|At the scene of the collapse|
By Greg Shea
Special to Page 2
WRIGLEY FIELD, GAME 7 -- Less than an hour after Game 6 of the NLCS on Tuesday night, I ran into a man walking his dogs on Sheffield Avenue.
"Everyone's down," he said, barely looking up. "Everyone's sad. Everyone hates Alex Gonzalez."
Even his dogs looked glum. You know a loss is heart-wrenching when the dogs are bumming, too.
The Cubs' 58-years-in-the-making World Series party stopped midway through the eighth inning Tuesday. The Marlins screeched the needle off the record, turned on the lights, emptied the coolers and sent the Cubs and their fans staggering home with an incomprehensibly cruel eight-run rally.
"We were five outs from the World Series," moaned Erik Peterson of Arlington Heights. "Five outs."
Game 7 seemed a mere formality. Deep down, Cubs fans knew a date with the guillotine was unavoidable. To their credit, they attended anyway.
With no other plans, viewing the torture up close and personal seemed like a fine way to spend a Wednesday evening, so I hopped on the El to join the fun.
I take the blue line train from the suburbs and hop on the Addison Street bus toward Wrigley Field. You sense the tension. This is a no-nonsense crew. Optimism doesn't exactly pervade the bus.
I mention to another passenger that the Red Sox have come back to take the lead on the Yankees.
"It's a good omen," I say. Nobody seems to be buying it.
I meet John Stanifer and Chaz Palisano of Bartlett, Ill., along with their friend Ryan Monahan of Chicago in front of the Goose Island Brew Pub and ask about their confidence level entering the game.
"I'm guardedly optimistic," Stanifer says. "If you had told me before the series that it would be Kerry Wood in Game 7, I'd be pumped."
I mention the saga of the foul-ball fan wearing the '80s-style Walkman from the previous night -- that he's had a tough day. His name is everywhere now.
"We'll win tonight and it'll be a big group hug around his house," Stanifer says.
Having snagged a last-minute bleacher ticket from a good friend, I walk to Addison and Sheffield Streets to meet him. The bleachers will provide the perfect setting for the final chapter of the Cubs' season.
I meet Bob Caldwell of Winnetka, Ill., and his son-in-law, Scott Smith. For them, fear is the operative word.
"I think a lot of people were counting on going to the World Series," Smith says. "Now, they're scared we may not get there."
A Cubs' loss would be the "all-time sports disappointment of my life," Caldwell adds.
Keep the razor blades away from this guy.
I meet my friend, Dave, and we make our way to aisle 150, row 4, seats 11 and 12 in the bleachers.
Jim Werner of Buffalo Grove, Ill., and Richard Olswang of Glenview, Ill., are seated next to us. I realize we're going to hit it off when I pick up on their sarcasm and sense of dread.
"You have it in your grasp and let it get away," Werner says. "Most teams that have lost a critical game like that don't come back."
Looks like it's going to be an upbeat crowd.
Werner and Olswang discuss tonight's starter, Kerry Wood. I mention his inconsistency during the season.
"The typical Kerry Wood bad inning is when he walks two and then grooves one for a three-run homer," Olswang says.
In your textbooks, please turn to page 42 and read the section on foreshadowing.
Ferguson Jenkins throws out the first pitch. Man, couldn't they have gotten someone from the last Cubs' World Series team? Oh, wait ...
A fan has a sign in front of me stating "Keep your hands to yourself." I'm reminded of the sign at a building on Waveland Avenue: "He's not a fan. He's a goat!"
Fear not, Headset Boy. Just take a little time to let this whole episode die down. Lie low ... for, oh, 95 years or so.
The game starts, and Wood allows a leadoff triple to Juan Pierre on an 0-2 breaking ball. After an out, Ivan Rodriguez strides to the plate.
"This is a guy the Tribune (Company, owners of the Cubs) should have signed," Olswang says.
After a great battle with Wood, Rodriguez walks. Wood is overthrowing and has no command of his curveball. In the movies, this is when the scary piano starts playing in the background -- soft, then a little louder.
Miguel Cabrera, Florida's phenomenal rookie, launches a three-run homer over our heads in left. The Marlins are on the board in a big way, 3-0.
I need an oxygen tank. All the air has left Wrigley Field.
I meet Jim and Nick Grieco, 16-year-old twins from Glenview, Ill.
"I'm still excited about the next inning with the way our bats have been swinging this series," Jim says.
Call it youthful exuberance. Olswang quickly throws cold water on it.
"They've not had many games where they've rallied this year."
With that, Dave and I decide it's time for a few beers. Nothing washes down optimism better than a watery Old Style.
I meet Jacob Haslwanter, a 25-year-old from Chicago. I ask him about his favorite Cub when he was growing up.
"When I was real young, I liked Bill Buckner," he says. "I guess that's a bit of a bad omen."
I ask if his favorite player is now Alex Gonzalez, whose crucial error in Game 6 helped lead to the loss. He laughs.
"No. And then it was (Ryne) Sandberg and now it's Kerry Wood."
I take a sip from my beer. It tastes like plastic.
The Cubs threaten, putting runners on second and third in the second inning with Damian Miller at the plate. Miller was a cheaper offseason pickup than Rodriguez. He's combined with backup catcher Paul Bako to be a virtual out in the lineup all season.
"At least first base is open," Haslwanter says, "so he can't hit into a double play."
Miller grounds out weakly, but drives in a run.
Wood steps to the plate with two outs. Olswang says he's going to hit a home run to tie the game.
Wood works the count on Mark Redman to 3-2 with two outs. He hits a 380-foot homer to tie the game. Pandemonium erupts in our section and I'm doused with beer.
"I told you!!" Olswang shouts.
Meanwhile, Jim Grieco is bloodied in the melee. He took an elbow to the mouth from another fan and has to use a napkin to stop the bleeding from his lip. We already have injuries in the bleachers and the game is merely tied up. This town will be off the hook if the Cubs pull this game out.
Wood has settled down and found his curveball. Olswang and Werner are still talking about his prediction about the Wood homer.
"I swear he called the Wood homer," Werner tells the group.
Moises Alou hits the next pitch in the third inning for another home run, and the Cubs lead, 5-3.
"I called that one, too!" Olswang yells.
The group isn't buying it. Grieco adds, "In my mind, I said he's hitting the next pitch out." Oh, yeah. Me, too.
The bleachers are giddy now. Wood has found his mojo and the general feeling is that the Cubs have battled back against the demons of Game 6 and the assorted jinxes. They are now invincible. Grieco starts thinking ahead.
"We don't even know if they'll (fans) storm the field," he says. "It's never happened."
If I had a black cat, I'd throw it at him.
The Marlins replace Mark Redman with Brad Penny for a shutout inning. Josh Beckett begins warming up on two days' rest. Meanwhile, Wood runs into trouble. He walks pinch-hitter Brian Banks and goes 2-0 on Pierre. I wonder if Baker should consider warming up a relief pitcher just in case. It is Game 7, after all.
"Dusty's always a little deliberate with that," Haslwanter says, stating the obvious.
Wood walks Pierre. A couple relief pitchers stand up, but nobody begins warming. Rodriguez doubles in one run. Cabrera ties the game with a groundout to first. Derrek Lee singles in Rodriguez and the Marlins take a 6-5 lead. The Cubs' pen is still silent.
Our section is panicking.
"When is he (Baker) going to get someone up?" Olswang asks.
"You don't manage like it's game 45 (of the season)," Dave pleads. "This is Game 7."
Kyle Farnsworth begins warming up, but sits down again as soon as Wood gets out of the inning.
Wood comes out for the sixth. It's so obvious this is a bad decision that it's painful. Marlins manager Jack McKeon has emptied his entire pitching staff into the bullpen, while Baker is sticking with his fading starter. It's like McKeon is coaching the varsity while Baker is with the JV.
A guy behind us asks, "Who's pitching? Oh, Wood's still pitching?" Thanks for paying attention.
Later, he adds, "No worries. Sammy's about to hit a two-run jack. That's what we're down by, right? Oh, one? Well, that'd give us the lead then!"
I think of former Cubs manager Lee Elia's famous tirade. "The great Chicago fans … my friggin' ass."
Antonio Alfonseca throws a few pitches in the bullpen.
"Oh god! Oh no!" two people yell out almost simultaneously. Suddenly seeing Alfonseca can be jarring for any Cubs fan. "Oh, make it stop. My eyes are burning!"
We wonder who will sing 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' during the seventh-inning stretch.
"It'll have to be a stripper to get this crowd going," Dave says.
Clueless Cubs fan -- that's his new name -- behind me is mystified by the Marlins.
"They don't have a single guy outside of Pudge that scares you."
Yeah, I'm sure McKeon has been awake at night thinking about how to slow down Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek.
Dave Veres gets up in the bullpen and the crowd gasps.
"He has to go to someone," Oslwang says. "But I don't think Veres is the guy."
We all wonder why Matt Clement hasn't warmed up or been brought into the game yet. Clement pitched Saturday's game and has had enough rest. He's nowhere to be seen.
The woman in front of us all of a sudden rushes to the defense of Veres. "C'mon, now. He's really kicked ass the last two outings."
Nick Grieco mimics a drinking motion. "What two outings?" he asks.
We think she must be his sister. We have no other plausible explanation for why she would defend Veres. We mock her.
Veres relieves. His first pitch clocks in at 76 mph. "That was his heater," Oslwang says.
The next pitch is 86. "Oh, the express!"
Soon, Alex Gonzalez singles to left off Veres to make the score, 9-5. Somewhere, Aretha Franklin puts down her ham sandwich and starts warming up. The fat lady is going to sing.
Billy Corgan, formerly of the Smashing Pumpkins, sings the stretch. But not before editorializing.
"We never, EVER, give up!"
Yeah, except all your bands, Billy. He's just the guy to tell us about resiliency. Hey, know where I can get tickets to the Zwan reunion tour, pal?
Apparently, we were just on TV. If you have TiVo, I was the really good-looking guy in the middle with the Tar Heels hat on.
Troy O'Leary pinch-hits for Veres.
"Oh man, why don't they let Superman hit for himself?" I ask. The Veres bashing continues.
O'Leary homers to right.
Mike Remlinger comes out for the eighth inning.
"I bet he's saving Clement for next April, the home opener," Oslwang snarls.
My friend Dave is getting married this weekend. We try to look on the bright side: At least the people at his reception won't be distracted by the World Series.
Juan Pierre comes up and the clueless guy behind me starts talking in a cheesy French accent. Yeah, good one. His first name is Juan.
Joe Borowski relieves Remlinger with two outs. We're sure that Baker will be switching pitchers batter-by-batter now that the game is nearly over. He'll empty his pen. I think Mark Guthrie could use some work to get ready for spring training.
The Cubs enter the bottom of the eighth and gloom pervades the stadium. McKeon has his two best relievers, Braden Looper and Ugueth Urbina, up in the bullpen.
"Once you're up, you gotta do everything you can to hold onto it," Haslwanter says, both about Baker's unwillingness to use his pen to hold the lead and McKeon's willingness to do whatever it takes.
Sosa comes up to face Beckett with one out, almost the exact spot when the comeback started for the Marlins the previous night.
"All we need is a single and then a foul ball in the stands," Oslwang says.
Of course, Sosa strikes out looking. Alou grounds out to end the inning and fans start to exit the stands. Except for one fan in our section, who returns to his seat with a ton of food.
"What, did he wait for the discount or something?" I ask. Everyone looks at him like he's an alien. The game is about to be over and he missed the bottom of the eighth to get hot dogs, candy and popcorn. Truly bizarre.
Lee doubles down the line. A woman behind us is losing it.
"Sammy, you want to field that s---? You suck."
I tell Dave I like her. She's extremely negative.
Aramis Ramirez is hit by a pitch to start the bottom of the ninth. Randall Simon strikes out, though, on three horrible swings at pitches out of the strike zone. Gonzalez follows with another strikeout. Backup catcher Paul Bako is the last hope.
"You didn't want to pay for Pudge," Oslwang says. "This is what you get."
Bako flies out weakly to right. The Cubs' collapse is official, 9-6.
I walk outside and meet 44-year-old Steve Maz of Chicago.
"It's hard," Maz says. "It just sucks. They lead you to a point and then let you down."
I didn't think people could get this depressed, but Maz is scaring me.
"The Cubs are it for me. The other sports I love, but this would be the greatest. ... I don't need it anymore. I have a son; he's 1-year-old. That's my joy. I don't need the Cubs anymore. But, you know, life will go on and we'll get through this."
He thanked me for talking with him, for listening to him.
Jeff McCurrach of Akron, Ohio, believed the fans really lost their faith after the Game 6 loss.
"The minute the Marlins came back, you watched it ebb out," McCurrach said. "You wanted to turn around and say, 'Does anybody believe here?' There was no sense of momentum from the fans at all."
Ann Lantolf of Glenview, Ill., felt it might have been better for the Cubs to have not made the playoffs at all than to lose in this fashion.
"You're worked up to win and then it's a letdown," Lantolf said. "But the fact they got here is a miracle. I give Dusty credit for that. I don't think they were a World Series-caliber team. They played their hearts out, but Baker was outmanaged and they were outplayed."
Michael Magallanez of Engine 78 on Waveland Avenue tried to find a silver lining in the loss.
"The positive thing is they did look good this year," he said. "'Wait 'til next year' has more meaning this time. The team is strong."
Police in riot gear stand around idle while Wrigley Field maintenance workers start to clean up the trash. Fans file into the area bars, mill in the street or make their way home.
The season is over at Wrigley. And now we know: It was always a matter of 'when.'
But the 'how' won't easily be forgotten.