Closemouthed Cubs, loyal fans softly stalk championship
The manager won't talk about it. Even fans tend to be tight-lipped. After all, explains one fan, ''I don't know what the magic number is. I don't care. I'm going to watch it one day at a time.''Skip to next paragraph
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But increasingly, it looks as though The Miracle will come about. The Chicago Cubs are rapidly closing in on their first pennant since 1945. They could clinch the National League East division this week.
In other baseball cities, such timidity wouldn't be understood.
History hasn't been particularly kind to the Chicago Cubs, however. And diehard fans, perhaps out of self-defense, tend to restrain their enthusiasm.
''Let's remember 1969,'' says Irv Lewis, a retired Air Force colonel. ''I left them (for a two-week trip to West Germany), secure with the knowledge they were eight games ahead.''
''When I came back, they were in second place.''
That year the Cubs lost 17 of their last 25 games and went on to finish eight games out of first place. Loyal fan Don Bono boycotted all the 1970 games because of it.
''1969,'' Chicago lawyer Jim Epstein recalls, ''was the worst year in my life.''
But this year, with the Cubs 81/2 games ahead of the dreaded New York Mets as of Sunday, they look to be a shoo-in. In the National League playoffs, they will face the National League West champions in a three-out-of-five-game series. The winner goes to the World Series.
Experts will analyze the team's success, its improved pitching and the adept trades of general manager Dallas Green (21 of the 25 players have been acquired from other teams). But the best story - the one the experts will miss - can be found in the stands.
History has made Cubs fans a rather tenacious lot. Season after season, they have seen the hopes of spring wither in the long summer. Something besides winning has inspired their loyalty.
''You can watch it. You can think ahead of it. You can think with it.
''This is the greatest game man ever invented,'' says Mr. Lewis, who attended his first Cubs game in 1922 (they lost to Cincinnati 3 to 2). In high school after classes, he would rush out to catch the 3 o'clock games. Once, he recalls, ''my mother pulled me out of a double-header at 6:30.''
For many longtime fans, the memories lie as thick as the ivy that clings to the outfield walls at Wrigley Field.
''It's so American. It's so baseball,'' says William M. Hickey who remembers how he used to earn free passes to Cubs games by helping to clean the fourth row of the stadium.
Starting behind home plate, he would make a grand, counterclockwise loop, canvas bag in hand, to pick up trash. At the end of his circuit, he would get a free pass to the next day's game.
The stadium ''is the only place in the world where kids can stand outside with their gloves and catch the ball,'' says Mr. Hickey, now manager of group sales for Best Western International.
Sure enough, outside the right field wall, teen-agers David Pincus and Mike Sarnowski sit on the curb expectantly.