The pitchers and catchers have arrived, the season preview guides are all out and the Cardinals have had their annual season-ending injury to a key player before camp has even started: Spring Training is undeniably here, and it is wonderful. (We are less than one week until the first Spring Training game. Check your MLB At Bat app, I swear, I'm not kidding.) The 2017 season is about to begin, which means we can close the book on 2016. Last year will end up being remembered for one thing, and one thing only in baseball: It will be remembered for this.
2016 will live on in MLB history forever for the same reason 2004 lives on forever, the way 1927 lives on forever: It had a signature team, with a signature franchise, giving the sport a signature moment. The Chicago Cubs winning the World Series is as big a story as baseball had to offer the planet -- I'd argue it was the first time the biggest story in sports was a baseball story since, what, maybe 1998? -- and it's a massive enough thing that it'll essentially wipe out everything else that happened, from David Ortiz and Vin Scully's retirements to even the death of Jose Fernandez. In 30 years, when someone asks you what happened in baseball in 2016, you'll say "Cubs won the World Series" without even thinking about it. To get yourself ready for 2017, it's simple to put a bow on the 2016 season: The Cubs won the World Series. Done. Bronzed for immortality.
But there's one moment in 2016 that I don't want to shut the door on just yet, that I want to have one final reflection on before we move on to a new season. It is the one instant that made me jump and scream, the definitive holy sh-t, I don't believe what I just saw moment. It has been nearly forgotten in the wake of the Cubs' championship, and understandably so, but I want to hang onto it for the last waning seconds until the new season washes it away.
That moment was this:
When this moment happened, I was sitting in the press box of Progressive Field, next to Phil Rogers, an MLB.com writer who wrote for the Chicago Tribune for years. I used to read Rogers in the Trib when I was in college at the University of Illinois and always admired his work, but I'd never met him until that game. We politely said hello, I told him I'd been reading him for years, he said thanks, and then we went about our business. We hadn't said a word to each other until Davis hit that ball, when I proceeded to leap in the air, scream "oh my God OH MY GOD OH MY GOD" and tackle the living bejeezuses out of Phil Rogers. I might have bitten his ear; I'm pretty sure I got to at least second base with him in that second. It was quite a thing.
My reaction was perhaps a bit extreme, but I doubt you were much different. It is difficult to overstate how unlikely that home run was. Some basic factoids about the world as it existed before that 2-2 pitch from Aroldis Chapman to Rajai Davis:
- The Cubs had led 5-1, and 6-3, and were counting down the outs until their World Series title.
- Chapman had not given up a home run since June.
- Rajai Davis had never hit a postseason home run and until a recent uptick in homers -- including a surprising 12 in 2016 -- had been the opposite of a power hitter. In 2011, in 338 plate appearances, he hit one home run.
It was Chapman against Rajai Davis, for crying out loud. No matter how much Joe Maddon had overused Chapman, no matter how out of his normal routine he might have been, this was still Rajai Davis against Arolids Chapman. With two strikes. And the Cubs four outs from a title.
And then Davis hit it.
And it wasn't just that! Just an inning before, Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith, in the stands with a bunch of Cavs players, took his shirt off when the cameras found him, a rally gesture that was chuckled at but was also greeted with a massive roar. The Cavs season had just begun that week, and the team had just raised its championship banner, the one LeBron James had promised his city, a promise he carried through on. For Game Six, the Cavs all came over from Quicken Loans Arena across the street, where they had just finished a game they started an hour and a half early to avoid the Progressive Field madness, to cheer. Cleveland felt like a championship city: It felt like LeBron and company had opened the spigot and now titles would just pour out. Cleveland felt like kings. Seeing J.R. Smith was a sign that even though they were trailing the Cubs, this was still a universe in which the Cavaliers were champions, in which Cleveland fans weren't the sad sacks they'd been for decades. That they could do this.
And then Davis did that. And guess who was in the stands losing his damned mind just like I was.
It was a homer that reminded Cleveland that they weren't the old Cleveland, they were now champions. They were not the supporting characters in the Cubs' World Series culmination.
And man, have you ever seen the videos of Clevelanders celebrating that homer? Here's my favorite.
That is pure sports jubilation. That's the reason we watch, man. That is the impossible happening before our very eyes.
If Cleveland had ended up winning that game -- and it's still a little stunning to me that the top of the order couldn't even scrounge up a baserunner in the bottom of the ninth off a gassed Chapman who was throwing almost exclusively sliders -- that is an all-timer home run, isn't it? What World Series home runs, what Game 7 World Series home runs, would have been bigger than that one? Not many, right? Rajai Davis would be Bucky Dent, and Joe Carter, and David Freese, and Kirk Gibson, all rolled into one. (It's also worth remembering that Davis knocked in a run in the 10th inning as well, two games after stealing three bases in Game Five. The guy was locked in.) Rajai Davis would be a name that we, and especially Cleveland, would never forget.
But it's not going to turn out that way, because the Cubs came back in the 10th, and Mike Montgomery got the last out, and then Bill Murray was crying and they were writing names on the Sheffield wall and it was pretty wonderful, all told. Few outside of Cleveland are complaining about how it all turned out. We've all moved on. Rajai Davis even now plays in Oakland. But that home run, that stunning, jaw-dropping, look out Phil Rogers! home run is one of the most astounding things I've ever seen at a sporting event. Before we store 2016 away and open up all the packages that 2017 has for us, I wanted to hang onto it, one last time. Sports can make us leap up in joyous surprise, an involuntary, instinctive reaction, the way almost nothing else on earth can. That moment was one of the greatest joyous surprises baseball has provided in a long, long time. We can celebrate the Cubs, I hope, and still not forget it.