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World Series Shift to Chicago Ushers in Historic Moment Bigger Than the Game

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 28, 2016

Chicago Cubs' Addison Russell celebrates his two-run home run with teammate Dexter Fowler during the fourth inning of Game 4 of the National League baseball championship series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

CHICAGO — The old girl is dressed to the nines. Wrigley Field, on deck to host her first World Series game Friday night since Oct. 10, 1945, is crackling with energy.

And when the Chicago Cubs take the field to face the Cleveland Indians in Game 3, this shrine of a ballpark, which has produced so many memorable afternoons and, later, evenings, will author a first: An African-American wearing a Cubs uniform will play in a World Series game in Wrigley Field.

The Cubs have not been here since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

Which means, well, gasp, yes.

It is amazing to even attempt to rationally wrap our minds around it. How we got here, how in the name of Martin Luther King Jr., or even Ernie Banks, this hasn't happened before in Wrigley, is a testament to a century of futility for the Cubs.

"Ernie and I tried, but we didn't get there," Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams said.

Williams was standing in the visitors' dugout at Cleveland's Progressive Field as he spoke, beaming, looking at his beloved franchise in a real World Series, smiling at the thought of leadoff man Dexter Fowler, shortstop Addison Russell, outfielder Jason Heyward and reliever Carl Edwards Jr. becoming the first black men to play in a World Series wearing a Cubs uniform in any venue.

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"The World Series itself is great, but when you look at all the things that have happened in baseball and then you look and see that four African-Americans are playing in a World Series for the Cubs for the first time in all those many years, it's really something," he continued.

"It gives you two thrills: To be here at the World Series, and to see those individuals play."

Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams.
Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

That it comes at a time of more jagged racial tension in our country's history, with the Black Lives Matter movement pushing for change and policemen under fire, might not make the debuts of these four Cubs any more significant. But it sure makes them more deeply felt.

"Just knowing Dex and J-Hey, and knowing C.J. [Edwards Jr.], we've always been the type of people to never settle for the everyday usual," said Russell, who became the first African-American to collect a World Series RBI for the Cubs when he drew a bases-loaded walk to push across the fifth run in Chicago's 5-1 Game 2 victory.

"I think that's what has driven us. We didn't have a choice to pick the ethnic background that we have, but it is what it is, and we are who we are, and we try to make the best of it that we can.

"Black Lives Matter is a huge movement. I think African-Americans need to be heard, for sure."

Russell added that it is "nice on paper" to be able to say that he's one of the first four African-Americans to play in a World Series for the Cubs. Fowler, who became the first black player to play for the Cubs in a Fall Classic when he led off Game 1 by taking a called third strike against Cleveland ace Corey Kluber, said it was "awesome" to play the role of a trailblazer.

Heyward, the free agent who signed an eight-year, $184 million deal but has lost his starting spot because of a prolonged slump, downplayed the racial angle while acknowledging the larger moment.

"I haven't thought about it other than we come in every day and prepare as players to do what we can to help our team win," Heyward said. "We go out there on a daily basis, representing our family name, representing our organization, representing our city, and that's the bottom line.

"We were born African-Americans, and there's nothing we can control there. It's been that way our whole lives, so it's not surprising to say it's a first.

"It's unique and cool and, I guess, humbling to be a part of it for the first time. But we're just here by chance, you know? Everything happens for a reason."

Jason Heyward signed an eight-year deal to join the Cubs last winter in free agency.
Jason Heyward signed an eight-year deal to join the Cubs last winter in free agency.Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

What is not by chance, and what is instructive about this particular group of Cubs, is how they've ascended racial boundaries all summer long.

Most of the team—black, white, Latin—gathered in Fowler's Cincinnati hotel room in April to celebrate Jake Arrieta's no-hitter earlier that day.

Heyward, in a classy pay-it-forward move thanking a veteran who had taken him under his wing when they both were with the Atlanta Braves organization, has footed the bill for David Ross to be upgraded to a hotel suite on every Cubs road trip this year. That has continued into the postseason, Ross said, a gesture that is especially meaningful now because Ross' wife, children and parents have been traveling in October, and the suite gives them all a place to stay and spread out.

Ross spoke at length of Heyward's generosity Thursday.

To Heyward, being kind and generous is the way everybody should behave, no matter their ethnicity.

"We're in a World Series," Heyward, 27 and a native of Georgia, said. "I know I'm an African-American, so I go represent the best way I can as a person with my teammates and my friends and in terms of the organization because you know you've got a lot of different things from a lot of different people and a lot of people are watching. That's the bottom line. Just treat people how you want to be treated and go from there."

For reliever Edwards, 25 and a native of Prosperity, South Carolina, his place in Cubs history is humbling.

"It's pretty awesome," he said. "We've seen Robinson come through, and I'm not saying we're just like him, but...me and Dex and J-Hey and Addison—this is a great thing to have on our resume."

Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr.
Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Edwards is aware enough of the moment, both playing in his first World Series and understanding the social significance of it, that he plans to keep the cleats he wears whenever he makes his first appearance. In fact, he figures he'll probably take a few other things home for his archives too because "this doesn't happen to everybody."

He's thought about the timing of this moment and the social forces at work as a backdrop.

"Back home, of course, they put up the Black Lives Matter posts," Edwards said. "But now everybody at home is putting up my picture on Facebook and social media because it's something positive.

"Black Lives Matter—everybody is thinking that's a negative. This is something positive that people can hang on to."

He figures the kids back in his hometown can benefit from his experience because "if they see somebody from home doing it, it gives them more confidence."

As Russell said: "It's absolutely meaningful to us, to our families and, obviously, to our bloodline. I think our ethnicity, we wear it on our shoulders. Whenever you get around a group of people that come from so many different backgrounds, you have to be rooted a little bit, I think, whenever it comes to your ethnicity."

And so as they step on to the Wrigley Field lawn and move just a bit deeper into Cubs lore, this is one of the most significant steps yet.

"Sports itself has a way of bringing a lot of injustices to the forefront," Williams, 78, and a native of Whistler, Alabama said. "When you look on the field and you see African-Americans, you see whites, you see Italians, you see all races of people out on the baseball field, and that's why it helps so much to bring about justice in this world."

Recently, Williams said he watched the film 42, the biopic of Robinson's life story. In it, there is a scene in Cincinnati in which Pee Wee Reese walks over and throws his arm around Robinson in a show of support as the fans showered him with racial taunts and other epithets.

It reminded him of his own Hall of Fame induction in 1987 and after, when, he said, "I used to go to the Hall of Fame, and I wanted to find Pee Wee Reese. And when I found him, I would put my arms around him just like he did to Jackie Robinson. And it gave me a great thrill."

Yeah, as Williams said, it is great to see. Both the Cubs in the World Series and doing it in living, vivid color.

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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