Bear of a burden, and trap set again

Cubs: To stay in the World Series hunt, Chicago has to avoid the usual haunts: a famous curse that the players deny exists and a creepily familiar and all-too-real disabled list.

National League Focus

April 03, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

MESA, Ariz. - Curse, what curse?

If you listened carefully within the confines of the Chicago Cubs' clubhouse at HoHoKam Park during spring training last month, you would have thought that Steve Bartman were still regularly attending games at Wrigley Field and that simple baseball logic explained why the team hasn't won the World Series in nearly a century.

"Whenever this so-called curse happened, none of these guys were even born, including me," said manager Dusty Baker, who at 55 was born 41 years after the Cubs most recently won the World Series and four years after the team last went to the Series. "You can't think about it. You have no control over it. You just have to be careful not to put extra pressure on yourself and not believe in it. If I did, I wouldn't have come here."

Since watching his first Cubs team come within five outs of winning the 2003 National League Championship Series, only to have Bartman get in the way of former Cubs outfielder Moises Alou on a catchable foul pop and give the Florida Marlins new hope, Baker has done his best to turn his clubhouse into a veritable curse-free zone.

For those who believe otherwise, let them eat goat.

But for those who choose to think that the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series last season was more an exorcism than one of the game's most exhilarating moments in history, the Cubs now stand alone as baseball's ghost-busters.

Their task this season seems formidable.

Former phenom Kerry Wood, who has been on the disabled list three of the past five years and missed the entire 1999 season after reconstructive right elbow surgery, sat out most of this exhibition season with a sore right shoulder. Mark Prior, whose meteoric start in 2003 was later sidetracked by injuries, joined Wood on the sidelines this spring because of inflammation in his right elbow.

Just when it seemed as if the Cubs were getting promising reports about their top two starters, they got more bad news about relief pitcher Joe Borowski, who missed much of last season with shoulder problems and now is expected to be out at least a couple of months after suffering a broken right wrist while fielding a ball.

"Last year, with all the injuries we had, we were still able to pull together and have a winning season and win one more game than we did the year before," said catcher Michael Barrett. "That's a credit to management, to [general manager] Jim Hendry, to Dusty Baker, for how they kept us together during those times and how they were able to fill holes at a time when at any given point, with one of those guys out, we could have fallen out of the picture big-time."

And this year?

"I think we have the team to pull it together and slip by until we get those guys back," said Barrett, whose job it will be to coax more wins out of ageless Greg Maddux and fast-rising Carlos Zambrano than might have been necessary had Wood and Prior been healthy. "But for us to win the division, it will be a heck of a lot easier with Woodie and Prior healthy and with the guys who are healthy to stay healthy."

The Cubs were in the thick of the National League Central race until right before the All-Star break last season. In second place and only three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals on July 4, the Cubs dropped a three-game series to the Brewers in Milwaukee and the first two of a three-game series to the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Things went downhill from there, in a hurry. The Cubs finished 89-73, third in the division and 16 games behind St. Louis.

"We didn't have a bad year last year. We had a better year than we did the year before. We just didn't make the playoffs," said reliever Ryan Dempster. "It so happened that St. Louis beat everybody that came through St. Louis. We had a bad week is what it turned out to be. We just picked the wrong time to have the bad week."

But was it just bad baseball luck losing Prior for the first two months of last season with Achilles' and elbow problems, and Wood for two months with a strained right triceps, or was it the infamous Curse of the Billy Goat returning to foil the star-crossed Cubbies? There were no Bartman sightings, no black cats, but whenever things start going bad with this team, someone will bring up the blasted curse, whose origins date to 1945, when a tavern owner's pet farm animal was ejected from Wrigley.

Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, now starting his first full season with the Cubs, knows something about cursed teams, having played the first 8 1/2 years of his career with the Red Sox. Some in Boston say Garciaparra's departure last summer was instrumental in bringing the team its first championship since 1918; others merely think it was the ghost of the Bambino finally forgiving his former team for trading him.

Like most of his current teammates, Garciaparra doesn't think much about the 96-year drought.

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