Cubs have World Series hopes 100 years after capturing last crown

Saturday, March 29, 2008

CHICAGO (AP) -- One hundred years between your last World Series title and the next one isn't a slump, people, it's a century.

That's 14 years longer than long-suffering Boston Red Sox fans had to wait, a dozen more than the hated crosstown White Sox endured, and still 40 clear of the Cleveland Indians, holders of the second-longest run without a championship in major North American pro sports. The last time the Cubs won it all, Teddy Roosevelt was finishing his second term in the White House, a Republican sat in City Hall, and as some people around here never tire of saying, the Dead Sea wasn't even sick.

But like almost everything else about being a Cubs fan since 1908, it turns out the joke is not just about them, but on them, too. At a Jewish cemetery in suburban Chicago sits a tombstone on the bottom of which is written, in Yiddish, "The Cubs stink." The occupant of that grave, were he alive, would be 98 this year and probably feeling much the same way.

So ask yourself: What kind of kid learns about curses when he's old enough to walk and hears testimonials about heartache from grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors, even random strangers, and then decides, "That's for me"?

Political commentator George Will, to name one, though his story differs from a million others only in the details. Will grew up in downstate Champaign, along the fault line that divides Cubs fans from the St. Louis Cardinals variety.

"It was at an age too tender to make decisions, so I just chose them," he said. "I think it was right around the time I turned 7, but I'm sure it was some time in 1948. I remember that because later the same year Mr. Wrigley took out ads in all the newspapers to apologize for fielding such a lousy team."

Yet hope really does spring eternal, at least on a Cubs fan's side of the street. In that same Chicago-area cemetery, a couple who couldn't stick around to find out whether the team's unofficial motto -- "Wait Till Next Year!" -- would ever ring true, decided to roll the dice again in the afterlife. Matching inscriptions on the markers above both husband and wife read, "I'll Meet You at Home Plate."

Maybe. But either way, come opening day, more than 41,000 of their soul mates will emerge from hibernation wearing layers of Cubbie blue -- hats, coats, sweaters, scarves and scar tissue -- and check their sanity at the turnstiles. Then they'll hope against hope, and in the face of all available evidence and even supernatural phenomena, that this really is that year.

Small wonder, then, that Cubs manager Lou Piniella welcomed his 2008 team to spring training this way: "Don't put the load of 99 years of not winning on you. Worry about this year only."

Of course, that's easy for him to say. Piniella has enough talent to win it all, he isn't superstitious to begin with, and he wasn't around when the franchise and its fans stood on the threshold of history, only to be cursed by a goat, crossed by a black cat or undone by one of their own.

To be fair about it, the Cubs rarely needed help losing. Following back-to-back World Series wins in 1907-08, they returned to the Fall Classic seven more times through 1945 and lost every one. They haven't been back since, and there's no shortage of -- pardon the expression -- pet theories why.

In the middle of their last World Series appearance, tavern owner William Sianis and his pet goat were both sitting in $7.20 box seats when it began to rain. Nearby fans began complaining about the odor until then-Cubs boss P.K. Wrigley stepped in and ordered both tossed out of the park.

Sianis vowed the Cubs would never win another World Series, and despite being up two games to one against the Detroit Tigers at that moment, he turned out to be right. Not long after, Sianis returned to his native Greece on vacation and sent Wrigley a note saying, "Who stinks now?"

The black cat skittered into Cubs lore on Sept. 9, 1969, four years after fiery Leo Durocher was hired as manager. The Cubs had their best team in 60 years, but a late-season lead of 9 1/2 games over the Mets had shrunk to just 1 1/2 when the feline crawled out from the Shea Stadium grandstand. The cat looped once around third baseman Ron Santo in the on-deck circle, then stopped and stared at Durocher in the dugout.

"I'm superstitious enough," Santo recalled, "but Leo, he was superstitious as all heck. ... I tried not to think about bad luck right at that moment, but yeah, after we lost, I sat at my locker a few minutes and wondered, 'What the heck is going on here?"'

Outside, New York fans were still serenading Durocher with "Goodbye Leo, we hate to see you go." Soon enough the Cubs disappeared, too, finishing eight games behind the Mets.

On the plus side, the pain of that season gave rise to the long-running play "Bleacher Bums" and launched the careers of local actors Dennis Franz and Joe Mantegna. It wasn't the last great theater the Cubs produced, either, since the Mother of All Jinxes had yet to strike.

The Cubs were leading the Marlins three games to two in the 2003 NL championship series, ahead 3-0 in the top of the eighth inning and five outs from returning to the World Series when Florida's Luis Castillo lifted a foul down the line in left just past the bullpen.

Cubs outfielder Moises Alou raced over, timed his jump perfectly, opened his glove wide -- and got beat to the ball by a 26-year-old youth baseball coach in Row 116, Seat 9 who didn't do anything more strenuous than stand up. The baseball hit the heel of Steve Bartman's hand and caromed farther back into the stands. In the Marlins dugout, Game 7 pitcher Mark Redman turned to a teammate and said, "Let's make this kid famous."

They did, but only because a few pitches later, Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez made an equally ham-handed attempt on a grounder that should have been an inning-ending double play. Florida erupted for eight runs to win Game 6 and the only real suspense left was whether the kid would get out of Wrigley Field alive that night. The Marlins clinched the NLCS the night after.

Bartman is fine and still in hiding somewhere in the Chicago area as you read this. The baseball didn't fare quite as well.

Lifelong Cubs fan Grant DePorter, who doubles as president of Harry Caray's Restaurant Group, the popular chain named after the famous broadcaster, paid $113,824.16 for the ball at an auction that December and turned into a multimillion-dollar publicity stunt. First, he arranged for it to visit Wrigley Field one last time, then set the baseball up in a hotel suite for a last supper of steak, lobster and ice-cold Bud. The day after that, on live TV, it was blown to smithereens.

"It sounds insane now, all that money for a baseball we were going to blow up," DePorter said, standing behind the desk in his office. "But I remember exactly what I was thinking back then."

Every nook and cranny in the room is jammed with either Cubs memorabilia or paperwork for DePorter's latest reverse-the-curse scheme: rebuilding the "West Side Rooters Social Club," a fan organization that held great sway the last time the Cubs were champs.

In a previous incarnation, his office was actually an apartment belonging to notorious Al Capone mob lieutenant Frank Nitti. And if he was only half as ruthless as he's portrayed, Nitti would have loved seeing the remains of the "Bartman ball" -- strands of wool, bits of cork and a few pieces of the leather cover -- stuffed inside a small acrylic box on DePorter's desk.

"There were rumors the Marlins were trying to buy it, and even if they weren't true," DePorter smiled, mixing pleasure with business again, "we had to make sure it didn't wind up in the hands of somebody who'd use it to psych out the Cubs."

I didn't have the heart to tell DePorter this story, but last June, my two sons and I got into an elevator at Macy's department store in midtown Manhattan at the same time as Moises Alou and two friends. Alou was playing for the Mets, but on the disabled list at the time. Someone mentioned Chicago and the conversation turned to the Cubs.

"Everywhere I play, even now, people still yell, 'Bartman! Bartman!' I feel really bad for the kid," Alou said, shaking his head.

"You know what the funny thing is?" he added a moment later. "I wouldn't have caught it, anyway."

My older son, who was wrenched from my arms and converted to Cubdom when he was still little, was leaning against the opposite wall.

"Sure you would have," he blurted out, looking straight at Alou. Then he put his head down, stared at his shoes and said nothing the rest of the ride.

One thing about Cubs fans that isn't open to debate: No one has had more fun losing.

Whether it was watching Babe Ruth call his shot off hometown hero Charlie Root in the 1932 Series, or following Caray, like some latter-day Pied Piper, on an after-hours tour of Rush Street watering holes, or even hearing rocker Ozzie Osborne mangle "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch -- if they had to do it all over, chances are Cubs fans wouldn't do it any differently. Most wouldn't know how to answer the question about whether it's better to have loved and lost because they haven't known anything else.

One thing most of the faithful still haven't figured out: While generation after generation has been keening like Nancy Kerrigan ("Why me?") over blown chances and stolen opportunities for 100 years, the answer has been sitting under their civic noses nearly the entire time.

It's Wrigley Field -- or at least it will be until Sam Zell, the latest deep-pocketed, tightfisted owner of the ballclub, finds someone willing to shell out $20 million a year for the naming rights. Unless, that is, he sells the joint first.

Wrigley wasn't Chicago's first grand baseball emporium, and it wasn't even the park's original name. But by the time chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley consolidated control in 1921 of both the team and the stadium -- squatting on four square blocks of prime real estate barely a mile from Lake Michigan -- he already subscribed to an investment strategy that would hamstring the Cubs down through the decades.

Players may come and go, he reasoned, but the ballpark wasn't going anywhere. And since even the best teams lose some 60 times a season, an owner's money was better spent on the destination than the journey. As long as the joint was packed with beer, sunshine and the opposite sex, locals would stay for the game or -- as was the case for all but the first few years of the 20th century -- in spite of it. And if he were so inclined, a man could make a few bucks off an audience as captive as that one.

That's why the Cubs kept ticket prices affordable and why, in 1916, they bucked a rule in force at every other major league park and let fans keep balls, foul or fair, that sailed into the stands. It's why P.K. Wrigley, who succeeded his father, made sure fresh roses sat in the women's bathrooms for every home game. And it's also why on a warm summer days, between the flirting and the fidgeting, the grandstand at Wrigley Field could be mistaken for a singles bar, or the largest open-air beer garden this side of Germany.

In a town that always prided itself on making deals, that was the deal the Cubs finally struck with their fans: You can't beat fun at the old ballpark -- so long as you don't waste too much time worrying about what was happening on the field. But it wasn't always like that.

As the last century dawned, the Cubs had the best team in baseball, thanks to a wheeler-dealer named Charles W. Murphy. They won three straight NL championships from 1906-08; the first after winning a record 116 regular-season games, the second with a 17-game cushion, and the third at the end of what many baseball historians consider the greatest pennant race ever. The Cubs lost in their first World Series appearance to the team from the other side of town, but rebounded to beat the Detroit Tigers in the next two.

Chicagoans who shelled out two cents for the morning paper on Oct. 15, 1908, had every reason to believe it could go on like that forever. Not only was their was their team on top of the baseball world, but their town resided at the heart of an industrial juggernaut just beginning to flex its muscles.

The first Model T rolled off a production line in Detroit that fall and Roosevelt's sleek new navy, tipping the scales at a quarter-million tons and stretching out into a column three miles long, was steaming around the globe in a yearlong display of American might. The steel skeletons that enabled downtown buildings to scrape the sky also let ballpark owners stack seating decks one atop another -- with promenades underneath wider and longer than entire city blocks -- heralding the arrival of the modern ballpark.

People worked hard and played even harder, and perhaps the civic hangover from that last World Series party explained why a story in the Chicago Tribune two days later didn't cause an even-bigger ruckus.

Murphy, the Cubs president, had feuded with fans right up the last pitch of the season. He worried that the antics of some, particularly the organized rooters, were driving other fans away. When most of the team's Series ticket allotment wound up with scalpers instead of the regulars, he became the target of a nasty letters-to-the-editor campaign.

Instead of an apology, Murphy warned Cubs fans to be grateful for what they had. In hindsight, his words sound suspiciously like the original Cubs curse.

"Rome was not built in a day," he told the newspaper, "and it takes time even in Chicago to get ready for a world's series."


Is 99 years time enough?

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