History, humor unite as Obama honors Chicago Cubs
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WASHINGTON -- In the grand scheme of things, maybe sports don't mean all that much.
But in a world that seems to grow weightier by the day, sports do lighten the load a little bit. And whether they want to or not, sports and sports figures can have a big impact on society.
The Chicago Cubs mean a great deal to a lot of people, and their 2016 World Series victory uncorked celebrations from coast to coast.
The official celebrations ended Monday in grand style, as most of the champions gathered at the White House to meet with President Obama.
Mixing good humor with a sense of history, Obama -- a White Sox fan of some note -- feted the Cubs in a packed East Room ceremony that featured not only members of the Cubs family, but Illinois and Chicago political figures and media from across the country.
"I will say this to the Cubs: It took you long enough; I've only got four days left," Obama said as he stood in front of the World Series winners, manager Joe Maddon, the coaching staff and front office. "I made a lot of promises in 2008. We've managed to fulfill a large number of them, but even I was not crazy enough to suggest that during these eight years we would see the Cubs win the World Series. But I did say there has never been anything false about hope."
The remarks from Obama that seemed to have the most impact came near the end of his speech, which lasted nearly 22 minutes before he turned things over to Cubs team president Theo Epstein.
Obama, the first black president of the United States, noted that Monday was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
"Throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together even when the country is divided," Obama said. "Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle but that ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we are.
"It is a game and a celebration, but there is a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here. There is a direct line between people loving Ernie Banks and the city being able to come together and work together in one spirit."
Those remarks struck a chord with the Cubs.
"I think the best part was the president talking about how sports brings people together," said first baseman Anthony Rizzo. "No matter what's going on in this country and the world, three of hours of any particular game can just rally so many people together. That was pretty moving for me."
Speaking along with Rizzo and Epstein outside of the White House after the ceremony, Maddon echoed those sentiments.
"It's true," Maddon said. "It's absolutely true about the unifying power of sports, whether it's a city, a state, a fan base, a nation. You could always rally around it. You look at the Olympics as the perfect example of a nation rallying around sports. I'm totally in agreement with that. Obviously, we brought a high level of satisfaction to the city of Chicago as well as all the Cub fans throughout the world, and we're very proud of that."
The day wasn't all seriousness. The Cubs came to the White House bearing gifts. The World Series trophy was front and center of the ceremony. Rizzo presented Obama with home and road Cubs jerseys with the No. 44 on the back, signifying Obama being the 44th president. Obama referred to Rizzo as, "My fellow 44."
The Cubs also presented Obama with a "44" tile from the manually operated scoreboard in center field along with a "W" flag, like the one that flies atop the scoreboard after the Cubs win a game. Obama also received a lifetime pass to Wrigley Field for him and his family.
Epstein took note of Obama being a White Sox fan.
"So, Mr. President, with only a few days remaining in your tremendous presidency, we have taken the liberty here today of offering you the midnight pardon," Epstein said. "So we welcome you with open arms today."
Obama gave as well has he got. He noted that Epstein had quenched championship droughts with the Boston Red Sox and the Cubs and wondered whether Epstein might not consider being head of the Democratic National Committee.
"No, good thing I signed a contract with (Cubs chairman) Tom Ricketts," Epstein said afterward. "He was kicking me, saying I can't leave. It was a kind offer, though."
On the day as a whole, Epstein was effusive about the day as a whole.
"Oh, it was great," he said. "It was a thrill and an honor for all of us. It means so much more with his roots in Chicago and his final days in office. It couldn't have worked out any better. It's something we'll all remember for all our lives."
• Follow Bruce's Cubs and baseball reports on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.