Dusty Baker began his first day as Cubs manager last November by proclaiming "Why not us?"
But when all was said and done, Cubs fans were left asking the same question they have been asking their entire lives:
A star-crossed season ended in agony Wednesday night at Wrigley Field when the Cubs lost 9-6 to Florida in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and watched their World Series dream evaporate into the cool October air.
The Cubs became the fourth team in history to lose an LCS after taking a 3-1 lead, blowing a prime-time opportunity to capture their first National League pennant in 58 years, and their first world championship since 1908.
"Is it disappointing?" Baker said. "Yeah, it's disappointing because we wanted to go to the World Series. But life is full of disappointments sometimes, and you have to build something for the future. We feel we've established and built a heck of a foundation for next year."
Starter Kerry Wood failed to get out of the sixth inning as a 5-3 lead turned into a 6-5 deficit, and the Cubs' bullpen imploded to spoil any hopes of a late-inning comeback.
When Paul Bako's pop-up dropped into left fielder Jeff Conine's glove with two outs in the ninth, the Cubs' dream was over.
"Forget about the stuff about the goat and the curse or whatever," Moises Alou said. "This is a very good team. We didn't win, but we had a very good year and we have the right man to take care of the ship in Dusty. Fans have to have a lot of hope and faith in us."
Wood took the loss hardest of all, blaming himself for the team's downfall.
"I choked," Wood said. "That's the bottom line. I choked."
Game 7 was the 2003 season in a nutshell, with equal doses of hope and faith and shattered hearts.
After Miguel Cabrera's three-run homer off Wood in the first turned off the juice at Wrigley, Wood's two-run, game-tying home run off Florida starter Mark Redman in the Cubs' three-run second sent a comatose crowd into delirium.
And when Alou's two-run shot onto Waveland Avenue in the third gave the Cubs a 5-3 lead, they looked primed to put the Marlins down once and for all.
But the Marlins had shown heart and determination all through the NLCS, and they showed it again in Game 7, bouncing back with a three-run fifth to grab a 6-5 lead.
Wood walked pinch-hitter Brian Banks leading off the inning, then walked Luis Castillo with one out. NLCS most valuable player Ivan Rodriguez's RBI double was followed with a run-scoring groundout by Cabrera to tie it 5-5 before Derrek Lee's two-out single brought Rodriguez home to put the Marlins on top for good.
Wood was removed with two outs in the sixth and runners on the corners. Then Castillo's infield hit off Kyle Farnsworth's glove brought home an insurance run. Florida added a pair in the seventh on Alex Gonzalez's two-run double off Dave Veres as the Marlins pulled away.
After Tuesday's debacle in Game 6, Cubs fans were on edge, waiting for another stroke of misfortune.
"Your ballpark is quiet tonight," Marlins coach Ozzie Guillen yelled at fans during batting practice. "The first three games here, everyone was yelling 'Cubs, Cubs, Cubs.' What, are you guys scared? It was just one game."
The stunning Cubs loss in Game 6 on Tuesday left many fans in a bewildered state on Wednesday. Cabrera's three-run homer off Wood in the first gave them reason to panic, but Wood's game-tying homer in the second rocked the old ballpark to its foundation and Alou's two-run blast into the Waveland Avenue mosh pit gave them a 5-3 lead in the third.
The roller coaster was at its peak, but it was only a prelude to another in a decades-long series of season-ending free falls.
The Cubs' wild journey ended in a seven-game NLCS, where the Cubs took a 3-1 lead into Game 5 and had everyone in Chicago ready to party. But Josh Beckett's two-hit shutout in Game 5 on Sunday put a scare into them.
Mark Prior and the Cubs blew a 3-0, eighth-inning lead in Game 6 at Wrigley, watching the Marlins put up an "8" after an oblivious fan down the left-field line accidentally kept Alou from a chance at catching a pop foul. It opened the gates to a Cubs collapse that will be talked about for ages.
"It was kind of unbelievable what happened [Wednesday]," Alou said. "I liked the way it went. They scored first, and we'd been scoring first and they'd been catching up. When it went 5-3, I thought this time it's going to go our way. But it didn't."
"Feel free to believe in us" was the message reliever Mike Remlinger spread when the Cubs clinched the division title on Sept. 27, asking fans to pour their hearts into a team that specialized in breaking them for so many decades.
But their hearts were smashed like paper cups, and it wasn't a curse or a hex or a misguided fan that did the Cubs in this time.
They simply were beaten by a talented, young team that refused to give up.
The Florida Marlins shocked the world, just as they had promised.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times