<
>

Cubs and Wrigley in the fall ... catch it!

10/10/2003 - Chicago Cubs
Play0:00

CHICAGO -- Maybe Wrigley Field shook like this in 1945, or 1938, or during that '29 World Series the Cubs played back in the glorious Herbert Hoover administration. But that doesn't matter now.

Maybe old Three Finger Brown was as dominating that day he beat the Tigers back in October 1908, as Mark Prior is 95 Octobers later. But that doesn't matter now, either.

And maybe some Cub somewhere back in time -- Gabby Hartnett, Chuck Klein, Phil Cavaretta -- hit a postseason home run that traveled as far as the 495-foot satellite that Sammy Sosa launched Wednesday night. But that really doesn't matter now, either.

What matters now is that there is no place on the baseball-playing earth quite like Wrigley Field on these magical October evenings. When Sammy's bat rocks and Wrigleyville rolls. When Prior's curveballs juke, and 39,562 Cub-a-holics jive. When the Cubs score 12, and the Marlins score 3, and their National League Championship Series is back to even again, at one win apiece.

What matters now is that the Cubs are still playing baseball, and the fabled ivy in their ballpark is turning red before their eyes. And you can bet Ernie Banks never had that thrill.

"Now, we can always tell the players that follow us down the road that we played red-ivy baseball," said Cubs outfielder Doug Glanville, following the second-most lopsided postseason victory in Cubs history. "We can say, 'You know nothing about the playoffs, because you haven't played in front of red ivy.' "

On one of Chicago's most electrifying postseason evenings ever, Glanville and Cubs catcher Josh Paul found themselves staring at that red ivy during batting practice Wednesday. They knew that red ivy was strictly an autumn phenomenon. So given the un-Yankee-like history of the franchises, they wondered: How many Cubs teams could ever have played baseball surrounded by red ivy?

"Doug Glanville and I hatched that question," Paul admitted. "It's kind of an open thought. Maybe it can be an AFLAC question.

"Maybe," Paul philosophized, "that ivy is turning red just for us."

Hmmm. There was no way to know for sure, obviously. But we do know that no Cubs team has played a home game this late in the year since the 1945 World Series. And we know that if the Cubs play any more home games in this postseason, they'll be into totally uncharted territory, both on the calendar and in the ivy-horticulture standings.

So just in case there was some cosmic significance to that red ivy, Paul broke off a leaf Wednesday and placed it in his cap. Now what are we to make of the fact that only minutes later, one of the Cubs' biggest postseason blowouts ever busted out?

They burst ahead, 2-0, in the first inning. That was just the start. An inning later, what looked like a routine ground ball by Kenny Lofton turned into a bizarre, bad-hop, RBI single -- and it was 3-0.

Because it was only 24 hours earlier that the Cubs had become just the third team in postseason history to blow a first-inning lead of 4-0 (or larger), that three-run lead still seemed smaller to these guys than Wendell Kim. But not for long.

Because two hitters later, Marlins starter Brad Penny served up a 97-mph invitation for Sosa to make a few highlight tapes. And when Sosa uncoiled and made contact, you could almost hear an entire city gasp -- in 2.9-million-part harmony.

Off into the distance this baseball whooshed. Over the red-ivy-covered wall. Over the bushy hitters' background. Over the little green shed that houses the center-field TV camera.

Finally, nearly a tenth of a mile later, the ball clanked off the fence behind the camera shed. It was estimated at 495 feet. We've taken connections out of O'Hare that didn't fly that far.

"You know it's a long home run when the center-field camera has to point up to follow it," Glanville quipped. "I'd like to see his footage."

"You never see balls come down out there, even in BP," Paul said. "I mean, it went over the camera well. Come on. That camera guy is out there ducking for cover. You know he's the last guy in the whole stadium saying, 'I'm gonna get a ball today.' And then he still got gypped, because the ball went over his booth. What's with that?"

Uh, good question. What was with that? Well, it was tough not to speculate that the answer might have had something to do with the redness of that ivy.

"Nooooo," Paul said. "That red ivy had nothing to do with that. Sammy had everything to do with that."

There have been many Sammy Sosa home runs traveling through these Wrigley skies over the years, of course -- 275 of them, to be exact. For most of the last decade, in fact, those homers were about the only spectacle worth coming to the great North Side ball yard to watch.

But on Tuesday, Sosa launched a home run in a whole different context -- a two-out, two-run, game-tying homer in the ninth inning of Game 1. It was the first postseason home run of his lifetime. And it would have been the most memorable moment of his whole career -- if the Cubs had just gone on to win.

Alas, that didn't happen. So in Game 2, he just manufactured a second October moment.

It was the first time he'd homered in two straight games at Wrigley since July 11 and 12. But because of the time and the place and the setting, it felt like the first time, period.

"I've been there many times," Sosa said afterward. "But that was a great moment, to hit that ball."

He didn't see where it landed, he said. But he was the only one. And if ever one home run could swallow a game whole, this was it. Everything that happened over the next 2½ hours was a blur.

The stadium shook for so long afterward, you were worried it might just implode. Sosa took his curtain call to thunderous chants of "Sam-my, Sam-my." Then the Cubs kept hitting, kept scoring, kept extending their lead, as the buzz grew louder and louder, like a locomotive roaring through your kitchen.

By the end of the third inning, it was 8-0, and the Cubs had just manufactured three straight multi-run innings for the first time in postseason franchise history. By the fifth, it was 11-0 -- with Prior on the mound to protect it.

It may be true that no lead is safe this time of year. But at that point, it was going to take 12 runs for the Marlins to win. And there's no telling how long it might have taken them to score 12 off the most untouchable 23-year-old pitcher in the solar system.

"It might take like a whole season," Glanville said. "Or a whole calendar year. The last time he gave up more than two runs, I don't think there was ivy on the walls."

Only one other time in their history (Game 1 of the 1984 NLCS) had the Cubs ever held a lead of 11 or more in a postseason game. And Prior admitted it was such an unfamiliar concept, it actually gave him "a chance to work on things." Like fine-tuning his changeup.

In the midst of his experimentation, he did give up back-to-back home runs to Derrek Lee and Miguel Cabrera. And he eventually allowed (gasp) three whole runs, for only the third time in three months, as Dusty Baker almost inexplicably left him out there to throw 116 pitches in a blowout.

But on a night when the Cubs won by nine runs, nobody would remember those three runs Prior gave up. Or the two home runs thumped by Alex "The Cub" Gonzalez (just the fourth postseason multi-homer game ever by a shortstop). Or the four-hit game by Kenny Lofton (the first four-hit game by a Cub in a postseason game since Stan Hack in Game 6 of the 1945 World Series).

There were only two memories of this game that wouldn't go away -- Sosa's transcontinental home run ... and that red ivy.

Once word gets out about the power of that red ivy, there's no telling what might happen next. Paul wears a red ivy leaf in his cap, and the Cubs score 12 runs in a postseason baseball game. Paul wears a red ivy leaf in his cap, and Sosa hits a home run that almost lands on the El tracks. Coincidence? We think not.

This is a franchise, remember, that went 95 years without winning a postseason series, had to battle a curse cast by some long-dead goat, and wasn't even allowed to turn on a light bulb in the ballpark until 15 years ago.

So now, if it turns out that the antidote to all those obstacles was a few red ivy leafs, who knows how the populace might react?

"I guess they'll probably have to keep more security around the park," Paul chuckled, "to keep out goats and ivy stealers."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.