When I was 8 years old in the fall of 1984, my father purchased a bottle of cheap champagne that said "Chicago Cubs 1984 NL East Champions." He promised we would pop open the bottle and spray it all over each other when the Cubs won the World Series. But then a ball rolled through Leon Durham's legs. Steve Garvey pumped his fist. And the bottle never got opened.
When my parents moved, the bottle went with them. Another shelf. Another layer of dust.
It went through Will Clark in '89. The high of Game 163 in 1998, and the low of being swept by the Braves days later. And then 2003. I won't name names. But I watched in utter jealousy as the Red Sox and White Sox ended their tortuous droughts in subsequent years. Someday, I told myself. Someday.
A few years back, my oldest daughter asked me why we cheer for a team that always loses -- that hadn't won a World Series since a date that she couldn't even process. I talked to her about loyalty. About belief. And about how amazing it would be when that someday finally happened. I told her the story of the time Theo Epstein walked me through the Cubs' training facility in Arizona, pointed at the 1908 and 1945 World Series banners hanging from above and told me to ignore them. "We're going to get a couple of those for ourselves," he insisted that day.
Epstein knew -- this was about far more than being the best baseball team in the world. This was about family. About generation after generation passing along a love for something while not knowing when the payoff would ever come.
This year I believed was the year. But a sobering thing happened before these playoffs even began. I was at the gym when I took the call. The words on the other end were numbing. Open heart surgery. Sooner rather than later. A little less than a year earlier, doctors had discovered an aneurysm on my aorta, the same ailment that killed actor John Ritter. They told me I probably would need surgery at some point in my life. But a cardiac surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, the same one who saved the life of NBA forward Jeff Green, had reviewed my case. He didn't think I should wait. He told me I had a month. Maybe two.
Before his nurse could even explain the procedure, before the talk of stopping my heart or putting me on a ventilator, I said four words: After the World Series. She said something about the Indians, how she wasn't sure they would even make the World Series. And I told her no. She didn't get it. This was because of the Cubs. I pulled out a calendar and told her we could schedule the procedure for the first Monday after the World Series: Nov. 7. The doctors agreed.
And so did most everyone who knows me well. They got it. Yes, technically, I was walking around with a ticking time bomb in my chest. The aneurysm could rupture at any point -- a potentially fatal occurrence. But the odds were small. One friend texted me, "Forget the World Series. Forget the Cubs. This is the World Series of life."
I told him I couldn't do it. I had to wait.
And so for the past month I've watched every pitch of every game with an even greater sense of interest. I had been scheduled to cover the Cubs through the postseason for ESPN, but after one day at Wrigley Field before the start of the National League Division Series, I knew I couldn't handle it.
A little more than 30 years ago, on the afternoon of May 26, 1986, my grandfather had a stroke at Wrigley Field. His friends said he was heckling Pete Rose when it happened. He spent the rest of his life in a nursing home, unable to use the left side of his body. I had been to Wrigley probably a hundred times since then. Each time I climbed those cement stairs and looked out to the ivy and old scoreboard, I thought about him and how much he loved the Cubs. But on the day before this year's division series, a paralyzing fear came over me. What if I was next? I began to sweat. And shake. I tried to talk to colleagues and friends like everything was fine. But inside I was flipping out. I left without writing a word.
On the drive home, I decided I would spend this October surrounded by family and friends. If the unthinkable was going to happen, I wanted to have the people I loved by my side. Each victory against the Giants and Dodgers brought the Cubs one step closer to the World Series, and at the same time, brought me one day closer to surgery.
When the final opponent ended up being the Cleveland Indians, I had no words. My father had grown up in Cleveland a die-hard Indians fan. He moved to Chicago in his 20s, decided there was no way he could cheer for the rival White Sox and picked the Cubs as his new team. He fell in love with Wrigley and introduced it all to me. I never had a chance.
Now, here was his hometown, the same place I would soon visit to help save my life, facing the Cubs in the World Series. In the last week of October, I went to Cleveland for a series of pre-op tests. It just so happened the dates were the same as Games 1 and 2 of the World Series. On the day of Game 1, I bounced from appointment to appointment in a Cubs T-shirt. Most everyone gave me a hard time -- playfully. I threw it right back. When one nurse chucked a wad of paper at me and I dropped it, I quickly replied, "My bad. I catch about as well as the Indians." We all laughed. After my final test that day, my wife and I headed straight to Progressive Field for Game 1. It was surreal. The Cubs. The Indians. My team. My dad's team. The World Series. And in the left-field corner, a massive ad for the Cleveland Clinic.
For most of the postseason, I had managed to stay relatively calm during games. I watched my wife roll herself into a ball on the couch. There were friends who refused to move an inch when something good happened. And others who admitted to wearing the same underwear after a Cubs win. But I stayed relatively sane, taking a rational approach to the highs and lows of the postseason. Until Game 7, that is. I spent all of Wednesday unsure what to do with myself. I cleaned the house. I took out the garbage. Then my wife reminded me it wasn't garbage day.
For my entire life I had wondered what this moment would be like. The Cubs, one win away from the World Series. Where would I watch the final game? In the stadium? The press box? A bar? The streets of Wrigleyville? But now that the biggest Cubs game of my life was here, I was home. On the couch.
Throughout the night, I listened to my 2-year-old repeat the chorus to "Go Cubs Go" over and over and over again. I chuckled when she pointed to the TV and yelled "KRIS BRYANT!" and then danced maniacally to one of Anthony Rizzo's walk-up songs, "Intoxicated." But perhaps I was most touched by a moment in the eighth inning, when Rajai Davis hit his tying home run and my older daughter turned to me, probably reading the pain, fear and anguish on my face and said, "Dad, it's going to be OK. We got this."
From then on, it's all a bit of a blur. When Ben Zobrist doubled home Albert Almora Jr. to give the Cubs the lead in the 10th, I know I high-fived my neighbor so hard he thought I broke his hand. And when the final ground ball rolled into Bryant's glove and he threw it to Rizzo, I know I grabbed my daughter, held her as tightly as I could and whispered in her ear, "This is why we believe."
From there, I thought about my father. My mother. My grandparents. I thought about Richard Savage, Betty Maute, Helen Keiling and so many other older Cubs fans I had met over the years who were no longer with us. There was champagne. No, it wasn't that same bottle from 1984. At some point, in some move after Dad died, that bottle disappeared. But the moment was just as special. I don't remember what time I went to bed. But when I woke up Thursday morning, the TV in my bedroom was still on. My daughter was sleeping next to me, and the first thing my eyes saw was a replay of Epstein being doused with champagne. It wasn't a dream.
Early Monday morning, around the time the people in Chicago begin waking up to get back to their normal lives, a team of doctors will roll me into an operating room in Cleveland for the six-hour surgery that will save my life. As the anesthesia kicks in and my thoughts begin to drift to a calming place, I'll see a bunch of grown men in blue jerseys jumping up and down in an infield. I'll see a 39-year-old backup catcher ending his career in the most unimaginable way possible.
I'll picture that bottle of champagne, cork popped, sitting empty on my kitchen counter. Deep inside there will be smiles. For the Chicago Cubs just won the World Series.
And I was alive to see it.