Cubs shed their image as sport's lovable losers

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

CHICAGO -- Whatever happens at Wrigley Field this week, whether his team reaches the World Series or not, Dusty Baker already has posted a huge victory for the Chicago Cubs.

He's managed to get them to shed their longtime image as baseball's lovable losers.

Cute cubby bear on their sleeves? Friendly Confines? Warm and fuzzy feel?

Forget it.

Watch Mark Prior and Kerry Wood buzz a batter, even if it's Barry Bonds. See Kenny Lofton knock down Florida pitcher Mark Redman with a loose elbow. Listen to Baker shout out Tony La Russa.

More like grizzlies than baby bruins, these Cubs.

"What we've been fighting here all year long," Baker said Monday, a day before the Cubs played Florida in Game 6 of the NL championship series. "Everytime you lose a game, somebody conjures up something negative in history that happened before."

Ahead 3-2, the Cubs can wrap up their first World Series trip in 58 years with a win tonight. Prior will start against Carl Pavano, with Wood set to pitch Game 7 if necessary.

It's sure been a while

A win would give the Cubs a chance to claim their first Series championship in 95 years. Jack McKeon had no good reason for the Cubs' long drought.

"I don't know. I'm not that old. I haven't been following them that long to see what goes on," the 72-year-old Marlins manager said Monday.

"There's a lot of luck involved and I don't know whether the hex or the curse in Boston ... I guess if you want to believe that, that's what will happen. So, I hope you all keep believing the hex is still on."

Baker wants to keep the focus on the field, though he knows a lot of fans will be thinking about the Cubs' past.

"Most of these guys in 1984 -- Kerry Wood in 1984 -- what was he, like 8?" Baker said. "Half of this stuff doesn't apply to them. They can't help the fact that they are playing for the Cubs, Dodgers or A's or whoever they are playing for, and they can't help what happened in the past.

"I was watching a game the other night and in between innings this goat kept running across the street. I thought that was the craziest thing I ever saw in my life. Or 1-800 who's curse is the strongest, the goat or the curse of Babe? Man, that's crazy," he said. "You either don't pay attention to it or you laugh at it. Those are the two choices you got."

Sammy Sosa sure wasn't laughing after a 97 mph from Josh Beckett whizzed past his head Sunday in a 4-0 loss in Game 5. Sosa sprang up, pointing his bat at the young Florida pitcher, and several Cubs rushed to the top of the dugout steps, ready to rumble.

Ernie Banks was Mr. Cub and the ultimate gentleman, entertaining crowds with his call of "Let's play two!" But he never made it to the World Series during his Hall of Famer career.

Baker guided San Francisco to the Series last year, losing in Game 7 to Anaheim, and then took over a Cubs team that had gone 67-95. This season, Chicago went 88-74 and won the NL Central.

Faster than expected

After the Cubs beat Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs, Baker admitted he did not think the turnaround would be so swift. He said new players and a new staff helped bring success, along with an extremely positive outlook.

"I remember back in my days with the Dodgers, I mean, with Tommy Lasorda, he genuinely believed and he would always tell us, 'You've got to believe it,"' Baker said right before the NLCS. "I remember when I was going for my 30th home run on the last day of the season, and I had come back to the dugout, and I said, 'I don't think I'm going to do it,' and I must've said it too loud because he heard it.

"He went into this long dissertation about the children of Israel standing by the Red Sea, , and I was like before he finished, 'OK, Tommy, I believe.' That next at-bat, I went up against J.R. Richard and I hit it over the center-field fence."

So what would a championship represent?

"Oh man, it would mean everything," said former second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who nearly led the Cubs to the World Series in 1984.

"I've heard all the things about being part of a losing organization. This would pretty much erase all those things."

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