By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
It's Chicago, Wednesday morning, 7:03.
The first pale light of morning peeks through a northside kitchen window. A haggard young man wearing nothing but striped pajama bottoms and a bright blue 'C' painted on his chest paces the mottled hardwood floor. He sports a three-day stubble, the hungry look of the forsaken, and a nasty Old Style hangover.
He shuffles from the window to the oven and back, over and over again, and he says out loud to himself ...
You don't lose a game like this game last night and just walk away from it. You lose a game like this and then you lose another game and then you go home to your miserable little apartment and lick your sorry little wounds.
Settle in, prepare to get beat but good with the losing stick in Game 7 is what you do. 'Cause it's same as it ever was in this story ... same as it ever was ... same as it ... ever ... was.
It all seemed so perfect, so possible, last night: Prior on the hill, a three-run lead, five outs to go, nuns, politicians and school kids all trained in on the same Series prayer, the sweat and frenzy of that crowd out on Waveland, the sweet sting of Mark's curve diving down and away. At the start of the eighth, you could hear the members of Cub Nation from coast to coast inhale as one, each of us ready to let loose a pure, mighty shout of joy.
Yeah, we were up there for a while, basking in the sunlight of glory and promise, thinking warm, happy thoughts about turning history on its ear, but we're just like Icarus today, baby, nothing but a close-but-no-cigar mess of wax and bones.
Eight runs in the eighth. Marlins win.
It hurts, it makes you cry out, "Why me, why us."
It hurts, but it's no surprise. Truth is, it couldn't have gone any other way.
Watching Prior throw bullets, you forget; but watching Mr. Excitable Boy get all apoplectic over the foul ball in the eighth, and then watching Gonzalez go "du-oh" on the groundball to short that same inning, you remember right quick: this losing thing, this defeat from the jaws of victory thing, this is the Cub thing going way back, this is the essence of the Cub thing.
Some people talk about a curse. Forget that. Curses are petty and local. The Cub thing is deeper and wider than a curse. It's a responsibility is what it is. The Cubs don't lose, the Cubs are losing itself. We define the concept so that winning has meaning. We are the yard-stick, the baseline. You get me?
And what's more, we occupy the cosmic niche. The Cubs take on frustration, disappointment and longing so that others may know deliverance, jubilation and satisfaction.
We keep things in balance. We fall on our swords. The gods damn us but they love the little children. There is turmoil in our Windy City hearts but détente between the United States and Russia, you know what I'm saying?
And there is this, too: the "Cubs=losing" rule is a time-tested, hard-rock truth, a thing people count on, a solid fact in an age of relativism and spin-doctor doublespeak.
A Cubs championship throws too much of the world into doubt. It threatens to expose too many to too much.
This fall has been a sweet ride. We've seen glimmers of the land of winning and honey, but it's over. Game 7 is in the Marlin bag. The world needs it that way.
Or maybe it's like this ...
The Cub-Trek-Convention guy in left, he was just some bad luck. Same with Gonzalez's boot. Sometimes these things come in bunches. Doesn't mean a thing.
You want to know what happened last night? Don't consult the fates. Don't tie yourself in metaphysical knots. What happened last night was easy: Prior got a little tired (Dusty has been riding him hard, and it came back to bite him), his stuff wasn't quite as wicked in the eighth, and he got hit a bit. That's what happened. (Well, maybe that and Pudge's deal with the devil, and maybe also the fact that the first guy in from the pen labors under a name straight out of "Silver Spoons.")
Last night was a bad night but it has nothing to do with '84, '69, '45, '08 or any other year. History, whammies, curses and cosmic niches (seriously, "cosmic niche"? you ought to see somebody; we're talking paranoid with delusions of grandeur, Chief) ... these are just stories we slap on after the fact.
Last night was some painful stuff, but you can't give in to it. Don't be pathetic. You can't perpetuate the myth and spin the tales of doom. That makes you the worst, weakest sort of fan. It's now, when every pundit within shouting distance of a mic is saying the big mo has left the building, now, when every Joe on the street is speaking in hushed tones about the psychological trauma of the eight in the eighth, that you have to stand up and be counted and say these simple things: Last night was last night, tonight is tonight. Let's play.
And you could say this, too: Kerry Wood pitches tonight. You remember Kerry. He pitched a little thing called Game 5 in Atlanta last week? Tossed a masterpiece. Made women weep and children squeal with laughter. You remember.
You should feel good about your chances tonight. You should be cocky. You should be walking around all day at work today whispering "bring it" under your breath. And maybe on your break you should go into the bathroom and do a little Travis Bickle in front of the mirror, just to scare folks a little, let 'em know the Cubs aren't so loveable after all, you know what I'm saying?
And if you insist on getting all grand-unified-theory about things, try thinking about this: There are untold numbers of Cubs fans in allegiance with you. Your hope is their hope, your faith is their faith. This is a powerful thing. The Marlins bring the outsider's edge, the chip on the shoulder element, but the Cubs bring generations and leagues, they bring the sort of deep-seated wishing and waiting that can, even after a night like last night, flood the fish out of Wrigley. Believe, dammit.
The man sets his mug down on the counter and heads to the shower, saying to himself ...
We're done. It's over. Remember the Angels in '86? ...
And so it goes, every minute of the day, in every flat, house and shack in the city, from sun-up to first pitch ... when the real agony begins.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.