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.''

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.

''Every time we hear a roar, we stand up,'' says Mike, a high school freshman. So far, nothing has come over.

''It's fun to watch 'em when they're winning,'' adds David, a high school sophomore from Milwaukee, who nevertheless prefers the Cubs to the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Cubs' newfound winning ways, however, threaten to impose their own set of changes.

For years debate has raged over whether to install lights in Wrigley Field. Up to now neighborhood groups, unhappy over the prospect of streets crowded with sometimes unruly fans at night, were able to keep day-only baseball at the stadium.

But pressure mounted this season as the Cubs increasingly looked like winners in the National League East. Because of television network contracts, revenues would be lost if weekday playoff games were scheduled during the day, out of prime time. Many Cubs fans opposed adding lights, even temporary ones, to their beloved field.

''Baseball's meant to play in the day,'' explained Edith Patterson, a fan of 53 years.

Eventually, a compromise was worked out. Wrigley Field will host only daytime games in the National League playoffs.

But should the Cubs reach the World Series, they will lose the home-field advantage and play a maximum three games, instead of four, at Wrigley Field - as originally planned.

Winning has brought another, more subtle change: popularity.

''Everybody likes to see an underdog make good,'' says Murph Gordon, a radio plugged into one ear, a portable television on his lap. ''And we've been an underdog for 39 years.''

But these days, the middle-aged, mopheaded Mr. Gordon says, the underdog may be a little too popular. He would rather be out in the bleachers with the famed Bleacher Bums, he says, ''but I'm not going to fight these kids (for space).''

Despite occasional complaints by diehards about fair-weather fans,the images of Wrigley Field imply a deeper kind of loyalty.

A boy selling hot dogs lingers a moment to watch a pitch before accepting an outstretched bill. When young Kai Heineken and Teddy Magno are asked how many years they have been fans, they give their ages.

And even Dave Eiser, a former television weatherman and former New York Yankees fan, now backs the Cubs. When he came to Chicago from New York in 1981, he weighed carefully whether he would support the North Side Cubs or the South Side Chicago White Sox. After attending a game of each, his mind was made up.

''I just started growing attached to the Cubs,'' he says. ''For some reason, it's always been a team to grab a hold of.''

''(Baseball) is America's pastime. And this is America's team playing America's pastime.''

On this particular day, Mr. Eiser caught his first foul ball ever at a major league ballpark.

Mr. Lewis, the retired colonel, caught his first and only game ball in the 1945 World Series game.

''I was sitting up there,'' he says, pointing to the upper deck behind the first-base line. A Cubs player hit a long foul ball, he says, ''farther than anything the Cubs hit all day.''

''After that I didn't miss a thing.''

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