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Requiem for a season

Cubs fail to capture Wrigley mystique in NLDS debacle

Posted: Sunday October 7, 2007 12:08AM; Updated: Sunday October 7, 2007 3:56AM
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Alfonso Soriano and the crestfallen Cubs led for only one-half inning in the D'backs series and never at Wrigley Field on Saturday.
Alfonso Soriano and the crestfallen Cubs led for only one-half inning in the D'backs series and never at Wrigley Field on Saturday.
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CHICAGO -- Scenes from a series clincher, from inside Wrigley.

Wrigley Field, 3:04 PM. It's two hours before gametime and the curious have congregated here, down the left field line. They've wandered over to try to catch batting practice foul balls, but also to see the seat. It's not much to look at: green and plastic, like all the others, and identifiable only by the two Cubs stickers someone has smoothed onto its front and back. It's pushed up against the bricking of the wall, at an awkward angle. That's the downside of the Bartman seat: not a lot of leg room.

"Think about it," a stocky Cubs fan with an orange goatee says to his buddy. "He was sitting right there --" he points to the seat -- "and then Wham! he's out here grabbing for it."

His buddy shakes his head. It's too much to fathom.

A few feet away, a man in a Cubs jersey is on his cell phone, talking loudly. "Yeah, I'm sitting like five seats down from it," he says. "I can see it right now." The man, a Chicago native named Louis Bergmann, who lives in Las Vegas, flew out only hours earlier, knowing only that he'd scored company tickets. Not until Bergmann arrived did he realize the significance, that he'd be proximate to the seat where a headphone-bedecked Cubs fan, a young man named Steve Bartman, reached up and grabbed a potential out during the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Bergmann's girlfriend, Angela Bardford, makes a pensive face, pursing her lips, then declares: "Maybe whoever sits there today can bring some dignity back to the seat. You know, keep their hands to themselves."

As she talks, the goateed fan leans in closer so he can take a picture with his cell phone, centering it so that the seat number, 113, is visible. He clicks one photo, checks it out, then takes another to make sure he's got it. It is an interesting phenomenon, this Bartman tourism, and it brings to mind what's occurred over the last month or so at the Minneapolis airport, where travelers now stop to take photos of an ordinary restroom, some going inside to document a stall -- the stall. Some, it is said, go so far to have a friend shoot a picture while they tap their toe on the ground. Ignominy, apparently, makes for a great photo op.

As the Cubs players take batting practice swings, their manager, Lou Piniella, stands in left field, only 20 feet or so away from the seat, talking with one of his coaches. Over the years, Piniella has become more and more penguin-shaped, all front end and no back, his stomach hanging forward so that it appear as if he might topple over at any moment. Perhaps this is why he hitches his thumbs in his belt, to guard against such an outcome. After about twenty minutes of watching BP, Piniella is in mid-conversation when a line drive screams toward him. He ducks and takes three quick, herky-jerky steps to his right, then smiles up at the crowd as it acknowledges his derring-do. If he's worried about this game and the possibility of being swept, he doesn't show it (earlier, while addressing the media, he'd maintained a this-is-just-baseball stance, saying he hadn't talked to his team because there was "no need to, everyone knows the situation.")

The Cubs finish BP and head in, prompting most of the railingbird fans to leave. The owner of the Bartman seat has yet to arrive. When he or she does, reporters from two local Chicago papers stand ready to ask questions. Some things are not easily forgotten.

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It is the fourth inning, and the Cubs are down 2-0. The mood, so buoyant here before the game, when even Ted Lilly got a huge round of applause during introductions, has turned a bit sour. It's impossible to tell how much of it is game-based (most, probably) and how much is scheduling-based (lose today and there is no Sunday day game at Wrigley, which is like stealing one of the great gifts of the baseball gods from an entire city). In the lower deck behind home plate, it is muggy and warm, all the more so because of all the sweaty humans, many of whom seem to be perspiring beer which then evaporates into the thick air, providing the illusion of a contact high.

Many present expected an offensive explosion tonight. The Cubs' big hitters were ineffective the first two games -- Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez -- compiled four hits between them, all singles. It didn't seem likely they'd remain so, especially against a journeyman pitcher like Livan Hernandez, the Arizona righty on the mound. The Cubs themselves, however, seemed less confident. After losing Game 2, the Chicago clubhouse had bordered on despair. "I've got to find a way to do something," a glum Lee had said, reviewing his at-bats. "We have only one choice. Play better or we're out." A few lockers down, Soriano was getting dressed.

Asked if he needed to adjust to all the breaking balls he was seeing, Soriano had provided a curious response. "I'm never really into breaking balls," he'd said. "I look for fastballs." Asked how it felt to be down 0-2 in the series, Soriano had misunderstood the question -- English is his second language after all -- but his answer was telling nonetheless. "I feel like I'm 0 and 2 almost every at-bat."

Surely, the hitters would come to, though, or so the fans hoped. After all, the Cubs were 9-1 odds to win the World Series before the season began and the Diamondbacks 50-1. Talent should win out in the end. Never mind the Diamondbacks won more games during the regular season and, for the first time all year, finally had a true home-field advantage (the near-sellouts of Games 1 and 2). Some around the Diamondbacks posited that this (surprising) show of local support caught the Cubs off-guard. All the talk about how the Cubs fans in Phoenix would make it a "home" road game for Chicago might have made the team complacent.

Here at Wrigley, there are no such expectations for the visitors. On this night, one can walk entire sections without seeing a Diamondbacks fan, and the Chicago crowd is both loud and of one voice. Still, their team cannot score. It is not time to think of the curse just yet -- there's still too much baseball left -- but it's getting close. With one out in the fourth, the Diamondbacks get a runner into scoring position and Eric Byrnes, the Arizona left-fielder, hits a grounder to third base. It's the quintessential double-play ball, but Byrnes is hustling, and he makes it to the bag as the ball arrives. The lower deck fans react first with jubilation -- he's out! -- then outrage and, finally, fatalism.

A shirtless man with a tattooed back throws his hands to his head; a woman in a halter top lets fly a choice obscenity; a man in a Rich Hill jersey does a celebratory 180-degree jump at the perceived out, only to be turned back around in mid-dance by his buddies to be told the sobering reality. A run scores on the play. The Diamondbacks are up 3-0. At the break between innings, one of the back-room workers for the concession stands walks by, her hair braided, hands wrapped in gloves. "They suck right now, don't they?" she says to a co-worker. "Sheeeet," she adds. "This might be our last day of cooking for the city."

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This is how it ends, this last cooking day for the city, with a fly ball to right field from Soriano, who finishes the day 0-for-4. Cubs lose, 5-1. Now, Sunday in Chicago will be about the Chicago marathon and that alone. Hangovers will replace viewing parties.

Across the street from Wrigley, at the Cubby Bear bar, the solution is simple: Keep drinking. There is no mass exodus but rather an influx. Dance music begins to thump. It is Saturday night, and this is neither the time nor place for hand-wringing. So as Chicago parties on, so do the Diamondbacks, who fill their tiny visitor's clubhouse with gallons of sprayed champagne. In one corner, Conor Jackson, face streaked with alcohol, praises the Chicago fans. "This is not an easy place to win, it's hostile ground," Jackson says. In another, Chris Young does the same. "You can't get these fans out of the game," he says, a champagne-soaked towel over his left shoulder.

In this instance, he's not speaking figuratively. Forty-five minutes later, scores of Cubs fans are still wandering the lower level of Wrigley, as if pacing in a giant hospital waiting room, still hoping for good news from inside even though they know the worst to be true. Some look up at the banners overhead, others examine the concrete walls. The time has come but they are not ready to let go, not just yet.

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