I’m still thinking about Game 7 of the 2016 World Series after the Cleveland Indians—a team I’ve been following for thirty years—lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Chicago Cubs. Mainly I’ve been reviewing plays in my head that tilted the outcome to a title for the Cubs. Mike Napoli ripping a low liner into the glove of Kris Bryant with the score tied 1-1 and two runners on in the third. Napoli throwing high to second base the next inning to start a double play and stretching Francisco Lindor enough off the bag that he couldn’t complete the relay to first. Rajai Davis not charging Addison Russell’s pop fly into shallow left center to get momentum going behind his throw home to catch Bryant surprisingly tagging from third. Corey Kluber leaving a two-strike pitch over the plate to Wilson Contreras that he drilled over Rajai’s head in center—who broke in on the ball—for a 3-1 Cubs lead, after Kluber had just gotten him to chase the previous pitch out of the zone. Terry Francona leaving Kluber in to start the fourth, who uncharacteristically hadn’t struck out any batters and was giving up fly ball after fly ball on a warm night when the ball was jumping out of the park—who promptly left his first pitch flat to Javier Baez for a homerun and a 4-1 Cubs lead. Kris Bryant scoring from first on a single down the right-field line by Anthony Rizzo—the second huge run that Bryant stole with his baserunning that night—giving the Cubs a 5-1 lead.
Reviewing runs 2, 3, 4 and 5 is especially painful because I feel that none of them should’ve happened. Had Napoli’s throw to start the double play not been high, Bryant never gets a chance to surprise Rajai by running home from third on that shallow fly. And these are runs with other possible ways of being stopped: allow Napoli the high throw, fine, but if Rajai gets his momentum going home on the throw and doesn’t hesitate, he throws Bryant out at the plate, and the score is still 1-1 going into the bottom of the fourth with Kluber having thrown three straight scoreless innings and fewer pitches and able to come out more confident and physically stronger for the fifth. He doesn’t hang that slider to Contreras for the third run. The Baez homerun doesn’t happen. Bryant scoring the fifth run off Andrew Miller doesn’t happen. The Cubs don’t face Miller with the confidence of a 4-1 lead in the fourth but the tension of a 1-1 game in the fifth or sixth, perhaps, or maybe even a deficit. That confidence doesn’t translate into a solo homerun off Miller by David Ross in the sixth after the Tribe had miraculously scored two runs on a wild pitch to cut the lead to 5-3 in the bottom of the fifth. So many things have to go wrong for David freakin’ Ross to hit a homerun off Andrew Miller.
Take just one of those runs away and the Cubs don’t win the World Series by one run. They’re up only one when Rajai comes up in the eighth and shocks the world by hitting a two-strike, two-out, two-run homer off Aroldis Chapman, and the Tribe goes on to win in the most glorious of comebacks, giving the city of Cleveland not just two major professional sports championships in a single season, but arguably the two most historic championships in the annals of the NBA and MLB, considering the stakes of the 2016 Finals and 2016 World Series.
But of course baseball doesn’t work this way—because time doesn’t work this way. You can’t simply subtract those Cubs runs and assume the rest of the game’s reality would’ve remained the same. I hate it when people do this. A guy gets thrown out trying to steal second, leaving the bases empty, then the next pitch is deposited into the stands and some jerk will say, Damn, that would’ve been a two-run homer! Not considering that the pitcher probably relaxed a bit with the bases cleared, or the hitter swung more freely with no runners on, or both. Every little thing in baseball leads to the next little thing, which sounds stupid to say because it is so obvious, but less stupid than saying things like I said in the previous paragraph.
Still, we review these plays and believe we can cut them from the mind’s DVR footage, leaving only the happy Loser’s Cut of the game. Baseball encourages this painful review because it seems to reset with every pitch. It is a game of beautiful pauses, pauses that take up so much of the game’s duration that calling them “pauses” seems inaccurate; the moments of action, rather, are what interrupt the long stretches of inaction. There is no flow of play from moment to moment, as there is in basketball or soccer or hockey; thus you can separate the moments of action more easily. And they are separated by thought, the thought of what could happen: what pitch the pitcher could throw, in what location, what kind of swing the batter might take, where he might try to hit the ball, what move a manager might make, etc. So when you go back and review a game in your mind, naturally you’re thinking of alternative possibilities because what you’re reviewing is already the history of you thinking through possibilities.
But from this game you cannot cut the bad without giving up the joy. You cannot take away those seemingly preventable Cubs’ runs without taking away the feeling of despair down 5-1 in the bottom of the fifth with playoff legend Jon Lester coming into the game—and the sudden exhilaration of two runs scoring on a wild pitch, Jason Kipnis whipping home from second and swiping a palm across the plate on a perfect headfirst slide by the catcher’s glove. Then getting up and pumping his arm so hard it looked like he might de-socket it. That sudden feeling WE’RE ALIVE!!! after being dead just a moment ago. You cannot take away those runs without taking away the dread of a 6-3 deficit with four outs to go and the bottom of the order coming up against Chapman, a dude who even tired can throw the ball triple digits. The hope creeping in after Brandon Guyer hits a double off Chapman to cut the deficit to 6-4, followed by the feeling that Rajai—who’d been awful at the plate most of the postseason—would not be able to hit Chapman’s fastball. The excitement of seeing Rajai line a low pitch to left, surely an RBI double—and the utter, stadium-shaking joy when that ball goes over the fence.
I was watching the game at Brother Jimmy’s BBQ in Union Square, which, for whatever reason, is Cleveland sports headquarters in Manhattan. When Rajai’s ball left the yard, the bar went bedlam: I remember jumping up and down in a rage of disbelief, pushing on top of my friends’ shoulders and heads as we thrashed in a makeshift mosh pit below our set of televisions, then turning around to hug anybody in sight. One girl literally leapt into my arms—that was the first time I’ve felt that sensation, and from a complete stranger! We were all roaring and hugging for what seemed like an hour, as Rajai circled the bags and pointed at the sky, wagging his tongue at his teammates as he rounded third then joined them in the delirious celebration that had spilled out of the dugout. There was LeBron flexing and roaring in the way that only he can, seemingly ready to rip off his CLEVELAND OR NOWHERE T-shirt and join the fray. Most of us had felt this euphoria only once before in our Cleveland lives—when the final seconds ticked off the clock in Game 7 against Golden State and LeBron and the Cavs had brought the city its first championship since 1964.
It is hard for me to estimate the value of Rajai’s homerun. It feels weird to say, as I’ve been saying to friends, that it was the greatest homerun of my life—because the Tribe lost. How can a homerun in a loss be the greatest homerun of your life? So many other magical homeruns in my thirty years as a fan led to wins. Jason Giambi hitting a walkoff two-run homer against the White Sox in late September 2013, the Tribe down 4-3 with two outs after closer Chris Perez had blown a save in the top of the ninth, desperately needing to win to stay in the Wild Card hunt. Tony Fernandez’s two-out solo homerun off Armando Benitez in the top of the eleventh of Game 6 of the ALCS against the Orioles in 1997, breaking an agonizing 0-0 tie and sending the Tribe to the World Series. Albert Belle’s solo shot in the bottom of the eleventh against the Red Sox in Game 1 of the 1995 ALDS, with the Tribe trailing 4-3 in the first playoff game they had played in forty-one years, everyone in Cleveland dreading what would happen if we lost that first game of a five-game series at home.
But Rajai’s homerun was bigger than all of those blasts simply because of the winner-take-all stakes of Game 7—especially this Game 7, between the two franchises with the longest-standing championship droughts in baseball. In a tweet after the homerun, Rany Jazayerli announced it the third biggest play in baseball history according to his metric Championship Probability Added, which measures how much a particular play influences a team’s chances to win a World Series. His metric rated Rajai’s homerun ahead of even Bill Mazeroski’s immortal walkoff shot in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, and only behind Tony Womack’s game-tying double in the bottom of the ninth off Mariano Rivera in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series (#2), and Hal Smith’s largely forgotten three-run shot with two outs in the bottom of the eighth in the Mazeroski game, turning a 6-7 Pittsburgh deficit into a 9-7 lead (#1).
Part of what made these plays so improbable was that mediocre hitters were facing back-end bullpen guys—in Womack’s case, he was a .266 hitter with a .652 OPS (both figures were lower in the World Series) facing the greatest closer of all time and the greatest postseason pitcher of all time. Hal Smith was a backup catcher with a lifetime batting average of .267 facing Yankees’ All-Star Jim Coates. And Rajai Davis, age 36, came into Game 7 with a .103 batting average in the series and a microscopic OPS of .294 and more awful swings at pitches out of the zone than anyone on either team; he’d hit only 12 homeruns all year and had 0 homers and 0 RBI in the series, and he was facing the most intimidating left-handed closer in the game, probably ever, who’d given up zero homeruns since he’d joined the Cubs in late July.
So of course Rajai went deep.
There is probably no way he hits that homerun if Chapman hadn’t been running on fumes coming into Game 7, due to Joe Maddon needlessly overusing him in a blowout Game 6 victory. Part of what made the homerun so satisfying, not just joyous, was that it proved Maddon was an overmanaging dickhead; he didn’t deserve to win the World Series, and Rajai’s homerun seemed like it was gloatingly going to make sure of that. You could see Rajai, feeling like he had an edge on Chapman that wasn’t there before, putting together an intense, focused at bat in a way he hadn’t all series, fouling off tough pitches and looking for that one mistake he could handle. He said after the game that he was thinking, “I’m going to win this battle,” and the more pitches he fouled off the more I believed he could deliver Guyer with a single and make it a one-run game. But never did I think, let alone hope, or pray, that Rajai would go deep.
In this game of beautiful pauses, the most beautiful pause is the trot around the bases after a batter hits a homerun. And this is made even more majestic when the impact of the homerun is so historic—especially when it comes on the home team’s turf and the crowd explodes. Rajai said he felt the crowd beating in his heart. He compared it to the feeling from the crowd when Francisco Lindor hit the third of three Tribe homeruns in one inning off Rick Porcello in Game 1 of the ALDS; but he added, “I kind of felt like I was flying higher than that.” Flying higher than the crowd beating in your heart? For once, a player did not resort to platitudes when describing an exceptional moment in a game; for once, thank god, he did not thank God. He opted instead for a secular description of his apotheosis. Rajai Davis gave us poetry, with his swing and with his words after the game, and for that he is a Cleveland sports god forever.
Rajai redeemed the bad parts of the game for me. I’d been sitting there sulking through the middle innings, not talking to my friends, pissed about how what would’ve been flyouts on normal October nights in Cleveland were sailing out of the park, pissed about how Tito was tentatively managing his pitchers after so aggressively managing them the entire postseason, still pissed about Tyler Naquin misplaying that pop fly in the first inning of Game 6 that staked the Cubs to a 3-0 lead and shifted the momentum of the series: it jacked the Cubs' confidence and took the Cleveland crowd out of a potential championship-clinching game on its home turf for the first time since 1948. That kind of play is not supposed to happen in Cleveland anymore, I thought. If that had happened in 1997, I would not have been surprised; but after LeBron lifted the curse? That was supposed to screw the Cubs, not us. And of course when Naquin was replaced in centerfield for Game 7 by Rajai—whose name means victorious king—the king hit a homerun to send the curse (briefly) back to the Cubs.
Oh hello, Joy: what a welcome feeling, embracing my newfound friend from the Finals again. I contend there is no other feeling like that of the collective joy that brims you over when you’re part of a long-suffering fan base liberated into its first championship flying. It is difficult to describe this joy to people not passionate about sports; it goes so far beyond individual joy. Which is odd (and to those people, absurd): why should the Cavs’ 2016 title bring me more joy than publishing my first book, say, or falling in love? The Cavs have nothing to do with me other than playing for Cleveland, where I haven’t lived since 1994, and I contributed nothing to their championship other than cheering at a few games. Maybe it’s that feeling of losing the individual in the collective, the abandon of that abandonment of the purely personal. When you lose in sports, you feel utterly alone; but when you win it all, you’re redeemed again into the larger family of all those others who’ve just been rescued from their own solitude. You find each other. Most joys in our life are private, or shared with just a few people; and often what we feel from others is jealousy or envy. But when so many others have suffered alongside you for thirty years, experiencing the same heartbreaks and longing for the same exact thing, that feeling of joy when your longing is fulfilled is otherworldly.
And I suppose this is why this particular loss stays with me in a good way. I still found that joy. Once you’ve experienced it, you know it, and all of us Cleveland fans were back there again after Rajai’s homerun, feeling like we were bouncing on top of the world. Because that joy was so recently discovered, still in our bloodstreams, it seemed inevitable that we would win; there was no longer any of that Cleveland doubt. Even when the Cubs put a runner on third with one out in the ninth, I thought, There is no way we are going to lose this game. And indeed, Javier Baez botched a safety squeeze and Francisco Lindor made a magnificent play up the middle on a ball that looked like an RBI hit—making it look easy, like, We got this. I stood up on a chair for the bottom of the ninth inning screaming, Let’s do this, let’s win the fucking World Series! and I think every single one of us in that bar thought we would do it. It seemed impossible that the top of our order would go 1-2-3 against a tiring, shell-shocked Chapman. And when the rains came, pausing the game for an absurd seventeen minutes—WAS THE TARP EVEN NECESSARY, YOU TRAITOROUS CLEVELAND GROUNDS CREW—it seemed like there had actually been some kind of divine intervention, that the sports gods, after deliberating over which of these longest-suffering baseball clubs should win, thinking in the eighth, This is Cleveland’s year, suddenly reconsidered: Now wait a second, they did just pull off the greatest NBA Finals comeback in history, and the Cubs haven’t won in over a hundred years, and losing this way would annihilate their fan base …
So they decided to give the title to the Cubs.
And there was probably some historic, if not divine, justice to this outcome. Cleveland had had its breakthrough joy earlier in the year, and then we got the tribute of this homerun—as if we’d been reminded, Look, it’s only fair this one goes to the Cubs, but you’re not the same anymore, remember this? If we were going to lose, this was the best way to lose. There was, apparently, a “best” way to lose. Cleveland got to taste joy again, and Cubs fans—among whom are some of my closest friends, past and present—got the full flood of it.
Would I feel this way if the Cavs hadn’t won in June? Of course not. Game 7 would’ve joined the litany of other Cleveland sports failures, the Drive, the Fumble, the Shot … Cleveland would be feeling really bad after losing two straight Finals to the Warriors and blowing a 3-1 lead against the Cubs. Rajai Davis could’ve hit two game-tying two-run homers late in Game 7 and it wouldn’t have mattered. I’d be devastated. And maybe I still am, but better able to handle it in my post-championship maturity. I just know I’m not in the same place as the girl I saw in the Cleveland cap sobbing to her boyfriend on the subway ride home after the game. I was touched by her emotion, how she seemed inconsolable—despite the Cavs, despite Rajai. I have a deep level of respect for that kind of passion, and I almost felt fake for how “maturely” I was handling the loss. But I was standing right next to her in my own Cleveland cap, smiling. Not beaming like I would’ve been if we’d won, but smiling. I felt we’d been given a gift. A consolation prize, for sure, but one that transcended the loss—that made me understand a certain kind of losing could be transcendent: the joy of losing the individual in the collective. We wouldn’t have felt this joy—wouldn’t have known it as “joy”—if LeBron hadn’t brought us back from the dead; we would’ve still been guarded, fearing the worst. But because he did, Rajai released us again leaping into each other’s arms. I will always remember this game not for how we blew a 3-1 series lead, but for how we came back: the bedlam in that bar after the blast and dogpiling with my friends, history shaking through us.
This game should be known in Cleveland as the “Rajai” game. His name should take its place alongside the Block, the Three and the Stop in the new litany of Cleveland sports triumphs. I’ve already found myself saying to people who try to console me about Game 7: “But Rajai.” We lost, yes, but he kinged us with joy.