CHICAGO -- This was the way it ended. This was the way it ended Wednesday for the Chicago Cubs.
With the wrong team stampeding out of its dugout, hugging everybody but the grounds crew. With the Wrigley Field organ playing, "Auld Lang Syne."
With a once-electrified throng of 39,574 people making so little noise, you could almost hear the ivy turning red. With one disgusted fan spinning in the aisle, muttering: "I can't watch this."
Even for the Cubs, this was an ending that was hard to digest, even harder to believe. Even for the Cubs, these had been 24 hours of pain they never saw coming.
"Last night, in the eighth inning, I didn't think we could lose," said Moises Alou, after his team had become the ninth team in history to blow a 3-games-to-1 lead in a best-of-seven postseason series. "We had [Mark] Prior going, and he was on, like he'd been all year. We had a three-run lead. Then a couple of things happened, and all of a sudden we were in Game 7. It was kind of unbelievable, what happened last night."
Kind of unbelievable. That's what they'll think when they close their eyes and the reality hits them. That's what they'll think when that team in teal and black is playing in the World Series without them. That's what they'll think as long as they live, unless next year really does turn out to be The Year for the Cubs.
One second, they were in total control, making their World Series reservations, closing out a game they couldn't possibly lose and a series that was theirs for the taking. The next, they were out there in a Game 7 they weren't supposed to play. And helicopters were circling the house of a fan who'd deflected the wrong foul ball on the wrong night. And a man was leading around a goat outside their ballpark, looking for TV cameras.
Kind of unbelievable. It happened so fast, there was no way to explain it except to deduce they'd just gotten caught up in something more powerful than themselves. And by that, they did not mean the Billy Goat Curse.
"The Plan wasn't for us to get to the World Series," said Kenny Lofton, in a mystical sort of way. "And there's nothing we can do about that. There's a plan out there for everyone. There's a plan out there for the Chicago Cubs. And at this point, this wasn't in it."
They will try their best not to think about what might have been. They will try their best not to think about that eighth-inning foul ball Tuesday night that never arrived in Alou's glove. They will try their best to blame themselves, not some accidental co-conspirator who reached for a flying baseball without realizing what he was really reaching for was infamy and history.
"That's over," Alou said firmly. "When I got home after that game, I forgot about it. This morning, I went to the grocery store, and I had a couple of people trying to blame that play for what happened, and that's not fair. It wasn't that play that cost us the series. Hopefully, we can keep this team together and come back and win, and everybody can forget about that."
OK, good try. But memories are too long. Videotapes are too vivid. The legend is too long for anyone in Chicago to forget that unfortunate moment in time. At least, after that loss Tuesday, there was still a tomorrow. But it turned out tomorrow wasn't any kinder.
For a while, Game 7 had the makings of the Cubs' greatest story ever told: Kerry Wood gives up a three-run homer in the first inning, then turns around and lights up the night by mashing a game-tying two-run homer of his own in the second.
In the 30-year DH era, Wood was just the fifth pitcher to hit a postseason home run -- joining only Rick Sutcliffe (1984 Cubs), Steve Carlton (1978 Phillies), Don Gullett (1975 Reds) and Ken Holtzman (1974 Orioles).
But this one was special. This one was magic. Because this was Game 7. And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, just one pitcher had ever collected both a win and a homer in any Game 7 of any postseason series: the great Bob Gibson in the 1967 World Series. Then Alou gave Wood a lead with a two-run home run an inning later. And all Wood had to do was drive this el train home.
Not on this night, though. Even Alou, after hitting that home run, admitted he didn't feel secure that that lead would be enough -- even with Wood on the mound.
"Not the way things have been going lately," Alou said. "Not that I'm not showing confidence in the pitching staff. But the way things have been going -- like last night -- you've got to be a little concerned."
It already was evident that Wood had no command, no feel for his breaking ball. The Marlins would wear him down. And Dusty Baker -- in what can either be construed as an enormous show of faith in his starter or a dramatic lobbying effort for a whole new bullpen -- would leave Wood in to give up seven earned runs. Count 'em -- seven.
Only four other pitchers in history have given up that many runs in a winner-take-all postseason game (Walter Johnson in 1925, Jim Lonborg in 1967, John Candelaria in 1986, Charles Nagy in 1999). But none gave up seven earned runs. So that was the Cubs' tragic tale on this night. Can't blame this one on the paying customers.
"I think," said pitching coach Larry Rothschild, "that he and Mark [Prior] both ran out of gas there. And I don't mean that as an excuse."
The pitches mounted up. The strain of lugging the franchise on their craniums mounted up. That assembly line of Marlins foul balls mounted up. And in the end Wednesday, 27 outs mounted up -- to end the Cubs' season with a plot twist that will fit right in with their 95 years of tragic postseason lore.
But as painful as it was to watch unfold, as painful as it was to live through, now comes the real pain. The World Series will start without them, right on schedule. And it will become the backdrop for their lives until the last week of October, like it or not.
"I won't watch a minute of it," said pitcher Matt Clement. "My wife might turn it on. But I won't watch it."
"I was looking forward to playing in the World Series," Alou said. "That's two great teams [Red Sox and Yankees], with a lot of tradition. And I've never played in Yankee Stadium in my life. So if they win, I'll be sad I won't get that chance."
"When the World Series is done," Clement said, "then I can look back and say how much fun it was -- and it was. I never had this much fun playing baseball. But that's tough to say right now."
With Wood, Prior, Clement and Carlos Zambrano, it's easy for them to dream of being back in this spot next year at this time. But there is age and free agency and the usual spinning of the baseball earth to factor in. So who knows?
"You look around," Alou said, "and you see some veteran guys here who never got a chance to play in the World Series. And they're running out of time."
Yes, their time was these last few days, when they held a 3-games-to-1 lead and then watched it disappear. And now they'll have to hear about that for as long as they play for this team, no matter how hard they try to cover their ears.
"It would be wrong to focus on 3-to-1," Clement said, "and the history, and the curse, and all that crap none of us believe in."
"We have a bunch of new players here -- new managers, new coaches, new players," Alou said. "And we don't care about that (curse). We don't care about the past. It's in the back of our minds because people bring it up every day. But we came here to perform, and play, and win.
"That team over there -- they played better than us. I thought we played well. But they played better."
It's easier to believe that, more logical to believe that, than to believe in stupid stuff like curses and goats. But they're the Cubs. And for 95 years, all their seasons have had two things in common with this one: They lasted just a little too long. And they ended way too quietly.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.