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We Are The Champions

A journey began more than six months ago in the warmth of an Arizona spring.

And Dusty Baker said, "Why not us?"

And through the coldest April I can remember; through more rain than I ever want to see again (I think I'm still drying out the shoes I wore during the Arizona series in August, where there were more rain delays than game playing time); through road trips as short as the South Side of Chicago and as far away as a gorgeous tropical island, the first part of the journey in this most improbable of seasons ended yesterday in spectacular fashion.

The Cubs swept a doubleheader from the Pirates, 4-2 and -7-2, only their fourth sweep in their last fifty-two doubleheaders, and with the Brewers' 5-2 win over Houston, the Cubs clinched the NL Central title, the first championship clinched at Wrigley Field since the 1938 National League pennant (yes, I know the 1998 wild card was clinched at home, but that's not technically a "championship").

Of the baseball there's not much to tell you that you probably don't already know; the crowd was late-arriving, partly due to traffic and partly due to the fact that many people had probably planned for the original 3:05 start and simply could not get there on time. At first-game time of 12:25 (re-arranged hastily for Fox-TV to broadcast the game locally), the park was probably half full, but even that crowd, enjoying the fast-departing sunshine, was into every pitch.

The first game was somnolent until the Cub offense broke through in the fourth, and suddenly the club began to look like other Cub championship teams, the ballclubs that you knew would win even if they spotted the other guys a run or two early. Mark Prior was sharp, though he had another 130+ pitch outing and so it's good that he'll have six days off till his next start on Friday in game 3 of the Division Series against the Braves.

Dozens of us were either listening to radios (the Brewers' flagship WTMJ is easily listenable in Chicago) or dialing up our web cellphones to keep up on the Astros' game and when the 3-run sixth-inning rally was posted on the scoreboard, even the players stopped at the ovation to look, and a couple of the scoreboard operators leaned out of empty spaces to applaud.

So in a way, Friday's rainout turned out exactly right baseball-wise; with the Houston loss on Friday everyone on the club knew what could happen on Saturday, and after the first-game win, the park was full (and despite the lowering clouds and temperatures, no one left the ballpark, quite the opposite from most doubleheaders) for a raucous game two.

Sammy Sosa began the fun with a home run that flew over the juniper bushes and landed among people waiting for beer at the concession stand; his fortieth home run gave him his eighth 40-homer season; if he plays today (not guaranteed by any means) and hits one more homer this year, that will give him exactly 470 HR in the last ten seasons, an average of 47 a year for a full decade, which is remarkable.

Then the club decided to put the game away early, with a five-run second-inning rally; Matt Clement, who has thrown very well this month despite some physical ills, threw a terrific seven-plus innings and left to a huge ovation, and then we all began counting outs, till our magic moment arrived just after 6:15 CT; with Sosa, Lofton and Alou doing their now-traditional jump-and-high-five right in front of us; hugs for everyone (yes, this is the time when men hug men, even total strangers), and a few tears falling; so much of our hearts and souls and emotions go into our love for the Cubs, and some of that gets squeezed out in liquid form at moments like this. We know this doesn't happen very often. We savor and remember where we were, when it was, how we felt, and always will. The crowd was celebratory rather than rowdy; no one rushed the field and very little trash was thrown; the only down moment was created by a very drunk guy a few rows in front of us who was pushing through everyone in about the seventh inning; he didn't get to see all of this because security removed him, and finally with enough shouting, we were able to get the other drunks in front of us to sit down and actually watch the last couple of innings, to savor the moment, to enjoy the fruits of this six-month quest.

We didn't have a large contingent in our group today, just me, Jeff, Dave, Howard, Mike and Phil, since some of our group couldn't get bleacher tickets, including Carole & Ernie (yes, Ernie, who was banned earlier this year because the club lost every game he attended, is reinstated after the sweep yesterday), who wound up in the grandstand. I tried to call them a couple of times, but apparently the volume of cellphone calls at the ballpark was so great that it prevented us from even getting a signal for a while.

How important was yesterday? Jeff had a ticket to see Bruce Springsteen at Miller Park, but blew it off to stay for the clincher. I had actually offered him tickets to the show here in Chicago last month, but he turned them down, telling me he was going to the Milwaukee show.

Don't feel too bad for him; he's already seen Springsteen 27 times, by his count.

I feel somewhat bad for any of you who had tickets for Friday's game and who couldn't go yesterday because of the rainout; it's unfortunate, but obviously the Cubs have no control over the weather, and both logistically and baseball-wise, it wouldn't have been smart to play a split-doubleheader yesterday.

I think you'll take the end result, won't you?

Anyway, all our friends will be in the bleachers today with us; Jeff has told me that just about everyone who has ever sat with us may be there today, a total of as many as 30 people, on what's going to be a celebratory day of fun. A better script couldn't have been written, really; today will be like an exhibition game (Sergio Mitre will start, probably along with several other non-regulars), and Ron Santo, whose number is being retired today and who bleeds Cubbie blue as much as any of us in the seats, will have a day of celebration and joy. As many of you know, I don't care much for Santo as a broadcaster; but his love for the game and the Cubs is unparalleled, and from everyone I know who's ever met him, he's supposed to be just a prince of a human being, and for that, I'm just thrilled that this can be his day, especially with all the health problems he's had over the last few years, which he has always met uncomplainingly.

Back to yesterday -- as the game was ending a giant street party was forming on Waveland and Sheffield, and it wasn't rowdy, just people having a good time; I wound up high-fiving total strangers yet again on my way back to the car.

The people at the Lakeview Baseball Club building on Sheffield, who have signs on their building reading "Eamus Catuli" (roughly, "Let's Go Cubs" in Latin), and "AC145895" ("Anno Cub", and the number of years since a division title, pennant and World Championship, respectively), immediately after the game was won, took down the "14" and replaced it with "0". Cheryl took photos of this and if I can get a copy, I'll post it here.

As this was going on, the Cubs came back on the field for their "victory lap"; the first to reach the bleachers, grinning and jumping and waving, was Randall Simon, but the one I'll remember most was Eric Karros, still clutching tightly the ball he grabbed for the last out of the double play that ended game two. Karros may not even be here next year, but the contributions he's made are considerable, and the home run he hit to beat the Yankees on June 7 will permanently etch him in Cub lore. A few minutes after the club made the circuit, Sammy Sosa came back and sprayed the first few rows with champagne; I think all the ballclub knows how much we wanted to share in this celebration, from Sosa who's been at the heights and the depths (even now, it feels even better knowing that we come from a 97-loss season only a year ago); to Mark Prior, who we hope will be at the center of many seasons like this one; to Kenny Lofton, whose grandmother used to watch the games with him when he came home from school in East Chicago, Indiana, to...

Dusty Baker.

Who believed when we were skeptical.

Who motivated every single man in his clubhouse.

Who made bizarre in-game decisions and somehow had them work anyway.

Who manages a team of men, nearly every one of whom would run through a wall for him.

Thank you, Dusty, for bringing us to this point and giving us so many memorable moments, in your first year in something so new to you; and for beginning to understand us as we begin to understand you.

This is step one. My friends, as wonderful as today feels, we have been here before. The journey is not yet over; it's only begun the most exciting part. For a quick thought about the upcoming series against the Braves (and I'll post more thoughts on the series on Monday) -- this Cub team is a far better team than the overmatched 1998 squad that got swept out of the first round, and the Braves are a very different team than they were then too, relying more on offense this year than their former strength, pitching.

With the clincher yesterday, the pitching rotation works out nearly perfectly for the Division Series; Wood, Zambrano, Prior, Clement in that order, all of them getting an extra day or two of rest, and Wood available for a possible game five on his normal four days of rest.

I've traveled a lot this season but at this point in the year, I don't have the travel days to go to Atlanta, so I'll be watching on TV with everyone else, till I go to game three on Friday night at Wrigley Field.

We hoped, sometimes beyond hope. And yesterday, so many of our hopes and dreams came true.

Keep hope alive. There are still eleven more games to be won, beginning Tuesday.