ST. LOUIS — They chanted, “Lackey! Lackey! Lackey!”
An old ball-slinger, the rubber mostly gone from his right arm, drank it in. With bubbly and Bud, and something a little harder. The Cubs chanted in their celebration-soaked clubhouse for John Lackey, who’ll turn 39 the day before Game 1 of the World Series, and he smiled as wide as his native Texas.
Chances are, he’ll never pitch another regular-season game. Will he pitch in the playoffs for the Cubs, who won 5-1 over the rival Cardinals on Wednesday to clinch a division title? Well, that we don’t know.
But his friend Jon Lester raised a drink and toasted his guy: “Here’s to a hell of a [expletive] career!”
It was emotional.
The Cubs yelled for a speech, and Lackey, ever the eloquent charmer, looked askance at the media and snarled, “I’ll talk to my boys on the bus.”
Believe it or not, that was kind of emotional, too.
Let’s stay inside the celebration, which began shortly after third baseman Kris Bryant and shortstop Addison Russell — as lucky, playoff-bound for the third time in their three-year big-league careers, as they are good — hoisted a “W” flag on the mound at Busch Stadium.
Between giant walls of plastic, the Cubs hugged and laughed, doused one another’s heads and sprayed one another’s faces; the usual stuff. Yet, there were moments inside this moment that demonstrated one of the most important aspects of this team. No, these Cubs aren’t perfect. They may or may not have the magical mojo that last year’s World Series team had. But the players are together. The culture among the ranks is stronger than oak.
So when Albert Almora Jr., Jon Jay and Ian Happ found one another in the middle of the chaos and embraced — the three of them, at once — they lingered awhile, and it meant something. Here were three players in manager Joe Maddon’s carousel of part-time starters. When one gets the call, chances are at least one of the others does not. On some teams, players in such a position might have friction between them. Not here. Not these Cubs.
“It says a lot about our guys as individuals,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said, looking on amid the spray with pride in his eyes and a dollop of foam fresh on his forehead. “It says that winning is more important to them. No one is entitled here.”
Happ, 23 and two-fisted — talk about the time of one’s life — turned to no one in particular and declared, “This is awesome.”
Ben Zobrist, 36 and a veteran’s veteran of clubhouse celebrations, said, “This doesn’t get old.”
It was a first for Jose Quintana, who came to the Cubs from the White Sox in mid-July and has proved himself to be one of their most reliable starting pitchers. Quintana is about to get his first whiff of playoff baseball. Late Wednesday night, the goggled lefty reeked of jubilation, possibly because Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Willson Contreras were soaking him with the good stuff.
“This is so fun,” Quintana said, beaming. “We’re actually going [to the playoffs].”
Seldom-used Leonys Martin, who squeezed the final out of the clincher in center field, is a long shot for the postseason roster. He knows it, too. That’s why he was celebrating like someone who’d just experienced a championship all his own. In a way, he had.
“I was yelling, ‘Hit the ball to me! Hit the ball to me!” he said. “And then he did.”
Martin did his part. Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez and the rest of the team’s stars will do most of the heavy lifting from here. These Cubs? They’re pretty good.
“Young guys who are really good at baseball,” Lackey called them.
And the old guys?
“They’re pretty good, too.”
At one point, the whole team piled around bench coach Davey Martinez, who led them in what felt like the mother of all chants. It was loud. It was passionate. It shook the room.
“Eleven more! Eleven more! Eleven more!”
Win that many come playoff time, and Chicago will have itself another parade. But all in due time. This night was fun enough to stand on its own.
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