How the Cubs are regaining Chicago's faith

CHICAGO -- The love affair between the Chicago Cubs and their fans is back as they’re in the thick of the playoff race this late in the season for the first time since 2008. That was also the last time they made the postseason, but they’re aiming to change their fortunes, which have included five straight fifth-place finishes.

“It’s hard to have a buzz in the ballpark when you’re 20 games under in August,” general manager Jed Hoyer said this week. “Now that we’re in a pennant race, I think the atmosphere here has been amazing, watching it get louder and louder with every passing week, every passing home game.”

The Cubs have a firm hold on the second wild-card spot in the National League, with their sights set on moving up. They also have a hold on a fan base that has waited patiently while the current front office rebuilt the team from the bottom up. Now the Cubs are starting to reap the rewards, with the goal of ending the longest championship drought in professional sports, 107 years and counting.

“I’ve been waiting,” Cubs fan Scott Murray said outside Wrigley Field on Tuesday. “I know what their plan has been and I want to see it through. It takes a lot to be a Cubs fan.”

The team would like nothing more than to appease Murray and the rest of a starving and patient fan base.

“I feel like everybody I come across is excited,” reliever James Russell said. “We’re trying to please them. The biggest thing is bringing good baseball back to Wrigley.”

Russell sits in the bullpen, where he says the season-ticket holders have been the same whether “we win or lose,” but that hasn’t always been the case. See Steve Bartman and several heartbreaking playoff losses for proof. But the negativity of the recent rebuild is nearly forgotten already. Manager Joe Maddon is a newcomer to the whole scene, and he was embraced even before the Cubs went on a 15-of-17 run in the second half.

“It’s constant,” Maddon said of the attention. “At Starbucks today. Dude is sitting there with his headphones on and he wanted a picture for his kid. His kid is a big Cubs fan, so of course you do that. But it’s constant. The fans are very respectful.”

One thing Maddon hears often is people calling him “coach.”

“Can we inform the public the manager is not coach,” he joked.

The Cubs hadn’t exactly cultivated new fans over the past few years, but that’s changing. First baseman Anthony Rizzo is the unquestioned leader of the team and had to play through four ugly seasons of losing before this one.

“I think they’re all excited,” he said. “Just overhearing people talk baseball. It feels like the whole city is behind us.”

There’s nothing like a pennant race in Chicago. The Cubs haven’t had many over the years, but they can take over the entire town even after the Chicago Bears start playing. That’s hard to do in this city.

“You hear the buzz all over,” center fielder Dexter Fowler said. “You look around and notice.”

With winning comes tough decisions. The biggest problem for the players and the front office these days? Tickets.

“My phone will blow up,” Hoyer said. “I’ll get 25 texts a night. People are just excited about the team. Everyone is asking for tickets. That’s a good thing.”

Several players admitted to getting some “free desserts and stuff like that,” while Maddon says he’ll have a glass of wine bought for him from time to time, but they haven’t seen anything yet. All it takes is one playoff berth. Then things will really take off.

“The buzz is here and around the city,” Russell said. “We win the last game of the season? We’ll get whatever we want for free.”