World Series: Kyle Schwarber Did What the Cubs Couldn’t

HOUSTON — As the Philadelphia leadoff man Kyle Schwarber stepped into the batter’s box to start the World Series games here, what he saw when he looked across the field was a Houston Astros behemoth with sensational pitching and a well-rounded lineup. It is a team that stripped down to rebuild a decade or so ago and now is playing in its fourth World Series in six years.

It is the dynasty that many once thought Schwarber’s first team, the Chicago Cubs, were going to become.

Like the Astros, the Cubs a decade ago gutted their roster in order to construct a new foundation.

Unlike the Astros, after winning one of the most sentimental World Series in history when they snapped their 108-year drought in 2016, the Cubs never returned.

“It’s hard to do,” said Schwarber, who led the National League with 46 homers this year, led the majors with 200 strikeouts and was nontendered by the Cubs after the 2020 season. “What Houston has been doing for years upon years upon years is really hard. I just know that from the teams we had there in Chicago, where everyone thought we could. And we thought so, too, when we were over there. We thought we could do that.”

But since 2016, outfielder Jorge Soler, who was named the most valuable player of last year’s World Series after slugging three home runs for Atlanta, and reliever Héctor Rondon, who pitched in relief for Houston in the 2019 Series against Washington, are the only Cubs other than Schwarber to return to the game’s grandest stage.

“I think we should be proud about what we did over there and of our times over there,” Schwarber said. “It’s just part of the game where guys are going to go off on their own separate ways. Not everyone can be together for the whole time. Am I shocked that almost everyone is gone? Yeah. But I wouldn’t say I’m shocked about some people being gone.”

Schwarber batted .188, the lowest average among all qualifying M.L.B. hitters, during the pandemic-shortened season of 2020. The Cubs cut him loose without receiving anything in return. He signed with Washington in 2021, was dealt to Boston at that year’s trading deadline. He went on to lead the Red Sox to the A.L.C.S. before they fell to Houston.

When the Phillies signed Schwarber to a four-year, $79 million deal in March, the fit seemed perfect. Schwarber, a decorated October veteran now in his seventh postseason in eight big league campaigns, wanted to win. The Phillies were looking for a productive bat and a clubhouse leader.

Now 29 with a lengthening résumé and a friendly manner, Schwarber has a way about him that attracts teammates and fans alike.

“He’s a vocal leader in a sense, but he’s more lead by example,” Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott said. “You never see him get mad. If he makes an out in a big spot, he’s the first one up on the rail again. You can just look at him and know that he’s a leader.”

Schwarber learned that from Lester, Ross, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, John Lackey and others.

“Those guys helped me out a ton in my career,” Schwarber said. “They’re a big reason why I am where I am today. I can’t thank all those guys enough. To take that here, I’ve seen a lot of things, I’ve learned a lot from a lot of guys who have had success in this game. And to be able to pass those kinds of experiences along to other guys, that’s what it’s about, right?”

Part of Schwarber’s attraction is his authentic, Midwestern bona fides. The son of a policeman and a nurse in Middletown, Ohio, Schwarber plays the game with joy and remembers his roots. First responders remain close to his heart, and his Schwarber’s Neighborhood Heroes charity “honors their heroism, courage and devotion to duty.”

“When I got done with school, my dad would pick me up. and I’d go right back to the police department with him,” Schwarber said of his youth. “He’d finish up his shift there, and that’s kind of where I first got the clubhouse feeling, right? Where it’s a family because everyone is working together. To see where mom and dad worked as hard as they could so we could do what we wanted, it definitely rubs off on you.”

He was a middle linebacker in high school and played baseball at Indiana University. He also sang in his high school’s show choir (among the featured performances: Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” — “that was a good one,” Schwarber said — and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”).

“Toughness and a big heart,” Maddon said. “He is as tough as they get. He is how he looks. He’s straightforward, which I love.”

Houston catcher Christian Vázquez, a teammate of Schwarber’s in Boston last year, remembers how Schwarber always “made the clubhouse happy,” particularly when he would run the music and, at times, even dance.

“That’s who he is,” Ross said during a telephone interview this week from his home in Florida. “He’s such a great teammate. Such a great person. He’s not afraid of his flaws because there’s nobody that plays harder out there than him. And he has a mind-set you want from an everyday player. This guy brings it every single day.”

If this World Series turns out anything like his first, look out. Schwarber tore knee ligaments playing left field in his second game in 2016 and missed the rest of the season. But he was so diligent in his rehabilitation that he was cleared to hit (but not play the field) by the time the Cubs won the pennant. So, they chartered a flight to Cleveland from the Arizona Fall League, where Schwarber was both hitting and tracking hundreds of pitches a day from a machine.

As the Cubs’ designated hitter, he clanged a double off the right-field wall in the fourth inning of Game 1 to become the first position player in history to collect his first hit of a season in the World Series. He wound up hitting .412 (7 for 17) and went 3 for 5 in Game 7, including slicing a single to left field that started what would be the two-run, game-winning rally in the top of the 10th inning.

Now echoes are all that remain from that moment in Cleveland for those who are — and once were — Cubs. From the sidelines, they will be watching — and rooting for — their onetime teammate and lifetime friend this week.

“You feel like that’s where he belongs,” Ross said. “He’s been in the playoffs a lot. He’s one of those guys the front office has to make tough decisions on. You’ve got to weigh the general manager side of things, but you always knew Schwarbs was a great hitter and a great leader.”

Said Maddon: “Those guys are always going to be special. And for me, those five years were the best five I’ve spent anywhere.”

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