Wretched at Wrigley

CHICAGO – The morgue was empty, except for the two men smacking dirt off shoes.

They stood to the side, away from the Chicago Cubs lockers, and struck each pair with a steel brush, thwack-thwack, thwack-thwack, like a drumbeat to which the Cubs marched out.

First there was Jim Edmonds, in his 17th major-league season, and he said he was ashamed. And then came Rich Harden, the pitcher, who said he barely could watch the carnage. And finally the rest of them: Derrek Lee and Mark DeRosa and Ryan Theriot and Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs’ infield from right to left, all culprits in the messiest, ugliest, most harrowing defeat of the year, the one that reinforced the suffocating sense of doom that chokes Wrigley Field every time it’s graced with baseball in October.

This was no curse. Just a disaster.

The 10-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday night left the Cubs with an 0-2 deficit in the National League Division Series and the task of winning three consecutive games – including the next two at Dodger Stadium – to save their season. The overwhelming favorite in the NL – the 97-win juggernaut, the team upon which destiny was smiling, the one that would break the championship drought before it reached 100 years – self-destructed in spectacular fashion.

“It’s embarrassing,” outfielder Alfonso Soriano said. “Everybody’s upset. We had the best team in the regular season. Now we play like we don’t know how to play the game.”

The gaffes, the tragicomic sort patented by the Cubs, came with the fury of a god scorned. DeRosa botched a double-play ball at second base that would’ve allowed Carlos Zambrano to escape the second inning unscathed, and Lee followed with an uncharacteristic mangling of a ground ball at first base, and eventually a bases-clearing double from Russell Martin staked the Dodgers to a 5-0 advantage.

Ramirez followed with an error in the fourth inning and Theriot with his own in the ninth, completing the trapezoid of ineptitude. Certainly no playoff team ever had seen all four of its infielders botch routine defensive plays in the same game.

History reserves some things for the Cubs.

“It’s like we might as well not have had gloves out there,” Lee said. “We just couldn’t catch the ball.”

So this is what becomes of the most promising Cubs season since, what, 1984? Maybe 1969? No. Probably 1945, a 98-win outfit managed by a man named Charlie Grimm, appropriately enough.

The city, panicking after a 7-2 loss to Los Angeles in Game 1, suffered through Thursday’s with the grace granted the familiar. They booed, sure, and each was deserved, whether for the errors or the clueless Kosuke Fukudome or even the comical moments when catcher Geovany Soto twice bounced throws back to Zambrano. One man braved the nippy weather and ran around bare-chested urging a nine-run rally in the ninth inning, only to see the Cubs manage two. The organist, bless his heart, tried to stir some action in the crowd of 42,136.

He might as well have been playing “Taps.”

“It wasn’t fun to watch,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said, “I can tell you that.”

Piniella called Games 1 and 2 the two worst the Cubs had played all season, and it was tough to argue. The Cubs’ infield had been steady, if not spectacular, and to see it disappear like flash paper confused everybody.

“I’m not surprised,” Zambrano said. “I’m shocked.”

He was one of the first to leave, the unopened bottle of Champagne still in his locker. Irony a cruel witch, Zambrano, ever the live wire, actually was the most stable Cub in Game 2. He would recount his evening to friends and family via the Bluetooth headset in his ear, followed by Soriano and his 30-diamond necklace, Ramirez and his two suitcases and reliever Carlos Marmol and his black leather cap.

By that time, well past midnight, DeRosa was the only Cub still in uniform. The morgue was silent again. The six TVs in the room were off, the four ceiling fans whirring, wet towels all over the floor, Wrigley itself perhaps saying goodbye for the 93rd time in its 93 seasons without knowing the celebration of a World Series title.

On the back wall, a scrolling ticker, designed to keep the team abreast of that day’s top sports news, revealed its pixelated news. One item spooled through, taunting anyone who dare look:

Cubs have not won playoff game since Game 4 of NLCS in 2003, it read.

Underneath the ticker was a sign, spelled out in big, red capital letters, with an arrow pointing toward the door. It said EXIT.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Oct 3, 2008