CHICAGO — Hall of Famer Billy Williams, 71 is navigating his way through the Chicago Cubs’ raucous clubhouse Saturday night, wearing goggles he’s carried around for nearly 50 years, but never got the chance to use.
Kerry Wood, wearing a Ron Santo jersey, is crying as he hugs the Cubs players walking past them, knowing that this night erased all of those horrifying memories of a decade ago.
Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg is sitting in the stands with the rest of the frenzied crowd that stayed at Wrigley Field for more than two hours after the game, high-fiving the pain of 1984 right out of his mind.
Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam, and actor John Cusack, two of their most famous fans, are smack dab in the middle of the celebration, spraying champagne on everyone they can find, and actually thanking the players.
These are the ones who have been here the longest, enduring the most excruciating pain, and now they were going to embrace the moment all night long.
“There’s a favorite saying in Chicago,’’ Williams said, “I hope they do it in my lifetime.’ So everybody who’s living today, got to witness this.
“I finally got to use these goggles. The last time I wore them, I went skinny-dipping.’’
No one is quite sure how the Cubs celebrated their last pennant in 1945, but there’s no way it could possibly compare to this historic evening on the North Side, complete with players lying down in beer tubs, a coach wearing nothing more than a Speedo, and enough bubbly and Budweiser to souse the masses gathered outside on Clark Street.
The Cubs, after a historic drought of 71 years, are going to the World Series, knocking off the Los Angeles Dodgers, 5-0, to win their first National League Championship Series, 4-2.
Can you believe it?
“I can’t put this into words,’’ said Wood, whose team was five outs away from the 2003 World Series, only for the city to be introduced to Steve Bartman.
“It’s epic. It’s amazing. What this team has done, and what they’ve done for the city and for the organization, it’s a mind-blowing experience.
“These guys come out, unaffected by the history, and we’re in a place we haven’t been in a long time.
“Now, they’ve set themselves in history, and they’re going to be linked forever.’’
These tortured fans at Wrigley will never forget this night. They danced in the aisles, screamed from the rooftops, cried, pointed towards the heavens, and shook the old joint to its foundation
“When we first won, we were all sitting there,’’ Wood said, “and it was like 40,000 people didn’t know what to do. Obviously, they know exactly what to do on Clark. But the first 20 minutes, the 44,000 in here, didn’t know what to do.’’
So this young team - the average age of the Game 6 starting lineup was 23 - had to show the fans themselves, running onto the middle of the field and then coming over to the stands, sharing this glorious moment with them.
“There has been so much emotion over the years from this fan base," Cubs outfielder Ben Zobrist said. "It's not just Chicago. It's not just Illinois. It's all over the country. It’s all over the world.’’
Hard to believe that four years ago, these Cubs were 100-game losers, and a laughingstock.
Today, they are champions of the National League, with hopes of bringing home their first World Series title since the Teddy Roosevelt administration, back in 1908.
It was Williams, linked forever with Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, who perhaps savored this moment more than anyone in the ballpark.
The trio had magnificent seasons playing together, and came, oh, so close several times, but never got to this juncture.
Now, here was Williams, standing in the middle of the infield, misty eyed, surveying the raucous scene on the field, thinking about Ernie, who passed away in January 2015, and Ronnie, who died in 2010.
Oh, how he wishes they were with him at this moment, celebrating this victory that always eluded them.
“As Ronnie said four or five years ago,’’ Williams said, “This is the year.’ But we never did it that year. The guys I played with, Ernie and Ron Santo, they’re not here to see it.
“But this year, we’re celebrating. We’re making everybody happy.
“And I know they’re up there celebrating, too.’’
Along with what seemed to be all of Chicagoland.
“These are greatest fans in the world,’’ Williams said. “They’ve been waiting a long time. Like Jackie Gleason said, “How sweet it is.’
“We can drink that wine now.’’
Yes, for starters.
“I came here because I wanted to win in Chicago,’’’’ said Cubs starter Jon Lester, who shared the NLCS MVP award with second baseman Javier Baez. “It’s unbelievable to be part of it. We still have a little ways to go, but we can celebrate.
“We’re going to have a good time tonight, get drunk a little bit with everyone else, and then we’ll get ready for Cleveland.’’
Who can blame them?
The Cubs, who had lost all six times with a chance to clinch the pennant since the expanded playoffs in 1969, ended the longest drought in professional sports without an appearances in a championship game or round.
And the Dodgers set the major-league record for 10 consecutive playoff appearances without reaching the World Series since 1988.
“To stand on that platform afterwards,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “and you’re looking at the ballpark and the fans and the “W’ flags everywhere. I think about the fans, and their parents, and their grandparents, and great-grandparents, and everything else that’s been going on here for a while.’’
And in one beautiful night, the Cubs exorcised all of their curses, jinxes and miserable play over generations.
“I was good once we got past five outs away,’’ Wood said, haunted by the memory of the Game 6 2003 NLCS, leading 3-0 in the eighth inning, only to give up eight runs in the inning, and lose the game, and Game 7, too.
“After that, I was great. You could feel it.’’
This game really wasn’t about suspense, but inevitability.
It was over in the first inning when the great Kershaw - who pitched seven scoreless innings here in blanking the Cubs in Game 2 - gave up two first-inning runs for the first time in 44 starts.
Kyle Hendricks, the major league’s ERA leader, who was acquired four years ago from Texas for Ryan Dempster, suffocated the Dodgers’ lineup. He gave up a leadoff single to Andrew Toles in the first inning, and went 86 pitches until he gave up another one.
By night's end, the Cubs had outscored the Dodgers 23-6 since falling in a 2-1 hole in L.A.
“They were relentless,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “You hate to have sour grapes, but the better team won the series.’’
Now, it’s onto the World Series, where they once again will embrace the pressure, and yes, finally see the outfield ivy turn from green to orange.
“I love being in a city that’s playing October baseball where you can feel everybody captivated by the ballclub,’’ Epstein said. “Everybody is tired from staying up late, prioritizing baseball above anything else.
“You look around, you smile, you soak it all in, and it takes your breath away.’’
The Cubs are in the World Series.
“It’s a dream come true,’’ said third baseman Kris Bryant, who drove home the game's first run. “Not just for me, but for all of us, the front office, the fans, everyone.
“It’s a night we will never forget.’’