In 1989 a scriptwriter called Bob Gale needed to sort out a plot twist for Back to the Future Part II, the one where Marty McFly ends up riding a hoverboard in 2015. “What was the most absurd thing you could think of in 1989?” Gale said, many years later. “What would make Marty McFly go: “WHAT???” What would make him want to bet on sports? And it was the Cubs winning the World Series.”
At the time it looked the safest of picks. The Cubs were famously inept. Generations of fans at their historic, ivy-clad Wrigley Field had witnessed nothing but failure and underachievement since their last World Series victory in 1908. Even the White Sox, their cross-city rivals, managed a World Series win in 2005 having started the season as 66-1 shots, but the Cubs’ drought moved beyond a century with no sign of any relief.
But just a year adrift of Gale’s absurd prediction, in 2016, the Cubs made it through to the World Series for the first time since 1945. They were up against the Cleveland Indians who, in a nice twist, had the second-longest championship drought – a mere 68 seasons, compared to the Cubs’ 108. When the Indians jumped to a 3-1 series lead, including consecutive wins at Wrigley Field in its 100th year, for Cubs fans, all hope once again seemed lost. But two wins of their own levelled it up and forced a Game 7 decider at the Indians’ Progressive Field in Cleveland.
And best of all for a UK-based baseball fan, I was in the US when it happened. It was an interesting time to be in the States in any case, with nothing on the news but wall-to-wall election coverage as the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton went into its final few days. It felt like an escape to step from bright Californian afternoon sunshine into the welcoming darkness of a sports bar in Pasadena as the teams warmed up more than 2,000 miles away to the east.
The bar was already packed in anticipation, with Cubs fans outnumbering those rooting for Cleveland by at least 10 to one. And while reality so rarely lives up to expectation, Game 7 was an instant classic, with all the ebb and flow of fortunes and sudden instants of electrifying brilliance and high drama that sets baseball apart.
The Cubs got on the board early, as the first batter up hit a long home run over the centre field wall. The Indians tied it in the third, went 3-1 down in the next and 5-1 down by the middle of the fifth. No sooner had Cubs fans started to believe than Cleveland roared back, with two runs to make it 5-3.
It was 6-3 Cubs by the middle of the eighth, a three-run cushion with only six outs needed for victory. But baseball is a sport like few others, since a single swing of the bat can score one, two, three or even four runs to turn a game on its head. And with the score back to 6-4 in the bottom of the eighth and a runner on second, Rajai Davis hit a home run which tied the game at 6-6. For only the fifth time in history, Game 7 of the World Series was going to extra innings.
And then, it started to rain, delaying the finale for almost half an hour. So it was past midnight in Cleveland when Michael Martínez came to the plate nearly four and a half hours after the first pitch, with two men out, a runner on first and the Cubs 8-7 in front. Still, there was just one swing of the bat in it.
A home run would mean a “walk-off” victory for the Indians. One more out would win it all for the Cubs. Martínez hit it into the infield dirt, the throw beat him to first and the extraordinary wave of noise that swept around the bar mingled triumph and astonishment with blessed relief. After 108 years of hurt, it was the sound of sporting absolution.