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Historic Cubs-Indians World Series Moves MLB From Fading Pastime to Spotlight

If MLB locked 1,000 screenwriters with 1,000 typewriters in a room for 1,000 days, they couldn't have conjured a better storyline for the 2016 World Series.

The game's two longest suffering franchises. A galaxy of young stars on both sides. Montages of weathered knuckles and weary eyes and vintage Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians gear wistfully narrated by Bryan Cranston. 

Then, unbelievably, a taut seven-game affair packed with twists and intrigue. The Cubs—who had elevated the role of lovable loser to an art form—overcoming a 3-1 series deficit and winning in 10 innings in Game 7. On the road, after coughing up a late lead.

After the skies opened and the rain poured down for 17 minutes, just enough time for overpaid, underperforming right fielder Jason Heyward to deliver an inspirational speech.

The masses were transfixed, and why not? In a year defined by ugly, divisive politics, here was sport reduced to its most transcendent elements: talent, angst, high drama, joy.

"It's got to be a top-three game of all time," said Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein of Game 7, per's Andrew Simon, David Adler and Matt Kelly. "Everyone's prone to hyperbole at moments like this, but I think it really was. It felt like it. I died like six times. It was pretty remarkable.''

The numbers don't lie: 40 million people tuned in to watch Wednesday's Game 7 on Fox, the highest viewership for a baseball game in a quarter-century, per USA Today's A.J. Perez

Overall, the 2016 Fall Classic averaged 23.4 million viewers, according to Paulsen of Sports Media Watch, up 59 percent from last season's Kansas City Royals-New York Mets tussle.

It was the highest average since 2004, when an average of 25.4 million people tuned in to watch the Boston Red Sox defeat the St. Louis Cardinals and secure their first title since 1918. 

Maybe the takeaway is folks like to watch a long curse end. Undoubtedly, MLB owes a fat gift basket to Epstein, the architect of the Sox's and Cubs' drought-busting runs.

There's something deeper at play, though. 

Granted, baseball is America's pastime in name only. According to data cited by's Will Leitch in April 2015, 67 percent of Americans consider football to be the nation's pastime as compared to 28 percent for baseball.

Other professional leagues, from the NBA to the UFC, are also breaking off chunks of cultural relevance.

Baseball is stodgy, the narrative goes. It moves at a glacial pace and discourages displays of unbridled celebration with its mothball-infested unwritten rules. Hence reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper's "Make Baseball Fun Again" campaign

There is no question baseball needs to keep looking in the mirror. The implementation of instant replay has helped get more calls right, but it's still a work in progress. New technology could reduce umpire error even further.


The league has embraced other shifts, including the second wild card. Now, with the collective bargaining agreement expiring in December, everything from adding the designated hitter to the National League to stricter pace-of-play rules are on the table. 

The biggest thing baseball has going for it, though, is history. The NFL and especially the NBA may have more marketable superstars. The NFL has the edge in event viewing.

But you can't manufacture the past. The Cubs-Indians clash was intriguing because of the players involvedburgeoning studs like Chicago's Kris Bryant and Cleveland's Francisco Lindor.

More than that, however, the interest came from the way those franchises were embedded with the cities they represented. The way generations of fans had lived and died with the laundry. 

America may not think of baseball first. But when the sport presents a compelling narrative, America is ready to come running back.

No, not every World Series will feature two teams with this kind of backstory, and one of them from a big market to boot. 

Yes, many casual observers will never be able to follow a 162-game season with the fervor they give to a once-a-week NFL tilt or a loaded UFC fight.

The effects of this series may be fleeting; it's doubtful there will be a notable MLB ratings bump by the time April rolls around. 

Still, as Elizabeth Williamson of the New York Times noted:

It was a thrilling escape of a World Series, played in the shadow of a more consequential national cliffhanger, a battle of angry teams and distrusted coaches, in which 50, 60 or 80 percent of Americans say they're afraid of what will happen to the country if the other side wins, and some threaten not to accept the result at all. This World Series brought joy in a time of exhaustion, and a reminder that there are things so much more important than the game.

It was a series that lent itself to flowery language edging toward hyperbole. The type that reminded you why this complex, confounding, indelible game has lasted so longsurviving wars, segregation, a depression, recessions, labor strikes and shrinking attention spans. 

A lot has changed since the Cubs last won the World Series in 1908, or the Indians in 1948. Here's one thing that hasn't: baseball.

It was in the spotlight then, and it's in the spotlight now.

It's tough to come up with a more compelling storyline than that.

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