In Chicago, curse alive, well after loss to Marlins in NLCS

Baker, Cubs fans left with no choice but to be optimistic for next year

Baseball Playoffs

October 17, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO - Morning broke on the North Side to find both major Chicago newspapers displaying the same simple headline: "Heartbreak."

What other way was there to describe the two days that defined two generations of Chicago Cubs futility?

The Cubs had a 3-2 lead in the National League Championship Series, the home-field advantage and two of the best starting pitchers in baseball - Mark Prior and Kerry Wood - lined up to slam dunk the wild card-expansion-contraction-you-name-it Florida Marlins.

Forgive the millions stricken with the delirium of Cubs Fever for believing that only something supernatural could keep their team from chasing away the Billy Goat Curse and erasing 58 years of futility with its first trip to the World Series since 1945.

Everyone believes in the curse now.

How else do you explain the way the Cubs, who led the series 3-1 at one time, dangled the NL pennant in front of their fans on Tuesday night, how they had a 3-0 lead behind an undefeated playoff pitcher, how they needed just five more outs from Prior to end all the silly talk about the curse?

The foul ball hung in the air long enough for Moises Alou to run under it and time his leap, the Cubs outfielder and the baseball suspended there for one long moment while fate figured out all the possible permutations and chose poor Cubs fan Steve Bartman to inadvertently change history.

The 26-year-old lifelong Cubs fan will forever be the "Goat boy" who reached out and somehow poked a hole in the aura of postseason invincibility that had grown up around Prior and Wood, even though he did what any fan would have done in the same situation.

The Cubs didn't lose because of that foul ball, though that play certainly had an impact on the outcome of the series. They lost because the Marlins are a much better team than anyone outside South Florida ever imagined.

If the Cubs had all the momentum in the world after winning Game 4 to put the NLCS on one-game notice Saturday, it was trumped by the surprising resilience of a team that is going to the World Series for the second time and still has never won a division title.

Remember, these are the same Marlins that lost 32-home run guy Mike Lowell - their only big-time slugger - for the final month of the regular season and actually played better without him.

Manager Jack McKeon, who was relaxing back in North Carolina when the Marlins' strange and wonderful fishy expedition started last April, knew that his team broke millions of hearts with its decisive 9-6 victory on Wednesday night, but he also knew that the Marlins had been the other guys of the postseason long enough.

They weren't supposed to beat the San Francisco Giants in the NL Division Series and they had the whole baseball world, or so it seemed, waiting for them to step aside and let the lovable Cubs win something for a change.

Think Cubs fans are heartbroken? Imagine how all the television executives are feeling right now. They were looking at one of the most attractive Fall Classics in years, regardless of who emerged from the American League Championship Series. Now, they've got to find a way to sell the Marlins as the next big thing.

"The Cubs are always America's favorite," McKeon said. "I think now we'll be the darlings and have everyone rooting for us."

Yeah, right. This is a team that can't even get its own fans to show up, much less capture the imagination of the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, Cubs manager Dusty Baker was trying to change the culture of pessimism that pervades Cubs Nation even as the events of the previous two days seemed to validate every negative thought that ever incubated under a Cubs cap.

"Is it disappointing?" Baker said. "Yeah, it's disappointing because we wanted to go to the World Series. But life is full of disappointments sometimes, and you have to build something for the future. We feel we've established and built a heck of a foundation for next year."

There, he said it. Baker, who tried so hard to bring a new attitude to Wrigleyville, had no choice at the end but to echo the mantra of the Cubs faithful - wait until next year.

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