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Classic Fall Instead of Fall Classic

For the 58th consecutive year, the Cubs will not be going to the World Series. But for fans, this playoff loss to the Marlins really hurts.

October 16, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — This time, this year -- this was different. Chicago felt it. After more than 9,000 baseball games over 58 ultimately losing seasons, the city had learned to identify the Cubs' deceiving sparks of promise. The feeling was one of predestined victory.

So it seemed.

But the Cubs lost again, lost what would have been the team's first trip to the World Series since World War II, by losing to the Florida Marlins on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field. And the city of big shoulders seemed to need one to cry on.

"I don't know if I can do this anymore," Cub fan Lois Mack, 56, said after the game. "I really don't."

Playing in what might have been their kind of fall weather -- gray and chilly -- the Cubs fell to the Marlins 9-6 in the final contest of the best-of-seven National League championship series. Now the upstart Marlins will go to the World Series -- the team's second such appearance in its 11-year history.

The loss continued the legendary losing streak that has made the Cubs arguably the most lovingly pitied team in professional sports -- their main rivals for that title being the Boston Red Sox, who are battling the New York Yankees for a trip to the World Series, which Boston has not won since 1918.

The winner of the Red Sox-Yankees duel, which will be decided tonight, will advance to the first game of the World Series on Saturday.

Nearly three generations of fans have been born since the Cubs last won the National League pennant, in 1945.

The last time they won the World Series, in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt was president, World War I was still six years off, and just five years had passed since the Wright Brothers had flown their plane at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Jerry Pritikin was in the bleachers when the Cubs won the NL pennant in '45. "I was hooked and asked my dad if he'd take me to the World Series," said Pritikin, 66, a retired photographer. "He told me I was too young. 'I'll take you next year,' " he said.

The Cubs are one of the great enigmas in sports, losers with some of the most loyal fans across the nation and in many other countries, thanks to years of broadcasts on WGN-TV.

Pritikin misses "one or two home games a year -- because of weddings or something." For much of the last two decades, he had sat with Carmella Hartigan, who seldom missed a home game before she died last year at 101.

The year-after-year losses, in some odd way, seem to bring a comfortable consistency to some fans, who can visit Wrigley Field a few times a year or follow the team on television without getting too excited about it all. At a playoff game in Florida, a Cub fan raised a placard pleading with the team to hurry up and win so he could relax for the next 95 years.

"I came to grips a long time ago that I might never see them go to the World Series," said Rebecca Mullins, 42.

"Once you know that, you can have fun whether they win or lose."

Late this summer, though, Cubs fans -- simultaneously pessimistic and endlessly hopeful -- began to speak aloud of post-season play. The team had two of the game's premier pitchers in Mark Prior and Wednesday's starter, Kerry Wood. Slugger Sammy Sosa was playing well, and a handful of mid-season pickups were brilliantly plugging holes in the team.

History, the curse of the billy goat and painful lessons of past over-optimism might have shushed the fans, but something did feel different -- the way the Cubs seemed to gel late in the season, maybe, the way a good gust of wind helped more than one Sosa drive clear the outfield wall for a home run.

Then the Cubs beat the once-dominating Atlanta Braves in the National League division series and quickly went up three games to one against the Marlins. When they lost the fifth game, in Florida, fans weren't exactly thrilled, but their confidence had grown to the point that the loss simply meant their team could now win the pennant at home.

The dreamy possibility first of a trip to the World Series drove players and fans alike to giddy heights.

Upon returning to Wrigley Field, some Cubs players adorned their caps with ivy from the outfield wall -- ivy turned red and umber, fall colors the players seldom see at the park because the ivy is usually still green when their season ends.

People talked of firing up the city's air-raid sirens if the Cubs won the pennant, but Fire Commissioner James Joyce -- a fan of the White Sox, the South Side team that considers itself the club of the city's working class -- quashed that idea and at the same time got in a little jab at Cub fans.

"We don't see the need for the sirens," Joyce said earlier this week. "It would startle some of the participants, and we wouldn't want them to spill their Chardonnay."

Such jibes did nothing to quell the foreign-feeling optimism of Cub fans. What did sour it was a bizarre turn of events in Tuesday's Game 6.

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