It's now the year of the dream plus one on the North Side, where the ovation continues for the beloved Cubbies, even as they head into the nightcap with Reality set to send up its 3-4-5 hitters.
The Cubs? They're still popular? Still competitive? Comic relief no longer? You mean, that wasn't a mirage last season?
Maybe not. This might be nothing like '69, when their forefathers blew a pennant and went back under their rock for most of the next decade.
On balance, the Cubs are still the best team in the National League East, or close to it. They're the league's best road draw. At home, they expect to play to 90% capacity for the summer months of June, July and August. Their average is up 5,000 a game. At their current pace, they would top last season's attendance mark (a record by 450,000) by another 400,000.
But it's not going to be easy. They've stopped hitting. First in the league in scoring last year (by 42 runs over the second-place Phillies and 69 over the third-place Astros, not to forget 182 over the last-place Dodgers), they're now sixth.
They haven't stopped aging, though. A recent lineup included Davey Lopes, 38; Ron Cey, 37; Larry Bowa, 39, and Gary Matthews, 34.
Matthews is just back from knee surgery. Bowa's batting average dropped so low, it threatened to take his fielding average with it. He and Coach Don Zimmer had a knock-down, drag-out exchange in spring training over the challenge of prize rookie shortstop Shawon Dunston. Cey recently slumped to the low .200s, and announcer Harry Caray spiced up a pregame show by asking Manager Jim Frey how he knew when a player was finished.
Dunston fizzled and had to be sent down. Then the many replacements required for injured Cubs started coming from the nether reaches of their farm system, suggesting that the Cub future had better be now.
If the millennium was not yet at hand on the North Side, an old conflict was. Cub President Dallas Green, an import from Philadelphia who'd pulled the Cubs into the 20th Century with all the finesse of Sherman touring Georgia, announced the collapse of negotiations with Wrigleyville.
Wrigleyville is the local name for the community around Wrigley Field, which is fighting against the installation of lights. Wrigley Field is the only stadium in major league baseball without lights.
Green threatened to move the team out of revered Wrigley to remote Schaumburg, where the parent Tribune Co. has an open field.
Move away, replied Wrigleyville, scoffing at the ploy.
"If you knew me at all," replied Green, "you'd know I don't ploy. "
Oh, and the club lost 13 games in a row. Aside from that, the season was off to a pretty decent start.
The Chicago Tribune is one of the two downtown newspapers covering the team daily, leading to some interesting contrasts in coverage, and rarely more so than June 25, when Green reported on the progress of his talks with Wrigleyville representatives.
The Chicago Sun-Times, which is obliged to give prominent coverage to its opposition's enterprise, ran a front-page picture of Green in a box next to the headline, "Cub boss lights into Chicago."
The picture of Green took up one-sixth of the page. The rest of the box took up another sixth. In the box were his quotes, in 18-point type:
'The law's got us, the Legislature's got us, the neighborhood's got us and we're 0-12. Hey, it's a horrible year.
"It goes back to what I said (the attitude was) when I first came here: Don't trade anybody and don't change anything. Don't do anything but win, stay in Wrigley Field and keep feeding the animals. "They (Wrigleyville) want their way and I'm not sure they even give a hoot about (the Cubs) winning any more. I think they couldn't care less about that.
"And they're not going to listen until we march our tails to Schaumburg or somewhere else."
The Tribune carried the same quotes in a seven-paragraph story on its fourth sports page, under the headline, "Lights discussions frustrate Green."
Green wasn't the only person discussions were frustrating, either.
"These are very difficult issues for us," says Nancy Kaszak, a lawyer who lives eight blocks from Wrigley and serves as president of Citizens United for Baseball in the Sunshine (CUBS). "We probably have more Cub fans per square inch than any area in the country.
"First they told us, biorhythms. They couldn't play at night on the road and come home and play in the day. Last year, of course, proved them wrong. Then they said Peter Ueberroth (baseball commissioner) is making us do it, the devil made us do it.
"Eventually we decided to sit down with them and hear what they had to say. They said, 'Look, not only do we want lights for the World Series and the playoffs, we want 18 regular-season night games.' They said those were not negotiable.
"We asked if this related to WGN revenues (WGN, owned by the Tribune, broadcasts Cubs games). They said no, which is ridiculous. We talked to people in the industry and they told us it was so they could sell ads at higher rates. . . . For a 30-second ad at night, you can get $7,000. For a 3 o'clock game (the Cubs are playing 18 of those this season), you get $5,000. For a 1 o'clock game, $3,000."
And the proposed move to Schaumburg?
"The Tribune Co. will say anything to get lights," Kaszak says. "I just got off the phone with the mayor of Elk Grove Village. That's one of the villages next to the (Schaumburg) property. He just told the local paper he'll go to his deathbed fighting any Cub move. He said, 'Look, we have homes surrounding the property. I'll take 10,000 people to Springfield to fight it.'
"It's swampland. It's apparently very, very poor for construction. But what do you say after David has beaten Goliath (two years ago the Illinois legislature barred night games at Wrigley Field)? Here you had Stanton Cook, the publisher of the Tribune, lobbying for lights, one year before an election. "
Aside from that, talks were going nicely. The same day, Green was also trying to calm fans worried about the losing streak. He said it was "not necessarily time to panic."
Green did suggest that Frey might be waiting too long for the long ball instead of creating some runs, though.
Green is hard-driving, emotional, impatient and he has been successful in both of his big league general managerships. He booted home the '80 Phillies, literally.
"In Pittsburgh, we lost a four-game series," says Bowa, a member of those Phillies. "And Dallas just aired us out. I mean, really. I mean, you didn't have to be near the clubhouse, you could have taken notes from the dugout."
When Green's throat got hoarse, his boss, Phillie Vice President Paul Owens, came downstairs during an August West Coast swing and he aired the Phillies out. They went on to beat the Royals in the World Series. A year later, Green accepted a lucrative offer from the Tribune Co. to rebuild the Cubs.
Green arrived in Chicago and appointed an ex-Phillie coach, Lee Elia, manager. Then Green began making deals for the failed Phillies prospects that he had nurtured as Phillie farm director, with his former mentor, Owens. Green's first two Cub teams stumbled in fifth. Elia, defending his traveling band of ex-Phillies, lashed out at the Cub fans. Tribune management stepped in to kill a last Phillie deal that might have sent away the franchise's best player, Leon Durham.
After that, the Tribune brought in Jim Finks, the general manager of the Bears, the local pro football team, over Green. Presumably this was done to make sure Green didn't trade the Cub outfield for a Phillies farm team.
If Green was in any trouble, it faded in a hurry when the failed Phillie prospects turned out to be Ryne Sandberg, Keith Moreland and Bob Dernier. Another ex-Phillie, Matthews, was kind of handy, too.
Then Green built an entire pitching staff on the fly, acquiring three-fourths of his rotation (Rick Sutcliffe, Dennis Eckersley, Scott Sanderson) between December of '83 and June of '84.
Sutcliffe went 16-1 and won the Cy Young Award. The Cubs won the NL East. Their staff ERA of 3.03 is second in the league, and the best reason they're still up there. Green is safe to fight another day, and another.
In the 13 losses, the Cubs were shut out five times and held to one run three times. Sutcliffe lost, 2-0, 2-0 and had a no-decision in St. Louis, leaving in the eighth tied 1-1. Frey, despairing of ever having a save situation for his late-inning terror, Lee Smith, brought him in for Sutcliffe and the Cardinals beat him in the tenth inning.
They lost to Dwight Gooden, 1-0, in New York, starting an outfield of Chico Walker, Thad Bosley and Darrin Jackson. Steve Lake caught, with Chris Speier at short and Richie Hebner at third.
Matthews was recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. Dernier had a growth on one foot. Moreland had bruised ribs. Jody Davis intestinal bleeding.
And Frey was getting tired of reciting the list.
Frey is a mild-mannered man, generally. It was Frey who managed the '80 Kansas City Royals, who lost in the World Series to Green's Phillies. It was Frey who refused to retaliate after Green's reliever, Dickie Noles, launched that memorable knockdown pitch at George Brett.
Brett cooled right off after Noles zipped a fastball where Brett's right ear had just been in Game 4. The Phillies won Games 5 and 6. Noles was one of the first Phillies Green brought to the Cubs.
These particular hard times, however, tried even Frey. In St. Louis, when a TV interviewer started with the observation, "I guess the attitude on your team isn't too good right now," Frey whistled a spray of tobacco juice past the camera lens. Then he smiled and said, "Now, how about we start again?"
In New York, he broiled when Met catcher Gary Carter appeared to enjoy himself too much in a rout of the Cubs. Carter, who likes to roam out from behind the plate, had almost run into first baseman Keith Hernandez, who had to dance out of the way. He and Hernandez were laughing about that.
"It was funny," says Bowa. "But we were getting the. . . . kicked out of us. When Gary caught the ball, he came back laughing. You could see his teeth. Jim said, 'Go ahead. . . .! Kick us when we're down! We'll be back!' "
Frey tried to get the plate umpire to have Carter look over at him. Carter refused to turn his neck. A week later when the teams met in Chicago, Carter homered in each of the first two games.
After the Mets took the opener of the series in Chicago behind Gooden, the Mets' Wally Backman said the Cubs had seemed without animation. Frey growled about that, too. He said he didn't like Backman "sitting in judgment" on his team.
All bad things have to come to an end, too. The next day, trailing, 3-1, Frey, an Earl Weaver-disciple and a devotee of the three-run homer, had his cleanup hitter, Keith Moreland, try to bunt with two runners on. Moreland fouled two bunts off and then hit a three-run homer. The Cubs won that game and four of their next five.
"You can't explain it," Frey says. "Nevertheless, you think you might win a game, 3-2, 2-1. Two weeks is a long time for a club like this not to win one.
"Everybody was walking up to me and saying: 'Don't let it get to you, don't let it get to you.' How do you do that? It's easy if you don't care. If you don't give a damn, you say, 'Everything's gonna be all right.' If you care, it's gonna get to you. You spend the day thinking of what you can do to help us win a game."
Bowa: "I refuse to say that injuries are the reason we lost 13. . . . We lost 13 because we played bad. You lose some games and some guys are out, and before you know it, you start feeling sorry for yourself.
"And when you've just won your division, people want to kick you when you're down. Trust me."
According to the old rules, Cub fans would have known better than to be surprised. They'd have known the division title was just fool's gold, sucker bait, that the real Cubs had revealed themselves in the playoffs, blowing that 2-games-to-0 lead against the Padres. They'd have retired to Ray's Bleachers behind the center-field stands, to stare into their beers.
The old rules are a'changin'. Ray's Bleachers has been remodeled into a yuppie hangout, catering to the upwardly mobile young Cub enthusiast.
When the team came home with a 12-game losing streak, 100 fans were at the airport to greet them. When they ended the losing streak, thousands danced and cheered in Wrigley Field for a half hour after the game was over.
"We lose 12 in a row, come back to face Gooden and there are 40,000 people here," Sutcliffe said. "We lose to Gooden and the next day, there are 40,000 people here.
"I've kind of had two opening days this year, one after I got hurt (a hamstring tear). The second one meant more to me that the first one. I was 5-5 or 6-5 and there could have been some frustration let out on me (Sutcliffe went through the free agent draft, negotiated with the hated Padres and returned for a contract worth more than $7.5 million). I went down to warm up and I swear, I got the biggest ovation I've ever had. The people were crazy. There were 38,000 people there and I thought, 'Man, this is a great feeling.' We went out and won, 1-0."
The streak is over, the injured players are healing and the Cubbies are still up there. It looks as if this story has a big finish coming, in Wrigley Field, or Schaumburg, or somewhere.