THERE IS Addison Street, and there is Clark Street and there is Waveland Avenue. Somewhere within the area that they circumscribe is the happiest place on earth right now. It might be the old ballpark with the new scoreboard, but that could be too limited a space for the happiest place in the world. It spreads itself around the gentrified brick apartments and into the vast darkness of a dozen bars, and off down the street toward the big lake.
You can't beat the Chicago Cubs now. You can't even hope to contain them. You can put them in pink shoes. They'll beat you. You can make them swing that big pink lumber, in honor of Mother's Day. They'll beat you. You can make them work through nearly five hours on a glorious Sunday afternoon, make them work until they send up Javier Baez to hit in the 13th inning; he was all they had left for a catcher, and Baez hadn't caught since he was in 10th grade. That didn't matter. Baez stood in against Blake Treinan of the Nationals, stood in there with his pink shoes and waving that big pink lumber, and he dropped a 2-and-2 slider into the leftfield seats. The Cubs had swept the Nationals, winning the extended finale of a four-game series 4--3. Before that, they had swept the Pirates in Pittsburgh. They were now 24--6 on the year, the best start by any major league team in 32 seasons, and that little square piece of history was the happiest place on earth. After the game Baez was asked if he planned on using the pink bat after Mother's Day was over.
"I think," he said, "I'm just going to give it to my mom."
Let us be honest. As a longtime Chicagoan friend of mine put it, a Cubs world championship is the Last Great American Sports Story. The Red Sox have had their moment. In fact they've had three of them. The thoroughgoing futility that is the city of Cleveland is an interesting historical glitch, but there are still people alive and prospering who remember Jim Brown and 1964. There have been Triple Crown winners, one as recently as last June. The Cubs are what's left. The last time they got off to a start this hot was in 1907. They won the World Series that year. They won it the next year too. That was back when uniforms were flannel and when the Republicans nominated people like Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Cubs fans have always had a different kind of relationship with their endless frustration than did, say, Red Sox fans. Steve Bartman might disagree, but Chicago's was generally a kind of carefree and nonchalant disappointment. They don't engage their doom-struck history the way Boston fans used to—with monetized mourning and weaponized self-regard. Through 1969, and Bartman and that awful playoff series against the Marlins, nothing has happened to the Cubs that a dog and a coldie couldn't fix. So now that Chicago is on the best run it's had since before World War I, their fans don't hang yesterday's crepe on today's happiness. There is a lightness about the ballpark that has filtered down into the clubhouse.
"A lot of stuff seems to be going our way," said Kris Bryant, the team's impossibly young third baseman/leftfielder. "We feel like we can win every game. It's anybody, anytime. It gives us such a peace of mind. I can't remember any team like this, where it's somebody different every day—even back to T-ball, Little League. I've never seen anything like this."
Over the weekend the Cubs won both games on pure cussedness. Last Saturday they trailed 4--2 in the sixth inning when they staved off more damage with an ATM code double play—2-5-2-5-4—and then took the lead for good in the seventh, on shortstop Addison Russell's double. On Sunday ace Jake Arrieta struggled, at least by his own standards. He threw 100 pitches over five innings, gave up six hits and two earned runs, ballooning his ERA to ... 1.13. He left with Chicago trailing 3–1.
The Cubs came from behind again, as manager Joe Maddon went through the entire lineup, most of the bullpen and the entire manager's syllabus, including walking Bryce Harper six times. "Our guys were in that game until the last drop," Maddon said. "Game like that, a long game, guys could just mail it in. They just come ready to play. And I know that sounds corny and so simplistic."
(We will leave for another day a discussion of why Washington manager Dusty Baker—Welcome back to Wrigley, big guy!—kept slumping Ryan Zimmerman batting behind Harper instead of protecting his star with Daniel Murphy, who was hitting a mere .402 at the time. Harper walked 13 times during the four games at Wrigley.)
As he proved in Tampa, and as he's proving now in Chicago, there is nothing about Maddon that is a cliché, even when he's forced to resort to one of them to explain what's going on around him. He is a blessed eccentric in a sport that discourages them. To celebrate Cinco de Mayo last week, Maddon arranged to have a mariachi band come strolling through the Chicago clubhouse. And in a profession noteworthy for the number of old men yelling at clouds, Maddon decided years ago that he wasn't going to tie himself down with the knucklehead stuff.
"I'm over 50, but I can identify with who [players] are and what they're doing," Maddon said. "I do all I can to remain contemporary because, if you remain contemporary, you remain employable."
Maddon was the cornerstone of a rebuilding plan that president of baseball operations Theo Epstein put in place when he arrived in Chicago five years ago from Boston, where two teams of his construction had laid all the ghosts of that franchise to rest. Upon his arrival at the Cubs' training facility in Arizona, Epstein took his entire front office on retreat to begin to create a new culture around the franchise. "We had our eye on being pretty good in 2016," Epstein said. "I think last year was a little ahead of schedule. We brought in a lot of young guys and expected to be competitive by the end of the year." Instead, charged by young talent, the Cubs erupted last August and September, finishing with 97 wins and losing to the Mets in the National League Championship Series. "Instead of regressing, our young guys got better during the year. That surprised us. We figured three rebuilding years, and then the transitional year in '15, and then be really good in '16."
So far in his career running baseball teams, Epstein has worked for franchises that are a combined 255 years old. So, maybe, he might like a crack at running an expansion team someday instead of specializing in old franchises with spectacular histories of garish failure. "It adds a lot of meaning to work in a place where you know a lot of people care and you can make a lot of people happy," Epstein said. "I will say, though, when we got here, there was not a lot of talent, so it felt as bottom-up as an expansion team would have. When we got here, we felt like we had one impact player." Nonetheless, if this team of Epstein's devising manages to win this franchise's first world championship in more than a century, having already ended eight decades of disaster in Boston, Epstein will own a baseball CV like no other executive in the history of the game. "I don't think about it in that way," he said. "I think of what it will mean to the Cubs' organization and what it will mean to Cubs fans. When you start thinking about yourself and your role, and certainly when you start thinking about your legacy, bad things happen. That's not what you do when you're in the middle of grinding and trying to make good things happen."
There is sun on the Cubs' history now, no matter how much all of that history makes Epstein and his fans cautious about acknowledging what's happening right in front of them, in dread of what might happen later this season. The Cubs, who have done so much that has been ridiculous since William Howard Taft went a-waddling through the corridors of power, are now winning at a ridiculous pace. It is to laugh, which is another thing that nobody ever has forgotten how to do in that little square space which is, for now, the happiest place on earth.
START YOUR ENGINES
In the World Series era, only 13 teams have been as good through 30 games as these Cubs—and things worked out well for most.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
RECORD THROUGH 30 GAMES
105--48, won WS
107--45, won WS
101--53, won WS
106--45, won WS
1946 Red Sox
104--50, won AL
98--55, won WS
92--62, won WS
98--64, won NL
64--45, won division
104--58, won WS
Photograph by Stephen Green
IVY LEAGUE Baez's Mother's Day blast sparked a familiar walk-off scene (look, it's Pedro Strop again!) and visions of what Wrigley might be like after a World Series clincher.
PHOTOCHARLES LECLAIRE/USA TODAY SPORTS STRONG SUITS Epstein assembled a group (including Bryant, left) that has exceeded even his expectations; Maddon (below, far left, with Arrieta) makes sure the clubhouse mood is always light. PHOTOPhotograph by Stephen Green [See caption above]