Then he asked, “Is this the HBO version?”
By that, he meant that he had delivered a glorious, expletive-laced pep talk. And his team responded by stringing together sharp grounders and line drives like so many pearls and claiming a 6-5 victory to secure a spot in the National League Championship Series.
The Cubs won 103 games in the regular season, the most in the major leagues. But for the past few days, they had again appeared in danger of losing when they were expected to win. Had they fallen Tuesday night, they would have had to return to Wrigley Field to play an elimination game in front of hometown fans basted in worry, doubt and paranoia.
The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt was president. Many of their fans are persuaded that this longest of droughts owes to the fact that the club is cursed. That curse involves, among other necromancies, a dead goat. It is spectacularly unhinged, except that some seasons it feels like an almost logical explanation for repeated failure.
Before Tuesday’s game, reporters put the question of maledictions to Jon Lester, the veteran ace of the Cubs’ staff. He knows from cursed metropolises, having played for the Boston Red Sox, who didn’t win a World Series title for 86 years and then won three in a decade. He scrunched his face and nodded in the direction of the Cubs’ clubhouse.
“Nobody really cares in there about a curse or a goat or anything else, you know what I mean?” he said. “It’s almost better to play naïve and just go out and worry about us and not anything else or, like I said, any animals.”
He sounded sane and rational. When the Cubs proceeded to fall behind by three runs in the fifth inning, however, winged demons could be seen perched atop the Coors Light sign on the scoreboard, chattering madly.
And mysteries continued to abound.
Consider Conor Gillaspie, a soft-spoken 29-year-old journeyman and the current Giants third baseman, who never swerved from his magical postseason run. He went 4 for 4 on Tuesday and knocked in one of the runs the Giants scored in the fifth. Gillaspie is a lifetime .256 hitter who batted .400 this postseason. No doubt he instructed the clubhouse to under no condition wake him from this dream.
Much, in fact, went well for the Giants. Denard Span, the leg-churning center fielder, continued to take fastballs at shoelace level and lace those balls into the outfield. Matt Moore, a 27-year-old left-handed pitcher who returned a year ago from Tommy John surgery, tossed a masterful game, allowing two hits and striking out 10 Cubs over eight innings.
The Giants are comfortable with long shadows and autumnal chill; this is their time of the year. If Maddon is half manager and half hipster-shrink, a man who warns of the dangers of “confirmation bias” when making game decisions, Giants Manager Bruce Bochy is the world-weary trail boss, too polite to tell reporters their psyche-probing questions are a hoot.
“You don’t lie down until the final out,” he said of his team, which had lost the first two games of this series before again displaying its postseason resilience. “You keep fighting, and really, you don’t have a choice. That’s your job.”
By the eighth inning, with the Giants up by 5-2, AT&T Park was buoyant; San Francisco fans are passionate, even demanding, but they betray little of the suicidal angst and punched-in-the-solar-plexus tsuris of East Coast tribalists. A brilliant, three-quarter moon rose overhead, kayakers paddled in McCovey Cove behind right field, and the Troggs blasted from the speakers. Fans sang along and shook booties and vied for the kiss cam.
How bad was life?
But good nature alone could not take this series from the Cubs. They are a team on the ascent. The Mets rebuilt around young pitchers, and many now have broken wings. The Cubs rebuilt around free-swinging home run thumpers and Olympic-quality infield gymnasts like second baseman Javier Baez. Their kids are healthy, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
When 24-year-old Willson Contreras punched a key pinch-hit in the top of the ninth, he ran to first and more or less lost his mind, pounding his chest, pointing skyward and to the crowd, to his teammates, to his girlfriend.
It is Maddon’s job to tutor and temper this bunch like a good-humored Dr. Freud. A couple of days ago, he mentioned that while he dug that his big-bopping young men grooved on hitting baseballs into distant bleachers, there was no crime in choking up on the bat and driving the ball for a base hit.
“The biggest thing to get these guys to understand is that when you choke up, it doesn’t mean you’re less virile,” he said.
After the game, as teammates sprayed Champagne like water from open hydrants, Ben Zobrist, at 35 the oldest regular member of the Cubs’ lineup, reinforced Maddon’s message. He said the ninth-inning rally was an epiphany, maybe. Good teams, he said, learn to “just pass the baton” and not aim for the heavens with every swing.
“We lived by the home run in the regular season, but you can’t do that in the postseason,” he said. “Today’s rally wasn’t even conscious; that’s just the level of survival you go through as a hitter.”
There was another factor: The Giants’ bullpen resembled a conclave of arsonists. Bochy fiddled all season, a casting director holding tryouts for the role of closer. He never found his star.
Instead, the top of the ninth became a laboratory of dysfunction, with walks, hits and errors. At one point, Bochy plucked out his gum and angrily tossed it aside. Then he slowly walked out to the mound to make another pitching change.
“It’s a weird feeling,” Bochy acknowledged afterward. “It just ends so abruptly.”
Last year, Maddon sat in his dugout and watched as the Mets celebrated a four-game postseason sweep of his club. He roamed the medieval tunnels of Wrigley afterward and found Terry Collins, his friend and the Mets’ manager, and gave him a hug.
But that loss was like a scorpion’s sting.
“I kept telling our kids, ‘Something bad is going to happen during this game, too, and we have to stay in the moment,’” Maddon said. “When you are closing somebody else out, you see a look in their eyes. I don’t want to be those guys.”
The Cubs survived to play another playoff series. Whether they can lift the ancient curse and keep those winged demons at bay will not be answered definitively until the chilly nights still to come.