This won’t be a recap of all of the home runs and big moments of the season, as so many others have provided, because I have nothing to add to those. Every one of them was special. The moment I’ll mention here was special to me – a moment when I saw something in a player’s reaction to the game, an emotional connection that may or may not have meant anything to others, but that strengthened my understanding and love of the game. If I could field a team of the players that I think most represent my ideals, they would be men who like those mentioned here.
The whole season made me smile. Forty plus years as a Chicago Cubs fan will do that to you. You find ways to love the game without the joys associated with winning championships. You make connections to players, individual games, and matchups. You memorize all the old tropes about next year, but you don’t really pay attention to them. If you do, you get bitter. Entire decades of baseball slipped by me during periods like that. The 2015 Cubs brought me back around. Here is one of the reasons.
Pedro Strop took a lot of fire during the regular season for some rough patches. The entire bullpen did, in fact. Strop was struggling, and you could see that he’d grown somewhat discouraged. Baseball fans aren’t known for their compassion when it comes to pitchers, and Cubs fans can be pretty quick to look for what they suspect (not without reason) might be the beginning of the slide into “maybe next year land.” No matter how confident a young pitcher might be, the lack of fan support can settle over him like a shroud.
The date was September 1, 2015. The Cubs were playing the Cincinnati Reds. That day, the Cubs were leading the Reds, 5-4. In the eighth inning, Joe Maddon sent Strop in to set up Hector Rondon and hold the lead. Strop induced a groundout from Jay Bruce, and the always-dangerous Joey Votto flied out to left. That brought Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips to the plate.
The two battled to a full count, and then, out of nowhere, Strop found a little more of “something” for his fastball. Phillips struck out, and Strop went crazy. He was fired up – so damned happy he fist-bumped the air and ran off the mound. To be honest, it seemed a bit much.
Here’s the first moment that mattered. Instead of taking offense at the celebration, Phillips gave a big, genuine grin, and a thumbs up. It was a great pitch, and he acknowledged it with class. In case you’re wondering, that puts him on that mythical lineup I’d field if I had the chance.
The next time the two faced off, Phillips knocked Strop for a single, and when he reached first, he smiled and pointed, and winked, and Strop smiled back (a little sheepishly, remembering his own celebration). The two made a connection, and they made it over baseball at its finest. To me, that’s what baseball is all about. Those two guys were playing their hearts out and loving the game. I’d love to see more of that. I have a really good feeling about 2016.