Epstein, Maddon turned Cubs from cursed to first

Paul Sullivan
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — One drought down, one to go.

Wrigleyville erupted in a joyous celebration Saturday night when the Cubs’ 71-year World Series wait at long last came to an end. When Yasiel Puig hit into a double play for the final outs of Saturday night’s 5-0 victory over the Dodgers in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, the Cubs sealed a date with the Indians in the 2016 Fall Classic, beginning Tuesday night in Cleveland.

It’s OK to say it out loud now, Chicago. The Cubs are National League champions. The Cubs are in the World Series for the first time since 1945.

Let those words sink in for a few days before the games — and all the trepidation and anxiety they will bring — begin Tuesday. For now, it’s time for Cubs fans to raise a glass to the millions who never got to say that simple sentence: The Cubs are going to the World Series.

While you’re at it, offer up a toast to Cubs president Theo Epstein, whose master plan is almost complete. Cubs Nation now holds its breath and hopes this truly is the year it can cross the No. 1 item off its collective bucket list — ending the 107-year championship drought, the longest in sports history.

It has been a long hard journey, but Epstein credited Cubs fans for having the patience to let the plan succeed.

“We were transparent with them and they trusted us in return,” Epstein said. “Those are unique ingredients that make this one special. You just smile, soak it all in, let it take your breath away and then get back to work and try and win four more games.”

With Wrigley Field up for grabs and the fans spilling into the streets, manager Joe Maddon was asked if he ever has seen anything like it.

“I haven’t,” Maddon said with a laugh. “Maybe when Hazleton beat West Hazleton in football, but otherwise? No difference.”

The Cubs celebrated out on the field. Justin Grimm pickpocketed a beer out of Jake Arrieta’s back pocket, and Willson Contreras jumped into David Ross’ arms like a 6-year-old jumping on his bed.

The bubble of fun was just starting.

“It’s hard to put this into words, there has been so much emotion over the years from this fan base,” Ben Zobrist said. “It’s not just Chicago, It’s not just Illinois. It’s all over the country. I know they’re watching all over the country and all over the world. What a special moment. We’ve been wanting to do this for the fans all year long, and now that we’ve accomplished the National League championship, it’s time to move on to bigger things. The ultimate goal is still out in front of us.”

Former Cubs great Billy Williams said he thought about former teammates Ernie Banks and Ron Santo as the Cubs celebrated the final out.

“They wanted to see this kind of thing happen, going to the World Series” Williams said. “It has been 108 years (since they won it). The fans waited a long time, they had a long time to celebrate, and they’re going to pitch a big party tonight.”

How long?

“All night and all day,” he said.

If one picture alone could describe the last seven decades of frustration, it would be Norman Rockwell’s 1948 classic “The Dugout,” with long-faced Cubs slouching while fans in the box seats heckled them. The Cubs were only three years removed from the World Series, but the painting became prophetic.

Some cities debate which of their teams was the greatest in franchise history. Cubs fans compare epic collapses from 1969, ’84 and ’03.

And then Maddon, a freestyle orator, convinced his players to ignore the team’s past and advised them to party after every win. Epstein pounced when the Rays manager became available after the 2014 season, and the Cubs won 97 games and made it to the NLCS in Maddon’s first season on the job.

“Really it comes back to the fans,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said. “If it wasn’t for the fans hanging with us through those (rebuilding) years, we wouldn’t be here tonight.”

When Maddon was introduced as Cubs manager, he told fans his motto was, “Don’t ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure.”

Two years later, the Cubs at long last had made it to a World Series.

And the pleasure was ours.