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Journey's End

Seriously.

If you could right now be magically transported back to where you were on March 1, 2003, and meet someone who would tell you with absolute certainty that seven and a half months hence, the Cubs would be playing in game seven of the National League Championship Series, with Kerry Wood on the mound, you no doubt would have been thrown into paroxysms of wonder and joy.

And you know what? Criticize his in-game management all you want, but we have Dusty Baker to thank for that.

The way the Cubs lost this playoff series, both Tuesday and yesterday's heartwrenching 9-6 loss to the Marlins, which sent them, not us, to the World Series, is almost precisely the way that Dusty's Giants lost the World Series last year.

Oh, you'll say: at least the Giants got there. And yes, they did, but the important thing to remember is that between 1997 and 2002, the Giants made the playoffs three times, and contended nearly every year that Baker managed them.

Yes, he's infuriating in his in-game strategy. He managed yesterday's game like it was May 15, not October 15, and had the shaky Dave Veres in the game in what was basically the game situation, when the smug Jack McKeon was going back to his starters (where was Clement? Where even was Alfonseca?), and succeeding. I hate to say this, but Baker got clearly outmanaged in this series, and that might have made the difference in what was an exceptionally close series. Incidentally, Troy O'Leary's pinch-hit homer (which I expect will be his last at-bat as a Cub) broke the record for homers in any LCS, 23 total home runs, including Wood's HR, the first by any pitcher in a LCS game since Rick Sutcliffe homered in that 13-0 blowout of the Padres in game 1 at Wrigley Field in 1984.

Ah, 1984. Ah, 1969, ah, goats, ah... hey, whatever. Dusty's right. There is only now to think about, and unfortunately, now this group of Cubs has its own "now" to live down next year.

I'd like to think that Dusty Baker has the intestinal fortitude and the motivational techniques that Leo Durocher and Jim Frey did not. He's certainly proved that over the ten years he managed the Giants. There is absolutely no way this group of Cubs would have made it even this far without Baker, and as I said before, yes, his strategies and handling of pitching staffs will drive us nuts.

But he wins. He knows how to motivate highly paid professional athletes to give more than they knew they had to give, and to win. For that, I am grateful, and I believe he will lead us to the Promised Land. Someday.

Actually, the people who are probably the unhappiest this morning are the executives of the Fox network, who were greedily looking at perhaps the highest-rated World Series in fifteen years, had the Cubs won. Instead, it's likely that whoever wins tonight's Red Sox/Yankees seventh game (the first seventh game in an ALCS since 1986) will blow out the inexperienced Marlins, just as the Tigers blew out the Padres in 1984 after their emotional win over the Cubs.

We are sad today. But we are also proud, proud that we saw red, brown and gold ivy on the walls in October, something only groundskeepers saw before this year, proud that we saw the blossoming of Mark Prior, proud that we saw a regular guy like Joe Borowski make it big, proud that we saw a guy like Eric Karros think enough of being here that he'd say, "Every major league ballplayer should be a Cub for at least one year", and make a personal video record of the last six weeks of his season, proud that Jim Hendry could pull off a trade to get us Aramis Ramirez, who could become the next great third base power hitter in the National League, proud to show off that although we lost, we are not losers.

I received quite a few e-mails from all of you today and I can't possibly get to reply to all of them. Just know that I read everything, that I appreciate all of your sentiments, that I feel what you are feeling, that every time I enter the brick and ivy walls, even though I do it dozens of times every season, that I know how special a place it is, and so do all of those who share my bench with me, including all of our regulars who were there yesterday: Mike, Jeff, Jake, Brian, Dave, Phil, Carole, Howard, Jon and me (and we tried every superstition yesterday, including putting the Beanie Baby goat on Jake's shoulder, alternating shoulders depending on who was batting, and having a majority vote decide which scoring pencil I should use) -- we all appreciate this ride too, and I know that I carry not only my feelings but the hopes and dreams of literally millions of others, that one day, the players we so passionately root for will be the ones jumping up and down on the field with a trophy, the last ones standing.

Okay, now I'm crying.

We had a heck of a ride this year. It hurt a lot yesterday, it hurts less today, and by spring, we will hope yet again, and we will know and remember the joy we held in our hands and our hearts in 2003.

I will continue to write about the Cubs and baseball in the off-season, with updates on things that are happening (here's your first one, incidentally: I heard during the NLCS that the Cubs are going to make a big offer to the Brewers for Richie Sexson, who would be a fabulous addition to the lineup), though of course it won't be every day. For those of you who've enjoyed my writing, I hope you'll stick around over the winter; I'll write about movies and news events and politics and, well, whatever hits me at the moment.

For now, I leave this baseball season with what is perhaps my favorite baseball quotation, and something that couldn't be more appropriate, from the late commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, you rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then, just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

To 2004, my friends. Wait till NEXT year!