Cubs fans won't forget fan-dango

Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2003

Wait 'til next year, around the middle of January, when a foot of snow has cooled tempers and covered the wounds and 15,000 people in the same shade of blue gather in a downtown hotel ballroom.

Wait 'til next year, when all they will want to talk about are the Cubbies.

But not now.

Not with the memory of coming so close still so fresh. Not with the patches of red and brown peeking through the faded green ivy on Wrigley Field's outfield walls reminding them of yet another baseball autumn that came and went too soon.

Just beyond that wall in left, thousands milled around on Waveland Avenue, stunned.

Thousands more wandered aimlessly up and down Clark Street, pausing to gaze at the televisions inside the bars. But all of them knew no amount of staring was going to change the news: Marlins 9, Cubs 6 in a Game 7 that never should have been necessary.

There were 39,574 witnesses inside the park three fewer than the night before, one of them a 26-year-old youth baseball coach who tried to catch a foul ball and inadvertently unleashed the mother of all curses on a franchise that already endured a century's worth.

Even the manager who told his ballplayers all season to unlearn that history and ignore all those heartaches was feeling the weight of them now.

''You're always disappointed when you get that close,'' Dusty Baker said. ''But that's how life is, sometimes. It doesn't always go your way. A lot of things went our way this year.

''It just didn't go our way,'' he added, ''at the end.''

It's the same lesson that binds generation after generation of Cubs players to one another, from Hack Wilson to Ernie Banks to current ace Mark Prior, and all of them to their fans.

Prior got his first real taste of how deep that shade of Cubby blue courses in the veins of the city last January at the Cubs' annual winter convention.

The 23-year-old, who grew up in San Diego, slogged through the snow and freezing temperatures to make an appearance and couldn't believe the size of the crowd and the warmth he found inside.

He recalled that moment earlier this week, the day before he started Game 6 with the Cubs ahead 3-2. He had a chance to propel them into the World Series for the first time in 58 years.

''Being a Cubs fan,'' Prior said, ''has, I guess, been tough throughout the years.''

But as it turned out, his education was just beginning.

Carrying a 3-0 lead into the eighth inning and just five outs from the clinching victory, Luis Castillo hit a foul ball down the left-field line that a fan named Steve Bartman tried to snare. He beat Cubs outfielder Moises Alou to the ball by a fraction of a second, but it turned out all the opening the Marlins would need.

Florida rallied for eight runs in the inning, setting up Wednesday night's showdown.

A shaking city tried to calm itself most of the day by balancing all the talk about curses with the name of the pitcher who would take the mound: Kerry Wood.

Wood , after all, had never lost to the Marlins, and better still, he'd already won one sudden-death ballgame this month, taking out the Braves in Game 5 of the division series.

Not just that Prior and Wood had followed one another in the Chicago rotation 17 times over the last two season and the Cubs lost both games exactly once.

Being the Cubs, of course, it happened a second time in the most important game the team played in six decades.

''We came here down 3-1 against their two best pitchers, maybe two of the best pitchers in the National League,'' Florida's Jeff Conine said, ''and we beat them both the last two days. We shocked everybody.''

Everybody except Cubs fans. Hundreds lingered in the old ballpark long after the final out, applauding the team that had taken them along on another thrilling ride, even though it ended at an all-too-familiar dead end.

At the end of Row 9 down along the left-field line, a 27-year-old lifelong Cub fan named Matt Dunham sat in the fateful seat where a night earlier Bartman, another lifelong Cubs fan, wrote a new chapter in the team's long and sorry saga.

''I was devastated watching last night,'' Dunham said. ''It was the first time I ever gave credence to the curse in my life.''

The curse he was talking about wasn't Bartman, but the one he replaced. In 1945, tavern owner William Sianis put a hex on the Cubs when he and his goat were turned away from a World Series game that year. The Cubs, ahead two games to one at the time, lost the Series and haven't made it to another one since.

After the Marlins made certain of that, someone asked 72-year-old manager Jack McKeon, who attends church every day no matter what town he's in, whether the Lord was looking out for the Cubs.

''He,'' McKeon said with a soulful pause, ''is probably trying to find that goat.''

This being Chicago, he shouldn't have much trouble rounding up help.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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