist back-to-back rings, Lackey has three, Heyward pulled the Knute Rockne rain delay speech (handed down his parents and all they took from their Dartmouth English classes from Ben Cheringtons’s grandfather Richard Eberhart?).
And David Ross. If you simply see numbers and cannot comprehend culture, Ross defines it, in some ways the man most celebrated by his teammates of any player, in his final playing days, for all he has done to make so many other lives special. He was back there with Lester and Lackey winning the last two games in the 2013 World Series in Boston. The Red Sox have not won a post-season game since he left.
There were so many great moments in a series may be remembered as the G.O.A.T. that eradicated The Goat in Chicago.
Almora’s incredible baserunning going from first to second in the 10th inning of Game Seven. Bryant’s home runs, his two great defensive web gems in Game Six, his two great baserunning plays in Seven (by the way, Baseball Info Solutions ranked him the fourth best baserunner in 2016, behind Mike Trout, Brett Gardner and Mookie Betts, another feather in the MVP cap), Schwarber’s leadoff hit in the 10th, Baez’s astounding hand tagging, fielding and hitting, Contreras scoop of a 100-something Aroldis Chapman pitch in the dirt…
It’s hard to say if this World Championship Game Seven is more meaningful than the Dodgers in 1955, the Pirates in 1960, the Cardinals in 1964 (read David Halberstam), the Twins in 1991 or the Diamondbacks in 2001. We need David Halberstam, George Will or Jon Meacham for help).
It’s also hard to say if the demographics or a recovering Rust Belt city like Cleveland meant that an Indians win would have meant more to Cleveland than the Cubs today mean to Chicago; however, it is very clear that Cleveland was more alive Wednesday night than any time in the Nineties, maybe the most alive since the Indians eliminated the Yankees on Sept. 12, 1954 before 85,000 in The Mistake By The Lake, when the city housed more than twice as many people as today.
But there is no question about Theo Epstein’s vision of a baseball operation, and never having to hear “1918” or “1908” again. People who work with and for him say he can leave when his contract is up and run any corporation in America, although if you know him, he will likely devote the rest of his life to the good of those less fortunate.
That is who he is. Yes, his grandfather and his brother wrote the “Casablanca” screenplay. But his parents Ilene and Leslie are ballasts of their community. His twin brother Paul has devoted his life to social work and good, his sister Anya is a writing savant.
And that sense of family has been carried to Chicago, where he often skips the end of batting practice and walks to his North side home to either meet his sons’ bus or eat with them.
Culture is a big part of what Epstein has built, from drafting Bryant to signing Ross. Or to a spring training scene for minor league instructor Mike Roberts, whose wife Nancy tragically died in February. When he arrived in Mesa a month later, Alissa Hammel and Brittany Arrieta—who were friends of Mike’s son Brian and his wife in Baltimore—went to the minor league fields to extend their sympathy. Seeing how thin and drawn Roberts was in his grief, Alissa and Brittany arranged for Cubs wives to take turns cooking meals for Roberts and taking them to his hotel.
That’s who the 2016 Cubs were.
I like to think what ended Thursday morning began in January. As part of the concert and non-profit day for Theo and Paul’s Foundation to be Named Later, we hosted an event for the kids at Boston’s West End House, with weekend musicians and friends like Bernie Williams, Bronson Arroyo, Jake Peavy, Kevin Youklis and Lenny DiNardo.
We each picked a ticket out of a basket and read that ticket’s number, with the youngster holding the ticket with that number getting some sort of goodie bag. Theo went to the front, picked out his ticket, looked at it, and laughed.
Then read it aloud.
In 2016, the year they went all the way.