Now, just as the Red Sox had to do, the Cubs are learning to cope with an altogether foreign problem: success.
“It’s like we were always the guy at the dance who could never get a date with the pretty girl,” said Jonathan Gates, 54, of Boston. “Now, we are the dance.”
The Cubs and Red Sox share more than histories. They play in the two oldest parks in baseball, Fenway and Wrigley Field, jewels at the center of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
They also share an architect, of course — Theo Epstein, the boy-wonder general manager when the Red Sox won in 2004 (and again in 2007) who then left to build a championship team in Chicago.
Credit Elise Amendola/Associated Press
Epstein, who grew up in nearby Brookline, was back at Fenway this weekend for the first time since he left after the 2011 season, frustrated with the political infighting after the Red Sox had collapsed in September.
He arrived Thursday, went for a jog along the Charles River and then watched the last few innings of the Red Sox’ loss to the Yankees with his close friend, the Red Sox’ president, Sam Kennedy. On Friday, at Fenway, he chatted with Boston Manager John Farrell, signed autographs and talked with Red Sox employees during batting practice.
He did not wear his latest World Series ring — “I wore the only ring that matters,” he said, flashing his wedding band — but brought it to show his father, to whom he gave his Red Sox ring.
Inevitably, Epstein gave off the air of a conquering hero returning home.
“I’ve been looking forward to coming back,” he said, having missed the Cubs’ last visit here in 2014, when his second child was about to be born. Back then, the Red Sox were reigning champions and the Cubs were in the midst of another last-place finish as Epstein’s rebuilding efforts at Wrigley Field slowly took hold.
“The fact that we won — obviously it feels good,” Epstein said, referring to the Cubs, not the Red Sox. “It feels nice to the extent that it kind of validates my decision to try a new challenge a little bit and it wasn’t a foolish thing to leave. That part feels good, but I’d be happy coming back here under any circumstances.”
As Epstein walked to the ballpark Friday from the nearby Commonwealth Hotel, turning left on Brookline Avenue, crossing the bridge over the I-95 turnpike and turning onto Yawkey Way, the neighborhood around him was changing.
Large apartment and office buildings have sprouted up south of the ballpark, and chain restaurants, bars and retail shops have proliferated. An example of how quickly gentrification has taken place is the popular Tasty Burger, which opened in 2010 in an abandoned gas station. But the land it sits on is too valuable not to develop, so Tasty Burger will relocate.
“At some point soon, we’ll move across the street,” said Tim Garrity, who mans the bar at the restaurant. “But it won’t be the same.”
What has not changed is the immense popularity of both teams — in a sense, they are national brands — and that was reflected in how many Cubs fans found their way into Fenway on Friday night to watch the Red Sox score a 5-4 victory, the final out coming when closer Craig Kimbrel struck out Addison Russell with the tying run at second.
Among them were Mike Trafton and his wife, Melissa. Mike, dressed in a vintage Ernie Banks uniform, recalled going home from school and watching the Cubs on television with his grandfather. It was a bonding experience that Red Sox fans old enough to remember the frustrating days before 2004 can appreciate.
Another Cubs fan, Eric Draut, pointed out that just as the Red Sox had Bill Buckner, the first baseman who infamously let a ground ball go through his legs in the 1986 World Series, the Cubs had Leon Durham, who did the same thing in the final game of the 1984 National League Championship Series.
But those days, if not quite forgotten, no longer seem to weigh so heavily.
In fact, they have led to the inevitable question for Epstein: If he was able to turn around two of the most enduring losers in American sports and make them champions, what can’t he do?
Fortune Magazine recently called Epstein the world’s greatest leader. And David Axelrod, the former adviser to President Barack Obama — and a die-hard Cubs fan who has befriended Epstein — recently told Politico that Epstein has all the requisite qualities to run for political office except one: He does not want to.
“I think as soon as he gets that call, he’s immediately changing his number,” Axelrod told the website.
Epstein, speaking at a charity event earlier Friday, said he had laughed at the Politico article, according to The Boston Globe. At Fenway Park later, he expressed gratitude for the chance to head the Cubs and the Red Sox. Just as he lived within walking distance of Fenway Park, he does so in Wrigleyville, too.
“You come to a place with this kind of history, this kind of ballpark, these kind of passionate fans — it enhances the entire experience,” Epstein said of Boston. “People care more. The wins and losses matter more. You know people are talking about what happened in the eighth inning at the dinner table along with: ‘Hey, how was your day at school? How was your day at work?’”
Epstein said Chicago had the same level of passion.
“I don’t know if I could go anywhere else, a run-of-the-mill baseball market, and work, because it would probably feel like work,” he said. “In Boston and Chicago, it doesn’t feel like work.”
And besides, how many places are left where you can help deliver the thrill of a lifetime — no matter how long that is?