CHICAGO — It's now the year of the dream plus one on the North Side, where the ovation continues for the beloved Cubbies, even as they head into the nightcap with Reality set to send up its 3-4-5 hitters.
The Cubs? They're still popular? Still competitive? Comic relief no longer? You mean, that wasn't a mirage last season?
Maybe not. This might be nothing like '69, when their forefathers blew a pennant and went back under their rock for most of the next decade.
On balance, the Cubs are still the best team in the National League East, or close to it. They're the league's best road draw. At home, they expect to play to 90% capacity for the summer months of June, July and August. Their average is up 5,000 a game. At their current pace, they would top last season's attendance mark (a record by 450,000) by another 400,000.
But it's not going to be easy. They've stopped hitting. First in the league in scoring last year (by 42 runs over the second-place Phillies and 69 over the third-place Astros, not to forget 182 over the last-place Dodgers), they're now sixth.
They haven't stopped aging, though. A recent lineup included Davey Lopes, 38; Ron Cey, 37; Larry Bowa, 39, and Gary Matthews, 34.
Matthews is just back from knee surgery. Bowa's batting average dropped so low, it threatened to take his fielding average with it. He and Coach Don Zimmer had a knock-down, drag-out exchange in spring training over the challenge of prize rookie shortstop Shawon Dunston. Cey recently slumped to the low .200s, and announcer Harry Caray spiced up a pregame show by asking Manager Jim Frey how he knew when a player was finished.
Dunston fizzled and had to be sent down. Then the many replacements required for injured Cubs started coming from the nether reaches of their farm system, suggesting that the Cub future had better be now.
If the millennium was not yet at hand on the North Side, an old conflict was. Cub President Dallas Green, an import from Philadelphia who'd pulled the Cubs into the 20th Century with all the finesse of Sherman touring Georgia, announced the collapse of negotiations with Wrigleyville.
Wrigleyville is the local name for the community around Wrigley Field, which is fighting against the installation of lights. Wrigley Field is the only stadium in major league baseball without lights.
Green threatened to move the team out of revered Wrigley to remote Schaumburg, where the parent Tribune Co. has an open field.
Move away, replied Wrigleyville, scoffing at the ploy.
"If you knew me at all," replied Green, "you'd know I don't ploy. "
Oh, and the club lost 13 games in a row. Aside from that, the season was off to a pretty decent start.
The Chicago Tribune is one of the two downtown newspapers covering the team daily, leading to some interesting contrasts in coverage, and rarely more so than June 25, when Green reported on the progress of his talks with Wrigleyville representatives.
The Chicago Sun-Times, which is obliged to give prominent coverage to its opposition's enterprise, ran a front-page picture of Green in a box next to the headline, "Cub boss lights into Chicago."
The picture of Green took up one-sixth of the page. The rest of the box took up another sixth. In the box were his quotes, in 18-point type:
'The law's got us, the Legislature's got us, the neighborhood's got us and we're 0-12. Hey, it's a horrible year.
"It goes back to what I said (the attitude was) when I first came here: Don't trade anybody and don't change anything. Don't do anything but win, stay in Wrigley Field and keep feeding the animals. "They (Wrigleyville) want their way and I'm not sure they even give a hoot about (the Cubs) winning any more. I think they couldn't care less about that.
"And they're not going to listen until we march our tails to Schaumburg or somewhere else."
The Tribune carried the same quotes in a seven-paragraph story on its fourth sports page, under the headline, "Lights discussions frustrate Green."
Green wasn't the only person discussions were frustrating, either.
"These are very difficult issues for us," says Nancy Kaszak, a lawyer who lives eight blocks from Wrigley and serves as president of Citizens United for Baseball in the Sunshine (CUBS). "We probably have more Cub fans per square inch than any area in the country.
"First they told us, biorhythms. They couldn't play at night on the road and come home and play in the day. Last year, of course, proved them wrong. Then they said Peter Ueberroth (baseball commissioner) is making us do it, the devil made us do it.
"Eventually we decided to sit down with them and hear what they had to say. They said, 'Look, not only do we want lights for the World Series and the playoffs, we want 18 regular-season night games.' They said those were not negotiable.