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And Now, It Begins

Today was when it really hit me.

We were five outs away. We should be rejoicing tomorrow as we would begin to defend, at the very least, the National League championship, if not the World Championship.

I guess this hits me so hard because of the nature of what 2003 was all about. The Cubs came out of nowhere, and gave us so many special moments, too many to list here, though the Cardinal series in early September stands out as perhaps the greatest regular-season series I've ever attended.

We can't sneak up on people any more. Just about every publication and website I've read picks the Cubs to at the very least win the league pennant, if not the World Championship. Expectations are high, unlike last year when we had very few, and that's what made the ride last year so special.

And having that ride cut short in such a dramatic fashion almost didn't give us time to grieve. Nothing will ever be like that again, and having had that ride cut short, reminds me that tomorrow, we begin again, at 0-0, just like everyone else (yes, I know that the Yankees and Devil Rays are 1-1 already, and that either the Red Sox or Orioles will be in first place in the AL East after tonight), and I think all of us who live and die with the Cubs will be utterly crushed if we don't have at least a contending season.

And that's the difference -- the weight of expectations. Does that put more pressure on the players? You bet it does, and that's where having a manager like Dusty Baker will truly shine. Sure, he'll frustrate us with bizarre lineup selections and goofy platoon substitutions and will ride his starters too hard, but in the end there are 25 guys who will run through a wall for him, and you can quote statistics all you want, but there is absolutely a psychological factor to this game (just ask the Cubs after the 8th inning of game 6 whether that affected them or not), and that's where a man like Baker truly shines in his leadership qualities.

It's hard to start again from scratch when we were so darn close to the dream that all of us have had for our entire lives.

But this is what we do, as baseball fans and Cub fans, dream each year that this will be the year. For the first time in decades, that dream is more than a pipe dream. Sure, the Cubs have problems, and they've been well documented here and elsewhere, so I won't rehash them today. But what team doesn't have some question marks? Even the huge-payroll Yankees (fourth starter? fifth starter?) and Red Sox (who replaces Nomar for a month?) have problems.

The Cubs open on the road for the seventh time in the last eight seasons (2001 was the only exception), and so by the time the gates open at Clark & Addison on what we hope will be at least a fairly mild April 12, we'll already have some idea of how this team will perform. The final spring record was 16-16 (with two ties), and that means nothing. The last five World Champions have had a combined spring record of 77-84.

Tomorrow, 1:10 pm CDT, it begins. Enough talk. Let's win it.