President Obama welcomes Cubs to the White House: 'It took you long enough'

After being honored at the White House on Monday afternoon, the Cubs revealed the real reason why they desperately wanted to make the trip before President Barack Obama left office.

Touring the White House and being celebrated for their first championship since 1908 was certainly fun for the team, but it wasn't nearly as important as converting the die-hard White Sox fan into a Cubs fan, a task more difficult than turning Hillary Clinton supporters into Donald Trump backers.

Cubs President Theo Epstein said they offered Obama a "midnight pardon" to switch to the Cubs.

When Obama stopped laughing, Epstein turned up the heat. The Cubs presented Obama with several gifts that Epstein said would "recognize this terrific conversion on this great day," including a No. 44 panel from Wrigley Field's manual center-field scoreboard, recognizing his status as the 44th president, a lifetime pass to Wrigley, a No. 44 jersey, and a "W" flag signed by Cubs players that Epstein said should be flown at his presidential library in Chicago.

Sitting alongside Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg and Jose Cardenal, Cubs great Fergie Jenkins shouted out to Obama to put the jersey on. The president politely declined.

"It'd be hard for me, Fergie, to wear the jersey," he said. "I do know that among Sox fans, I am the Cubs' No. 1 fan."

Obama said the gifts were the "best swag I've got since I've been president."

The ceremony began with Obama poking fun at the Cubs' storied drought, saying, "They said this day would never come," and pointing out none of his predecessors "ever got a chance to say welcome to the White House, the World Series champion Cubs. … I will say to the Cubs, it took you long enough. I've only got four days left."

Obama then took a page out of his 2008 playbook, comparing the Cubs' journey to his own unlikely rise to president of the United States.

"I made a lot of promises in 2008," he said. "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 that there's never been anything false about hope. The audacity of hope. Yes, we can."

After Obama's remarks, Epstein then took over and began reminiscing about their World Series title, which he said "even saw some White Sox fans smiling."

Finally, Epstein got to the plan.

"Which, Mr. President, brings us to you," he said. "We know may have some allegiances to another team on another side of town, but we know you're a very proud Chicagoan, and we know your better half, the first lady, has been a lifetime and very loyal Cubs fan, which we appreciate very much.

"And of course we have great faith in your intelligence, your common sense, your pragmatism and your ability to recognize a good thing when you see one. So, Mr. President, with only a few days remaining in your tremendous presidency, we've taken the liberty here today of offering you a midnight pardon. And so we welcome you with open arms today."

Epstein later said he found out on the plane ride to Washington that he was supposed to make a speech.

"Obviously we had to address the fact he's a White Sox fan, give him all the respect he's due," he said. "We figured we could pardon him since he's going to pardon so many in his final days."

The Cubs-Sox byplay was one of manager Joe Maddon's favorite parts of the afternoon.

"The slings and arrows at the White Sox are always entertaining," Maddon said.

It capped a memorable day for the Cubs players, staff and their wives, who met with Obama and first lady Michelle Obama beforehand and toured the White House. Obama said Michelle had never attended any of the championship celebrations before but decided to attend this one to tell the team about her family's love for the Cubs "and why it meant so much to her."

"I almost choked up listening to it," Obama said. "And it spoke to how people feel about this organization, and it's been passed on from generation to generation. And it's more than just sports."

Obama mentioned several of the Cubs players' accomplishments, including David Ross, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. He even referred to Maddon's "shaggin' wagon," the old Dodge van he drove onto the field in spring training. Obama said not many managers are "as cool as this guy," pointing to Maddon's casual attire, which included no tie.

"That's pretty cool that the president calls you cool," Maddon said. "I knew that I had a pretty good chance, being the only one that didn't wear a tie today. ... It's a humbling experience to be here in the first place, and under the set of circumstances we're here, to be able to have the president recognize you like that is pretty awesome."

Obama also poked fun at his own party, pointing to Epstein's success with two drought-stricken organizations, the Red Sox and Cubs. He said the teams were "wandering in the wilderness" before Epstein took them to "the promised land," making him a perfect candidate for chairman of the DNC.

Epstein politely declined Obama's offer.

"Good thing I signed a contract with (Chairman) Tom Ricketts, who was kicking me, saying I can't leave," Epstein said. "It was a kind offer, though."

Several Cubs players who've left the team this winter flew in, including Dexter Fowler, Aroldis Chapman, Trevor Cahill and Chris Coghlan, while some of the current Cubs missed the trip, including Jon Lester, John Lackey and Jake Arrieta, who had family issues.

The Cubs celebration was the last public White House event of Obama's presidency. The audience in the East Room was filled with politicians like Sen. Dick Durbin, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, along with former Obama adviser David Axelrod and singer Jimmy Buffett, a longtime Cubs fan.

All in all, it was a fitting final chapter for the Cubs, and a nice last hurrah for Obama as well.

"What an amazing experience, to get to enjoy today with the guys on this team," Rizzo said. "It's something we'll never forget. It's something you never take for granted. This is one of the best days I've ever had."

psullivan@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @PWSullivan

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