South Side champions stir North Side dreams

Michael Barrett is concerned about his friend "Turtle," a 42-year-old Cubs fan who lives and dies with his heroes.

At the start of most seasons, Turtle is optimistic about the Cubs' chances of winning the World Series, even though it has never happened in his lifetime.

But Turtle is acting a little differently this spring, pleading for a new sense of urgency from the Cubs to end a 98-year championship drought, the longest in baseball.

Barrett, beginning his third season as the Cubs' catcher, attributes the feeling to White Sox Syndrome: the haunting and taunting of Cubs fans by their South Side counterparts in the aftermath of the Sox's championship season in 2005.

"The majority of Cubs fans aren't front-runners," Barrett said Thursday on the eve of the Cubs' home opener against St. Louis at spruced-up Wrigley Field. "They've been fans their whole lives.

"But now, with the White Sox having won the World Series, their quest for this team to win a championship is on the tip of their brains. It's the first thing they think about when they wake up in the morning. They've got to go to work and put up with all the White Sox fans."

There will be no ring ceremony Friday before Greg Maddux faces the archrival Cardinals in the home opener. No championship banners or trophy hoisting either, unlike the Sox's three-day celebration at U.S. Cellular Field.

Don't think Cubs officials didn't notice that celebration. Privately, they acknowledge that this is a pivotal year for the franchise. The Cubs expect to draw another 3 million fans this season, but they have to win something or risk losing their domination of an increasingly competitive baseball market.

Though the Cubs believe an improved bullpen, additional speed and better defense should make them contenders again, most experts are picking them for third or fourth place in the National League Central Division.

Hope may spring eternal, but as the character in the play "Bleacher Bums" once warned, no one ever lost money betting against the Cubs.

Sox fans exist in a strange new world, wondering how to deal with life after the "dream comes true" part. For Cubs fans, the dreaming never ends. And for fans like Turtle, the importance of winning has never been so great.

"My buddy Turtle, he's wanting a championship more than ever now," Barrett said. "Fans have grown weary of the complacency that has surrounded the Cubs all these years. I know from my buddy. He's just sick of seeing it.

"He thinks we're going to give him a heart attack. Whenever we lose, he feels like he's going into cardiac arrest.

"And if he feels that way, I can't imagine what the older fans feel like who have been cheering for the Cubs a lot longer than he has."

As most students of the game know, the Cubs' last championship came in 1908, baseball's equivalent of the Stone Age. Last year's team was one of the most disappointing in recent memory because of its tendency to save its worst performances for the home crowd.

"That's something we need to change," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "Wrigley can be a huge home-field advantage with the day games and the crowd on our side. We need to take advantage of that and play better at home."

Despite drawing more than 3 million fans for the second straight season in 2005, the Cubs had a 38-43 record at Wrigley and were booed more than the umpires. Manager Dusty Baker couldn't explain their lackluster record in home games.

"I don't know, man," Baker said. "We really didn't have our team—that was part of it. And a lot of times you get new guys and they have a hard time adjusting to Chicago initially, playing day games and day games after night games.

"Look at Moises Alou. A lot of guys have had trouble their first year here. Then they adjust and get better from then on. I don't know. We just didn't play very well here."

The Cubs have eight new players who will have to adjust to new surroundings. The rest already know that as soon as the Cubs go into a tailspin, the booing won't be far behind. Some call it the Phillyization of Chicago, after the town that once booed Santa Claus.

"This is far and away the greatest place to play," Barrett said. "And for some guys it can be the worst place."

Barrett was referring to former Cubs LaTroy Hawkins and Corey Patterson, who were jeered incessantly until management finally traded them. Barrett is hoping for a kinder, gentler Cubs fan in 2006, as much for the sake of the team's psyche as for the affected players.

The booing "brings everyone down," Barrett said.

"If it doesn't work out for one teammate, everybody sort of feels the same way," he said. "We didn't get the job done, period. You can't blame that on Wrigley Field, really, but at times I know it was a tough place to play.

"What some of our teammates went through last year, it was part of baseball, and certainly the fans are 100 percent entitled to [boo]. But it was frustrating for a team to have to go through that."

Barrett acknowledged that customers are going to do as they please. Like the Roman spectators who gathered in the ancient Colosseum, Cubs fans will turn thumbs up or thumbs down at the athletes on the stage.

"It's really their stadium," Barrett said. "You think about all the coliseums in the history of the world, they sort of dictate early on who they're going to forgive and who they're not. The only thing we can control is how hard we play.

"And that's the one thing these fans appreciate and respect more than anything. They know when guys aren't hustling. They know when guys are dogging it.

"And they don't really appreciate [players] who don't appreciate them. As long as you come out here and you play hard, they appreciate you, for the most part."

psullivan@tribune.com

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