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From doubt to delight, Don Kessinger revels in Cubs’ World Series title

Yes, America, the Cubs really did it.

It may still seem like one long dream that has a century worth of suffering fans not ever wanting to wake up, but this is real life. It still sounds strange when you hear it, but it’s true.

The Cubs are World Series champions.

So I decided to give Don Kessinger a call to see what he thinks about all of this.

Much like the Mannings in football, the Kessinger name is baseball royalty, particularly around these parts. And Don is the patriarch.

Don might bleed red and blue when he gets cut — he starred for Ole Miss in the early 1960s, his sons, Keith and Kevin, played at Ole Miss, and his grandson, Grae, a former Oxford High standout, will play for the Rebels in the spring — but much of his 16-year career as one of the best shortstops in professional baseball was spent with the Cubs.

He had some brief stints with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago’s other team, the White Sox, on the tail end of it, but all six of his All-Star seasons and both of his Gold Glove awards came with the team that’s been commonly referred to as the Lovable Losers since they last won it all in 1908.

So you can imagine how nerve-wracking it was Wednesday night at Don’s house when he, his wife, Carolyn, Kevin and his wife, Kelly, along with Grae and his girlfriend all watched together as the Cubs tried to close out Game 7 of a drama-filled Series with those pesky Indians and finally become winners again.

“Yeah, it got a little nervous there. No doubt,” said Don, who now owns a real estate company in Oxford. “I felt pretty good in the middle of the game, not so good in the eighth inning.”

That’s when Cleveland’s Rajai Davis lined a two-run homer down the left-field line off the flame-throwing but laboring Aroldis Chapman to send the game to extras tied at 6, which was perhaps baseball’s way of getting back at Cubs manager Joe Maddon for some puzzling decisions.

A day earlier, Maddon brought in Chapman during the seventh inning of Game 6 with the Cubs up by five runs. Chapman, the Cubs’ closer, had gotten a five-out save in Game 5 on Sunday, and after throwing 20 pitches in a 9-3 win in Game 6, Chapman was summoned to get the final out of the eighth inning Wednesday, but he gave up an RBI double and Davis’ equalizer first.

All of that on top of pulling a seemingly cruising Kyle Hendricks for Jon Lester in the fifth with the Cubs leading 5-1 in the decisive game.

“I was very impressed with (Maddon) all year,” Don said. “Now I was a little surprised with a couple of the moves, pitching Chapman as much as he did in the sixth (game) and then taking Hendricks out maybe when he did in the seventh game. But I certainly wouldn’t second guess anything he’s done after the job he’s done with them.”

It was all forgotten about when Series MVP Ben Zobrist doubled in pinch runner Albert Almora in the top of the 10th and Miguel Montero followed with an RBI single for some insurance. The Cubs needed it as the Indians got one back with a two-out RBI knock from Davis in the bottom of the frame, but when Michael Martinez followed with a chopper to third baseman Kris Bryant, Bryant could hardly contain his giddiness.

He began to smile before even fielding the ball.

“I guess that picture of Bryant catching that last ground ball says it all,” Don said. “He seemed to know it was over before he caught it and threw it.”

Bryant fielded it cleanly through the grin, and his throw was money. For the first time since Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, the Cubs — yes, the Cubs — were the ones celebrating a World Series championship.

“Somewhat relief,” Don said with a laugh. “It had been one of those series that had kind of gone back and forth and never played out exactly the way you were expecting as you watch the game. But I know it was a great series, and I thought it was a great seventh game of the World Series. Maybe one of the better ones.”

Kessinger was a six-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove Award winner with the Cubs from 1964-75. (Bruce Newman)

Kessinger was a six-time All-Star shortstop and two-time Gold Glove Award winner with the Cubs from 1964-75.

Don isn’t sure why it’s taken 108 years for the Cubs to get to the top again, but good luck convincing him it’s because of any curse. A legend existed that Chicago saloon owner William “Billy Goat” Sianis declared the Cubs would never win the World Series again after Sianis wasn’t allowed to bring his pet goat into Wrigley Field for Game 4 of the 1945 World Series because of its foul stench.

That was the last time the Cubs played in the World Series until this year, though that still eats at Don. He feels like some of the teams he played on, particularly that 1969 team that also had Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins on the roster but lost a nine-game lead in the NL East to the New York Mets in September, should’ve gotten there sooner.

The competition the Cubs faced had a lot more to do with that than some cute story, Don believes, though he still has fun with it.

“I feel very certain to the man nobody on our team would tell you it would have anything to do with the Billy Goat,” he said. “In fact, in my 11 years playing with the Cubs, I never heard about the curse of the Billy Goat. It was never mentioned. Not even in the papers, nothing. I didn’t know about it until I got home, and then I said, ‘Oh, that’s why we didn’t win.’”

But the Cubs are winners now, something Don wasn’t sure he’d ever get to say in his lifetime.

“Well I was beginning to doubt that, but I thought this year’s team was amazing,” Don said. “We had a number of really good teams that I played on as we said, but we never had a team that won 103 games in one year like this Cubs team did.”

Don praises the job Theo Epstein has done since taking over as the Cubs’ president of baseball operations in 2011, sticking to his plan of putting veteran pieces around a nucleus of young and mostly homegrown talent in Bryant, Almora, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler that will have the Cubs as the favorite to win it all again next year.

He wishes some of his former teammates like Santo and Banks, who’ve both died in the last six years, were still around to see this because they were bigger Cubs fans than Don is. Don still occasionally chats with his former second baseman, Glenn Beckert, but the two haven’t had a chance to catch up since the Series ended.

“Unfortunately most of my teammates aren’t around,” Don said.

At age 74, Don has finally seen it, as hard as it may be to believe. The Cubs and their loyal supporters aren’t Lovable Losers anymore.

“It was very special to see the emotion in the fans to know how long they’ve suffered and how much they wanted it,” he said.

Davis Potter is the Ole Miss beat writer and college sports editor for the EAGLE. Contact him at davis.potter@oxfordeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DPotterOE.