Cubs Put 108 Years of History into the Hands of Aroldis Chapman

Cubs fans outside Wrigley Field hours before Game 5 on Sunday, October 30th.

Chicago—The red neon sign outside Wrigley Field read “World Series Game 5,” but Sunday night felt more like a Game 7. Hours before the game, thousands of fans gathered at the stadium on Clark Street, the crowd stretching as far as Ashland Avenue a mile away. Strangers high-fived and speakers blared from skinny Chicago brownstones playing “Go Cubs Go.” 

After suffering losses in Games 3 and 4 and facing a 3-1 series hole, the atmosphere could have been one of desperation, but fans were not ready to surrender.

“We have Lester, Arrieta, and Hendricks, we’re good,” said a fan passing by on his way to the park. This attitude mimicked the cool, calm and collected aura of manager Joe Maddon and the young Cubs players. And while the Cubs strong rotation made the possibility of a historic comeback feasible, it would be the controversial Aroldis Chapman called upon to extend both the season and the hopes of millions of Cubs fans.

Starter Jon Lester didn’t disappoint, pitching six innings and giving up just two earned runs. Although Jose Ramirez’s second inning solo homerun off Lester quieted an eager Cubs crowd, the Cubs answered with three runs of their own in the fourth inning, initiating a sea of Cubs fans dancing and hugging each other as the beers kicked in. Even the older man with white hair in Section 216 meticulously filling out his scorecard got in on the action.

But after an RBI single from Francisco Lindor in the sixth inning cut the Cubs lead to one run, the weight of a 108-year drought returned. With just one out in the seventh inning, Joe Maddon walked out, pointed to the bullpen, and “Wake Up” by Rage Against the Machine blasted out of the Wrigley Field speakers as Aroldis Chapman trotted to the mound. The fans in section 216 shook their heads in disbelief. The Cuban closer may have been the most talented arm in the league, but fans didn’t fully trust him, much less to get an eight-out save with the season on the line.

“I guess he’s going with Chapman,” said a nervous fan capturing the anxiety of the 41,711 in attendance.

The nerves were justified. Chapman had been openly vocal about preferring to pitch in the ninth inning, and if called earlier, without inheriting any runners on base. In these playoffs alone, he gave up runs against the Giants in the NLDS and the Dodgers in the NLCS in similar scenarios. And yet, here he was.

Chapman is not the life of the party. The steely-eyed, 105 mph flame-thrower who calls himself the #CubanMissile on Twitter doesn’t embody the laid-back, cheerful vibe of the Cubs youth. The Cubs traded for him in late July; he’s not a part of their core or long-term plans. He’s a rental by baseball standards, brought in to close key games and sit far away from the dugout.

Reservations about Chapman go beyond his struggles before the ninth inning. On October 30th, 2015, Chapman was accused of assaulting his girlfriend and firing gunshots into a wall. No criminal charges were filed, but the MLB suspended him for 30 games.

Fans have grappled with how to simultaneously root for the Cubs and Chapman. At one end is a fan like Caitlin Swieca, who started donating $10 to the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic every time Chapman recorded a save. The initiative went viral on Twitter with the hashtag #pitchin4dv, and by the start of the World Series she had raised over $20,000. That’s no small feat; but like a carbon offset, the campaign reeked of rationalizing support for Chapman, however generous.  

But Chapman’s alleged transgressions are in the past, and on this Sunday evening there was no talk of Chapman’s history in the stadium. Moral debates would have to wait until after the season; one man’s checkered story was not going to get in the way of a 108-year dry spell. With every swing and miss the #Cuban Missile induced, fans got louder and more confident. Chapman was near perfect, facing 10 batters and retiring eight of them.

Chapman even had to bat in the bottom of the eighth. He struck out, but it was an epic moment, especially given that Kyle Schwarber was available to bat and a runner was in scoring position.

Maddon’s plan all along was to bring Chapman in and let him finish the game. In one move, the manager placed the fate of Cubs history into the hands of the infamous closer. A guy who started his season watching at home as he served his suspension was just months later pitching in October in front of the most deprived fan base in all professional sports. He delivered. When he struck out Jose Ramirez to end the game in the top of the ninth, the weekend-long party at Wrigley hit full crescendo.

The Cubs line up to congratulate themselves on the Game 5 win. The crowd is belting “Go Cubs Go.”

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Aroldis Chapman tweets hours after getting the eight-out save in Game 5.