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Joy in Wrigleyville

Cubs fans are hoping for the best, preparing for the worst

Posted: Friday September 12, 2003 11:05AM; Updated: Friday September 12, 2003 11:05AM
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For 24 splendid hours last week, the Chicago Cubs were in first place.

Mark Prior pitched a complete game and Sammy Sosa drove in both runs in a 2-1 victory over L.A. on Friday afternoon. When Houston lost later that night, Chicago was atop the NL Central.

"This is our time," Sosa said then. "This is our chance to win the division."

Cubs fans -- who live most of their lives waiting for Steve Garvey's other shoe to drop -- dared to let down their guard. As the taps at Murphy's Bleachers dispensed their liquid nerves, a few Northsiders surely must have said, either out loud or simply to themselves: This is the year.

Over the next week, however, the Cubs went 1-4 to fall 1 1/2 games behind the Astros. There are five weeks left in the season, plenty of time to win a division title or a wild-card berth. ... Right?

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Careful, kid, we may hold you to that in 30 or 40 years.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
 

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me 94 years in a row and chances are I've got a faded Ryne Sandberg poster on my wall and a "Let's Play Two" bumper sticker on a cooler of chilled Old Style.

Cubs fans should know better than to fall for this late-summer push. They do know better, but they can't help themselves. If you've seen any of Prior's manly performances over the past month, you've seen a pitcher ready to shoulder the load in the City of the Broad Shoulders. If you've followed Sosa's post-corking power binge or taken notice of Kenny Lofton's infusion of energy, you, too, might be ready to believe in this team.

There is no shame in being a Cubs fan. There can't be. If fan loyalty were dependent on the occasional championship, Cubs fans would be a dying breed. Literally. There are few walking this good earth who remember the last Cubs championship. Of those who do, the hangover wore off around the time of the big war ... the first one.

Yet the Cub Nation carries on generation after generation. At the epicenter, in Wrigleyville, home games are still a neighborhood block party full of revelry and good cheer. It curls up the west side of Lake Michigan into Wisconsin, down into Northern Indiana, extending west through most of Central Illinois and across virtually all of Iowa. And it's not limited to the Midwest. Superstation WGN has produced Cubs fans in every port, a vast empire that is arguably second only to the Yankees'.

In the heart of Illinois, in Peoria, almost exactly halfway between Chicago and St. Louis, Cubs and Cardinals fans live a mostly peaceful coexistence on the production lines of the Caterpillar plant, the bar stools at Jimmy's and the hallways of St. Mark's Elementary.

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"The Cardinals suck ... [but] I have a friend who is a Cardinal fan," says first grader Tommy Liesse, who regularly hustles home from school in hopes of catching the final inning or two of a day game.

Tommy is six years old and already peripherally aware that neither his father nor his grandfather have ever seen the Cubs win the World Series. His great-grandfather was just a little older than he is now when the Cubs won their last title in 1908. But he doesn't have time for any nonsense about a Billy Goat Curse. "I just don't think they've had good enough players," he says.

"I say more than the perfect dad might [about the heartaches that come with being a Cubs fan], but I don't beat on it either," says Tommy's father, Bill Liesse, the assistant sports editor at the Peoria Journal Star. "He gives in to it on his own. If I'm coming on too negatively, he'll go the other way and tell me, 'Don't be that negative, we'll be fine.' But sometimes there will be a couple bad days in a row, he'll be like, 'These guys are hopeless.' "

Ah, six years old and already riding the emotional pendulum of the seasoned Cubs fan, who swings perilously between optimist and pessimist.

"They're paradoxically both," says Bill Liesse. "Cubs fans are painted as incredibly optimistic because they fill Wrigley when the team is bad and if you show them a five-game winning streak in June, they'll get a little giddy and get ahead of themselves. But most are jaded enough by the hundred-year thing that a lot of people are not fooled when they start to make noise.

"I'm tempted to steal Mike Royko's line, but I won't: An optimist see a glass half full, a pessimist sees it half empty ... a Cub fan wonders when it's gonna spill."

Long Time Coming
Longest World Series Droughts
Team Last title
Chicago Cubs 1908
Chicago White Sox 1917
Boston Red Sox 1918
Cleveland Indians 1948
NY/SF Giants 1954

Chip Caray has been mopping up those emotional spills in the Cubs broadcast booth for six years. His grandfather, the estimable Harry Caray, did likewise for 15 years, milking every opportunity to let fans dream of the day when next year became this year.

"I think Cub fans are optimists in the sense that many of them truly believe evey year that this is going to be the year," Caray said. "Cub fans have emotionally copyrighted the phrase 'Wait 'til Next Year.'

"Chicago people are kind of fatalistic, but they continue to hope that somehow, some way the Cubs will shock even them and win it just one time. Their fatalism allows them to enjoy the team's success, knowing that one horrible thing will happen down the line to rip the rug out from underneath them."

Generations of fans. Generations of broadcasters. Generations of players. Since their last World Series apperance in 1945, five father-son combinations and five sets of brothers have suited up for the Cubs in an fruitless effort to get the team back to the Fall Classic.

So we look to the future and fans like 2 ˝-year-old Josh in Chicago, who has as good a shot as anybody to see the impossible. When people talk about being life-long fans, nobody will be able to trump Josh, who went to his first game at Wrigley on Opening Day on April 2, 2001.

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Sammy would know ... he played on the South Side.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
 

One week later, he was born. Baby's first headfirst slide.

He has since been to dozens of games and to spring training in Arizona with his mothers, Kelly Cassidy and Alexandra Silets. He mimics Sammy's home run hop and he thinks Take Me Out to the Ball Game is a lullaby. The family's holiday card wasn't backdropped by holly, but rather by the Wrigley Field ivy.

"For grown-ups, Wrigley is the biggest beer garden in Chicago," says Silets. "But for Josh, it's about being outside and singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game with thousands of other people.

"He's not allowed to watch TV except for Cub games. He knows batters and pitchers, but does he understand the nuances of the game or really care who wins or loses? Probably not."

Good thing, kid. You'll fit right in. Besides, Mom does enough hand-wringing for the whole family.

"When I'm watching on TV, I always feel like they're going to lose," Silets said. "Then if I walk away they'll come back and score some runs and I feel like I've cursed them, you know! Forget the goat, I'm the one who cursed them somehow.

"I can't ever see us going all the way ... isn't that sad? But I'll come back every spring, because hope springs eternal, right?"

In Chicago, it may have to.

David Vecsey's Voice of Reason column appears weekly on SI.com.

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