As well as being a cricket fan, over the years I’ve occasionally dived deep into baseball, particularly Major League Baseball (MLB) in the USA.
“It was horrible. I was jetlagged. I remember drinking nasty and expensive beer before stumbling home in the wrong direction, vomiting everywhere and eating overgrown KFC full of hormones.”
Game 1 of the 2016 World Series, won by the Cleveland Indians 6-0 over the Chicago Cubs, was hard enough for the most ardent of local Cubs fans to endure.
But for a bloke who travelled more than 13,000 kilometres to cheer on his favourite sports team, it was beyond intolerable.
Corin Higgs saying to himself repeatedly, “What the hell am I doing here? This was a huge mistake.”
Thames is a sleepy town in the Central North Island of New Zealand with a population around 7000. It’s about as far from the Windy City as you can get.
Yet it was here, in the land of the Swamp Foxes, Higgs developed his affinity for baseball.
“In the ‘80s rugby, racing and beer were all that mattered in Thames. I was unusual because I didn’t like rugby and I still don’t,” Higgs explained.
“I didn’t agree with the politics of the New Zealand Rugby Union, who at the time supported tours by South Africa, despite international bans by other sporting codes opposed to apartheid. I played soccer at school to protest.
“I paid a price for my opposing view. I was mocked. I was called ‘gay’ by the rugby meatheads.”
In 1990, cable television was introduced into New Zealand and Higgs grew an appetite for Major League Baseball on ESPN. Satellite TV allowed him to escape the snarls of rugby jocks.
“I immersed myself right away. I love the history and spectacle of it all. I can remember watching Joe Carter hit a home run to win the World Series for the Blue Jays in 1993 and crying when the 1994 season was cancelled due to a players strike,” Higgs laughed.
Higgs took a few years to adopt a team. It happened in 1998, during the famous ‘home run race’ involving St Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire and the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa.
“The home-run race was huge. It really captured the imagination of general sports fans, not just those with an interest in baseball,” Higgs recalled.
“I grew fond of Sosa because I felt he was the underdog. I didn’t like the way some fans and media treated him. Because he was black he was a victim of racism. The Cubs became my team after that.”
The proliferation of the internet allowed Higgs to further satisfy his craving for baseball.
“I am subscribed to MLB TV which shows every single game. In the US local blackouts and extra internet and cable fees means, except for attending the stadium, I actually get a better deal than most Americans,” said Higgs.
In 2015, Higgs’ life took a sudden twist, when his beloved cat Louis died. Devoid of his most loyal companion, Higgs decided it was time to tick off a bucket-list item.
“I hadn’t done much travel outside of New Zealand, because Louis would become traumatised following long periods of separation.
“I was making quite a lot of money working for the Labour Party as a contractor. In the absence of my cat and with the benefit of flexible hours, I decided to go on a Cubs road trip.”
Higgs attended 16 home-and-away games, but the outrageous good fortunate of a fellow Kiwi meant, at least initially, the trip disappointed.
“My friend Ben was in Seattle. He had little interest in baseball. He decided to attend a game because that’s a tourist thing to do. He saw Hisashi Iwakuma pitch a no-hitter for the Mariners against the Baltimore Orioles. It was the first time he had watched baseball and he saw a no-hitter. I was filthy.”
There have only been 295 no-hitters thrown in 213,291 games, stretching back to 1871.
August 30, 2015. Dodger Stadium, Los Angles is the last stop on Higgs’ pilgrimage. Surely there would be some cheer?
“Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter! I was behind home plate and it was beautiful. The Dodgers cocktail supporters left two innings early and I was joined by fellow Cubs fans waving my blue W flag. We got on Sunday night baseball. I vowed to return,” Higgs enthused.
October 26, 2016. A hung-over Higgs settled into Murphy’s Bar, near Wrigley Field, for Game 2 of the World Series. The Cubs scored a 3-2 road win, their first road win in a World Series match since 1945.
“The bar was packed, the mood was joyous. I remember singing along to Bon Jovi. I never sing along to Bon Jovi. It was a wonderful moment,” Higgs recalled.
October 28, 2016. This day was the date of the first World Series match at Wrigley Field in 25,955 days. The clamour for tickets was so great, many of the bars near Wrigley Field demanded $100 door fees.
The relatively derelict Frank’s Bar proved more generous. There was no entry fee, which was lucky for Higgs, as he needed plenty of alcohol to suppress the melancholy of the Cubs falling behind 2-1 and then, two days later, 3-1.
October 30, 2016. The Cubs faced the prospect of defeat without winning a single home game.
“Before Game 5, I met a guy from Pittsburgh who told me there was an area outside Wrigley Field you could line-up and buy tickets at face-value from corporates. There was no indication as to how many of these tickets existed,” Higgs said.
“I figured if I was going to go to a game this was my best chance. I was prepared to pay double face value for a seat too. Some supporters had given up, but I was still hopeful.”
A four-hour wait in a chilly queue provided a lesson in local skulduggery.
“The line moved slowly as I expected, but what I didn’t anticipate was homeless people barricading spots in the queue, accepting bribes from scalpers to buy their tickets so they could sell to people for many times more the original price,” Higgs recounted.
By the third innings, Higgs had all but reached the front of the line, when suddenly tickets stopped being sold. To make matters worse, Cleveland led 1-0.
Willed by blind loyalty, Higgs captured the remainder of the ball game back in Frank’s Bar, which the Cubs rallied to win 3-2. This triggered a wild celebration.
“After the game I was drinking in the streets outside Wrigley when I saw our shortstop, Addison Russell, walk by dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, flanked by two gorgeous girls. I chased him seeking a selfie. He told me to sod off,” Higgs chuckled.
Sod off. Where? The last two games were scheduled in Cleveland, but Higgs chose to stay in Chicago because it would “suck” to lose in Cleveland and he wanted to be in Chicago if the Cubs won.
Cowabunga Dude! Watching again from Murphy’s Bleachers, Russell blasted a Grand Slam and the Cubs won Game 6 9-3.
Game 7, sixth innings, the Cubby Bear Bar directly opposite Wrigley Field was overflowing, and the atmosphere was delirious. The Cubs were leading 6-3 when Higgs received a text from a friend back home.
“Jon Johansson, a University lecturer who follows baseball, sent me a message saying, ‘I think you’ve got this in the bag.’
“I responded, ‘If we don’t win from here we really are cursed.’
“The moment I hit send I thought, ‘why did I just do that?’ The Billy Goat, Steve Bartman and all those curses, I’m tempting fate.”
The foreseen nightmare materialised. The Indians equalised at 6-6 and to aggravate matters, the skies opened up in the tenth innings, forcing the players from the field.
“Oh my god. All anybody in the bar could think of doing was hurl abuse at notoriously terrible Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck,” Higgs explained.
17 excruciating minutes later, the ballgame resumed.
Miguel Montero, who was aggrieved at being underutilised by manager Joe Maddon, propelled the Cubs ahead 8-6. Cleveland scored again to reduce the deficit to 8-7, when Mike Montgomery came in.
He had zero career saves. His arrival closed out the series.
“The last out is a bit of a blur, a little infield ground ball fielded by Kris Bryant. I was locked at the shoulders with complete strangers, sweating with a pounding heart when it happened. I was screaming like a girl and jumping widely,” Higgs smiled in recollection.
Higgs’ contribution to the Cubs’ winning chorus is immortalised in signature on a chalk wall outside Wrigley Field, on a commemorative whisky bottle at Frank’s bar, and by his brief appearances on ESPN SportsCenter, local Chicago TV and in the official Cubs World Series film.
Coincidentally, the day after the Cubs’ victory parade, watched by one of the largest gatherings in human history, New Zealand’s beloved and formidable national rugby team were beaten by Ireland in Chicago. It was the first time in 111 years Ireland had defeated the All Blacks.
There was at least one Kiwi who didn’t give a damn.