Cubs thinking of fans first

Updated: September 29, 2003, 2:06 AM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Sammy Sosa stood on the dugout's top step, raised his arms high above his head, leaned back and closed his eyes. The reflection of the Wrigley Field lights bounced off his sweaty, champagne-covered forehead.

In front of him, the Wrigley Field fans chanted, "Sammy! Sammy!"

Behind him, his teammates and their families chased each other in a childike game of Who Can Pour More Champagne on Who's Wife. In the chaotic postgame madness of the Cubs' first division championship since 1989 -- the first clinched at home since 1932 -- it was a brief moment of peace.

A moment to reflect on a tumultuous season.

When the moment passed, when he finally looked down and made his way toward the Cubs' clubhouse, Sosa, like all of his teammates, insisted his team wasn't finished.

"I'm not satisfied," Sosa said. "This is not finished yet. We celebrate because we work so hard to be here today. But now there's more work to do."

Finally, a doubleheader had paid off. Though the club had swept just four of its last 52 doubleheaders, the two-game stint might have buried them, might have been too much to expect, turned out to the best scenario possible.

The Cubs' 4-2 and 7-2 wins over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday, coupled with Houston's 5-2 loss to the Brewers, clinched the National League Central for America's Loveable Losers.

Four-year-old Darren Baker, the son of Cubs manager Dusty Baker, had predicted as much. Unable to fly from the family's San Francisco home to Chicago for the big weekend series because of an earache, it was Darren who told dad to settle down after Friday's game was postponed to a Saturday doubleheader.

"He told me not to worry," Dusty Baker said. "Because the Astros were going to lose and we were going to win the doubleheader."

And that's exactly what happened.

Throughout Game 1, each time the Brewers scored and the hand-operated center-field scoreboard was changed, the fans rose to their feet and roared their approval. When the final Houston score was posted, Wrigley Field exploded -- so much so that Kyle Farnsworth had to step off the mound and collect himself before throwing his next pitch.

"At one point, I threw the ball in the dirt and got a standing ovation," said Cubs starter Mark Prior, who struck out 10 in 6 2/3 innings during the Game 1 victory. "But [these fans] really deserve it."

The standing-room-only, filled-to-the-rafters crowd of 40,121 stood on their chairs, on railings, on fences and jam packed every corner of this aged ballpark after the game and roared for the NL Central-clinching Cubs. With songs like "Glory Days," "Jump" and "Go Cubs Go" blaring in the background, they swayed back and forth, raised their arms and pumped their fists in approval.

But unlike the 1998 Cubs, whom the Atlanta Braves swept 3-0 in the Division Series, this year's group may be for real. With the four-man rotation of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement, combined with more offensive talent around Sosa and the magic of Dusty Baker, they feel like this is their year.

This from a team that hasn't won a pennant in 58 years, or a World Series in 95. After the game, Eric Karros bristled at a reporter's question about overcoming such a deplorable history.

"And?" Karros said.

"So what?" Mike Remlinger added.

"Listen, Dusty told us before the season started that you have to respect history," Karros went on. "But it has no bearing on what's going to happen this year.

"With the way our staff is and the pen has been lately, I'll take this group and be underdogs against anybody."

To a man, every Cubs player and coach echoed those sentiments. And even the postgame celebration, raucous and wild as it was, didn't seem quite as overboard as the one in 1998, when Chicago columnists criticized the team for merely being happy to reach the postseason.

"Nobody just wants to make it," Prior said. "With our defense, pitching, timely hitting, we've got a chance to make some noise. And that's what we intend to do."

Even so, surviving the grind of a 162-game season, outlasting the turmoil of having their star player suspended over an illegal bat, and coming out on top of countless gut-wrenching late-season losses was worth celebrating.

And so Baker led his team around the field in a victory lap. Randall Simon ran around the locker room, screaming, "It hurts! It hurts!" in reference to the eye-stinging champagne. Kenny Lofton yelled it was time to get out of the locker room and get the real celebration started. Matt Clement carried around his baby son Matty, and explained how "some day, I'm going to have to tell him he was a part of history."

Outside the park, fans filled neighborhood bars, screaming, yelling and drinking in celebration. They high-fived mounted policemen called in for crowd control. And some four hours after the final out was recorded, horns were still honking outside Wrigley and fans were still filling the closed-off streets.

And behind the right field bleachers, the famous sign on the rooftop of the Lakeview Baseball Club that reads "Eamus Catuli" (essentially, "Let's Go Cubs") underwent its first in-season change in over a decade. The sign's other half, which lists the number of years from the Cubs' last division championship (14), last pennant (58) and last World Series (95), was altered before the Cubs finished their victory lap to read 005895. With their division title Chicago had entered Year Zero.

"It's nearly impossible to put into words what this means," said former Cub Billy Williams. "You're talking about a group of people who have waited a long, long time for something like this. You're talking about people who would give up just about anything they have to see their team in the World Series. And these guys might just be the bunch to do it."

Mike Remlinger, who spent four years with the Braves before joining the Cubs this offseason as a free agent, said he believed in this team from Day One. And now that the Cubs are in the postseason, their fans should feel free to do the same.

"I came here to go to the postseason," Remlinger said. "And people were like, 'Yeah, right, whatever.' But I want the Cubs fans to realize they can believe in this team. Pour your heart into it -- you won't get hurt."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.