With a little Grace, Javy gets his ring

CHICAGO -- The story of how Javier Baez got his World Series ring begins long before he was a Chicago Cub or had ever set foot on the shores of the continental United States. In fact, it begins several decades before he was born. It ends with a young woman named Grace, whom, before Tuesday, he had never met. In a way, it is the kind of story that can happen only in a sport with a history as long as baseball's.

Grace is the hero of this story, in both the literal and figurative sense. Baez is featured in a supporting role this time, one played by just about everybody Grace has ever known. This story includes beaming parents and extended family, some with us and some not. It includes another historic night at Wrigley Field, a city in the heart of St. Louis Cardinals' territory and, in the tiniest way, the writer of this story.

Baez's emergence as one of baseball's most exciting players has been told of many times. Obviously, that part of the tale -- the one in which he helps the Cubs win their first title in 108 years -- was a pretty important prerequisite to Wednesday's festivities. So too was another story that has been well-covered: the loss of Baez's sister, Noely, to spina bifida in 2015 at the tragically young age of 21.

It was that part of Baez's story that caught the attention of Grace Davis, a young Cubs fan in Jefferson City, Missouri. Grace is now 20 years old, an age that no one was ever sure she would reach. Like Noely, she was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that wreaks havoc on her motor functions, in addition to a structural defect that affects her cerebellum.

"It was touch-and-go there," her father, Matt, said. "What you see here is a remarkable young lady who has overcome so much."

In her early years, Grace couldn't speak because her vocal chords were paralyzed. She could not swallow on her own, either, and lived with a tube in her throat. She didn't start crawling until the age of 3 or start walking until the age of 5. She does all of that and more these days, though the medical procedures and hospital stays are ongoing.

Grace does one more thing pretty consistently, more so than you could reasonably expect of someone who has gone through so much: She smiles. A lot. And she smiled a whole lot more on Wednesday.

"I've always been like that," Grace said. "Even when I go into the hospital, I'm not scared one bit."

Let's back up for a minute. You might be wondering how someone from Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri situated smack dab between St. Louis and Kansas City, ends up such a rabid Cubs fan. That's where the story bends back in time.

Back in the 1940s, there was a young usher at Wrigley Field named Ross Davis, a graduate of Senn High School on the North Side a few miles north of the ballpark. He went to college, married a Cubs-loving gal from Chicago and set out to open his own insurance business. It was suggested that he target western Iowa, which he did, and Davis Insurance was born in a little town called Red Oak.

Red Oak is facing its travails like so many rural communities these days, but in many ways, it is the kind of small town that people who have never lived in one picture when they think of a small town. Most everybody knows everybody else, as did their parents and grandparents and on and on. Class reunions are like family reunions. There is a rustic town square in the middle of it all, an orange water tower that looms on the highest hill in town and the Nishnabotna River that winds its way through fields of corn and soybeans on the way to the Missouri River.

As it happens, in the mid-1970s, I moved to Red Oak with my family at the age of 5. A couple of years later, I began playing little league baseball. My team's name was the Cubs. My coach was Ross Davis. In fact, it was he who gave me my first lesson in baseball statistics.

At a dinner he threw for the team, he read off batting averages compiled from scorecards kept by his son Matt -- Grace's father -- who was a few years older than I was. I asked what my batting average was, though I had not, in fact, managed a hit. I had been walked once and thought that might count.

"Zero. Zero. Zero," Ross Davis said. Well, I did better the next year.

Many years later, I ended up helping cover the Cubs on their journey to an epic World Series win. Funny how things work out. As my Cubs-related stories began to appear on ESPN.com, the name struck a note of familiarity with Matt Davis, now well-established as the most exuberant Cubs fan in middle Missouri. He reached out to me on Facebook, which began a dialogue and a host of remembrances. He wanted me to understand how fortunate I was to be so close to history, which I already knew, but it never hurts to be reminded. He also messaged me during the World Series, urging me to ask Cubs manager Joe Maddon about a missed sacrifice bunt opportunity. The batter in question was Anthony Rizzo. I did not pose the question to Maddon.

Over the winter, I received a message from Matt about the contest the Cubs were conducting to find ring bearers for the ceremony we all witnessed Wednesday night. I had seen pictures of Grace via Matt's Facebook page but was completely unaware of her struggles. She simply looked like a very happy young woman with an unusually strong affinity for the Chicago Cubs.

Then Matt sent me the video he made on her behalf. I didn't think she could lose. She didn't.

I met Grace for the first time across the street from the ballpark on Wednesday afternoon, along with her mother, Cindy, and a cousin named Luke. I also reconnected with Matt, who looks very much like a larger, older version of the boy I remembered keeping score at those little league games so many years ago.

Everyone was very excited, but there was still one mystery lingering in the air: Grace did not know to whom she would be presenting a ring. The Cubs had not told her or any of the other contest winners, wanting to keep it a surprise. They wouldn't tell me, either, when I asked. Baez was her clear favorite -- and not just because of the connection to her story.

"He can really hit," Grace said, putting on her proverbial scouting hat. "And he can make really flashy plays."

When I settled in to hear Grace's story, of the early struggles, her progression from swallowing to talking, from immobilization to crawling to walking, it made me ashamed for ever complaining about anything. Her parents said that generally she doesn't like the kind of attention she has been receiving so much of lately, though she seemed to be enduring it just fine. She didn't know her father had shot the video that entered her in the contest, but she wasn't upset that he did. She was, of course, thrilled to win.

My favorite story was the one they told when I asked what it's like to be a Cubs fan around so many Cardinals fans. Grace's mother talked about how the whole of Jefferson City looked out for Grace growing up, when she learned how to score ballgames from her dad's lap as he dutifully watched his Cubs from afar. That she would fall in love with the team was a given.

"He can really hit ... And he can make really flashy plays." Grace Davis, on why Javier Baez is her favorite Chicago Cub

She became well-known as a Cubs fan, and, well, that was OK. In fact, during Grace's junior year of high school, Cindy took her to school, only to find a bunch of Grace's schoolmates waiting for her in a line, all clad in Cubs gear. Once Grace climbed out the car, they pulled off their shirts. Underneath were Cardinals shirts. Typical. But when last fall rolled around, and the Cardinals were not part of the postseason mix, Grace's friends rooted for the Cubs -- for her. You can't blame them.

Soon, it was time to head to the ballpark, and the Davis clan departed to rendezvous with the Cubs' staff and the other ring bearers. About an hour before the game, they came out onto the field and huddled in front of the visiting team dugout. I made my way off to the side, where the media had been corralled, and spotted Grace watching the field attentively.

She was wearing a new Cubs jersey with gold lettering on the back. The number was No. 9, Javier Baez's No. 9. It was when the Cubs' staff handed her that jersey that she knew her wish had come true: She would be giving Baez his championship ring.

"I was like, 'Yes!'" she said.

A podium had been set up at home plate. Off to the side, the Cubs' World Series championship trophy was still sparkling after so many travels the past few months. Broadcaster Len Kasper emceed the ceremony, as the owners, front-office honchos, Maddon and his coach staff received their rings. In a nice touch, the Cubs also gave rings to their three living Hall of Famers: Ferguson Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg and Billy Williams. Those beloved Hall of Famers who left us in recent years -- Ron Santo and Ernie Banks -- were given their moments too, as rings for both were made to be displayed in the Cubs' archives.

Through all of this, Grace watched, smiling, applauding and calmly waiting for her moment. She shook hands with Maddon and posed for pictures with a group of notables ranging from Tommy Lasorda to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. The crowd exploded with each player introduced, and soon it was Grace's turn. She strode calmly to the plate, ring box in hand, as Baez emerged from the Cubs' dugout and met her at home plate. In the first row of the stands, just behind me, Matt snapped pictures madly with his phone. Grace handed Baez his ring.

The moment went by quickly, to the regret of Baez.

"It was blessing to have a chance to have [Grace] give me the ring," Baez said. "She has the same condition as my sister. I'm a little sorry it went by fast, to just get the ring and take a picture. But there were a lot of people to get their rings. Like I used to say to my sister, they are special kids. It's blessing to help change their lives and make their dream come true."

It was enough. Grace returned to her new friends by the dugout, and Baez took his place on the field next to his teammates. Later, I found Grace in the interview area of the Cubs' private club. She was with an ESPN crew, calmly answering questions with lights on and a microphone suspended above her. And she was smiling. Always smiling. The star of the show.

"To get the fan involvement based on 108 years of difficulty is the perfect method to do this tonight," Maddon said. "The folks that are part of the ceremony, they're another group that's never going to forget tonight."

Grace, she's doing pretty well, even after yet another procedure a few weeks ago. Her father posted a picture of her on Facebook then, in her hospital gown. She was, of course, smiling. Grace developed a passion for softball while serving as the team manager in high school and describes it as every bit as strong as her passion for baseball. She's taking a break from her studies at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, but she was the team manager there too.

One funny part of her introduction during the ceremony was the very brief but perceptible murmur in the stands when her hometown was mentioned, as if it immediately registered in everyone's mind that, hey, that's Cardinals territory! But it's only because they didn't know her.

"I have a lot of friends who are Cardinals fans," Grace said. "We get along very well."

When the Cubs won the World Series, there was so much attention deservedly focused on the city of Chicago -- and the five million people who lined the streets for the celebration parade and crammed into Grant Park for the biggest rally in city history. But baseball teams are about much more than the cities in which they are centered. They represent whole regions, entire states in some cases or little nations defined only by shared affinity, bonds that know no state lines.

"Baseball can connect you with anybody," Cindy said, summing it up as well as you can.

It is that aspect of the sport that suggests just how far-reaching the Cubs' championship really was. It was a great moment for a city, and it was great to see John Cusack and Eddie Vedder and Billy Murray cavorting in happiness. But the gravity of the event isn't to be found in the newfound contentment of celebrities. It is found in the stories of countless families such as the Davises all across the Midwest. That that fact did not escape the Cubs organization is to their credit.

Ross Davis passed away a few years ago. On the walls of his insurance office were team pictures of all the little league clubs he coached over the years, including one with an inept little hitter who didn't know that a walk didn't give him a batting average. Ross never got to see his Cubs win it all. When it finally happened, Matt and his family decorated the graves of his parents back in Red Oak with Cubs bric-a-brac. It was all still there, months later, on a cold spring night when Ross' granddaughter handed a Cubs World Series ring to her favorite player, and her parents watched so proudly nearby.

"The whole day was an amazing day," Grace said. "I'm glad I got to share it with my parents and my cousin. It's something I'll never forget."