For longest-suffering Cubs fans, it could be now or never

David Baker, from left, Bobby Clark and Joe Zahradnik have waited a combined 264 years for the Cubs to win a World Series championship. David W. Johnson for ESPN

WILLOWBROOK, Ill. -- With one out in the first inning of the National League Championship Series Game 5 on Thursday night, Gail Schuster shuffled to the end of her motorized wheelchair, sat up as straight as she possibly could and began yelling at the flat-screen television a few feet in front of her.

"Hurry up!" Schuster beckoned. "Oh hurry up! Please hurry up!"

Half a country away, Chicago Cubs leadoff man Dexter Fowler was attempting to score from first base on a double into the right-field corner by Anthony Rizzo. And the 75-year-old Schuster, confined to a wheelchair for more than a half-century due to a rare bone disease, couldn't watch quietly without begging Fowler home.

"Hurry!" she kept repeating.

As Fowler rounded third, a flip phone in the Cubs bag draped over the arm of Schuster's wheelchair began to buzz. CALL FROM 2-0-7... Schuster ignored it, waiting until Fowler crossed the plate, Rizzo was safely at second and her beloved Cubs had a 1-0 first-inning lead to pick up.

"Hello?" she said to a caller who probably should have known better. "I'm watching the game."

It was a scene surely repeated in living rooms, hospital rooms and nursing homes around the country. Elderly Cubs fans, in the late innings of their lives, starting to believe what was once unthinkable: the Chicago Cubs playing in their first World Series since 1945.

"You always think it's going to go the same way it always does -- they freeze up," Schuster said. "A couple nights ago, that's what it looked like, very much timid and afraid. But now they've come together."

"There were so many years they fell apart, I never thought it would happen," added David Baker, like Schuster a resident at Chateau Center in Chicago's southwest suburbs. "But maybe this is the year."

"He looks like it's too late at night for him to be out." Gail Schuster, 75, on baby-faced, 22-year-old Cubs shortstop Addison Russell

At 88 years old, Baker admits that his long-term memory is a far cry from what it once was, not entirely a bad thing for a lifelong Cubs fan. Baker says he doesn't remember the collapse of '69, the ground ball rolling through Leon Durham's legs in 1984 or the crushing Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS.

"Steve Bartman?" Baker asks. "I have no idea who that is."

Schuster, on the other hand, remembers all the heartbreak. But she wouldn't have it any other way. The Cubs have always been there for her, so until the day she dies she will return the favor. A self-described die-hard, she has listened to or watched nearly every Cubs game since she was a teenager and health issues forced her to drop out of school in the seventh grade and confined her to a wheelchair at the age of 21. On her darkest, most depressed days, she would turn to Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams to lift her spirits.

"I fought that wheelchair the entire time. I didn't want it," she said. "But every day I looked forward to the ballgame. My mom would get hot dogs, potato chips and a Coke and I would watch them and listen to Jack Brickhouse. It helped me get through a lot of hard days.

"No matter what was going on, the Cubs became a constant for me. They were always there. And as I became older it was a bridge to talk to people and meet people."

Schuster made her first trip to Wrigley Field in 2007 and says she has been there about six times since. Today, Schuster has no surviving family. She was never able to have children and was an only child. But in the halls of Chateau Center she has built a reputation as the biggest of Cubs fans.

Night games aren't exactly easy for the elderly. As Thursday night's Game 5 began, most of the other residents of Chateau Center were either in bed or on their way there. Yet there was Schuster, in the nursing home's media room, barking at the TV with the passion of someone 50 years younger.

"Of course I stay up and watch," Shuster explained. "I don't get up at 6 a.m. like a lot of these people do. I just sleep 'til 10."

Ninety-year-old Bobby Clark quietly watched the first two innings with Schuster before fading and heading back to his room. He planned on reading about the game in Friday morning's newspaper. "I read it every day," he said.

Two other Cubs fans, Baker and 86-year-old Joe Zahradnik, hung around the media room for pregame but called it a night before Fowler had even scored in the first. Said Zahradnik: "I can only watch day games." And Baker: "I'll find out in the morning if we won."

But there was Schuster, starting her night in the media room and ending it in her bedroom, glued to the Cubs game all the way until the final out. Through the course of the night, she revealed that Kris Bryant is cute and she admires Addison Russell's baby face. "He looks like it's too late at night for him to be out," she said. In the NLCS, she's quickly grown a dislike for the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez. "He just seems so nasty to me." When Gonzalez struck out to end the first inning and chirped to the umpire afterward, she made note. "See what I mean?" she said. "He's just so intimidating. You don't need to act that way." And she was less than pleased with L.A.'s baserunners jumping off first base in an effort to distract Cubs left-hander Jon Lester. "I can't believe the way they are acting," she said. "It's so ignorant."

"I'll celebrate quietly. At this age, I don't need to be loud." David Baker, 88, on what he'll do if the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908

Schuster believes this is the Cubs' year because they are no longer led by aging veterans and instead have such a young, talented core. "We used to always get players at the end when they were limping on the field," she said. "I don't know why we would buy them. But this new guy, Theo [Epstein], he's done some great changes."

Schuster's bedroom features a Cubs blanket and she regularly drinks from a Cubs mug. Wrapped around her left wrist is a Cubs bracelet and strategically positioned on her nightstand are a pair of Cubs rings that she would prefer others don't touch. She insists she isn't superstitious, yet when she found out the daughter of another resident works in Guest Services at Wrigley Field, she gave the woman a miniature plush goat that said "curse breaker" on it to take to the ballpark during the division series against the Giants.

"It worked," she said. "They won."

But now comes the real test. Up 3-2 in the series and headed back to Wrigley Field, the Cubs stand at the same point they did 13 years earlier against the Florida Marlins. But this time, Schuster, Clark, Baker, Zahradnik and elderly Cubs fans all across Chicago believe the outcome will be different. They have no choice. Their time is running out. They need the Cubs to beat the Dodgers and go on to win the World Series this year.

And when they do?

"A beer," Zahradnik said. "A very good beer."

"I will probably order a pizza," Schuster said. "That would be such a great way to celebrate. Spinach, mushrooms and black olives. Yum."

Baker has other thoughts.

"I'll celebrate quietly," the 88-year-old said. "At this age, I don't need to be loud."