CHICAGO – Year 99 ended like all the ones before it, with a disappointment, only this one came so decisively that Chicago Cubs fans didn't bother booing at the end. Losing in Wrigleyville is like breathing and walking and sleeping, more function than action, and as such a passive indifference helps them accept that next season will mark 100 since the Cubs' last championship.
Granted, this one was uglier than most. First off, it came in the postseason, a National League division series sweep courtesy of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have existed 122 fewer seasons than the Cubs and could match their number of World Series titles with another this year. And the season died with all the peace of a shiv to the jugular, what with Chris Young taking Rich Hill's first pitch Saturday night deep into the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field, starting the cascade toward the inevitable disappointment.
The final was 5-1, though the score was immaterial. Inconsistency plagued the Cubs all season, and it doomed them in October. They hit into four double plays and stranded nine runners. They yielded three home runs and wasted Arizona's 13 strikeouts.
The Cubs were, for lack of a better adjective, the Cubs.
"When you don't get the overall goal accomplished," utilityman Mark DeRosa said, "it's tough to look at it any other way than depressing."
No dosage of Paxil could have saved the Cubs from themselves. DeRosa shouldered blame because he faltered in the most charged moment of the night, when Diamondbacks starter Livan Hernandez walked the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth inning.
DeRosa worked the count to 3-1. The 42,157 at Wrigley emptied their lungs. "Deafening," DeRosa called it. Until he grounded to shortstop for the start of an Easy Bake double play.
"They're the most deflating play in baseball," DeRosa said. "It's one of those things: Every time we got someone on and were about to hopefully get the offense going, we grounded into a double play and it took us right out of it."
Ryan Theriot, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez – who went 0 for the series – were double-play victims, too, all rightful goats on the evening and in the series. The Cubs needed their bats, especially in light of manager Lou Piniella's decision to play for Game 4 of the series by yanking his best starter, Carlos Zambrano, after 85 pitches in Game 1. Perhaps Piniella never saw the (if necessary) on the schedule.
"We had some opportunities that we squandered, and when you do that, you open the door," outfielder Cliff Floyd said. "You open the door to keep their adrenaline going, you open the door for them to stay on top, you open the door for them to pump their fists and run off the field and do the things that they were doing."
Floyd grew up in Chicago. He understands how the hex can vex. He can see some sicko killing a goat and hanging it from the right arm of the Harry Caray statue outside of Wrigley to exorcise some stupid curse. He realizes that when someone fouls a ball down the left-field line, as Hernandez did in the fifth inning, and then lands remotely close to Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113 – the Bartman seat – pockets of fans will gasp and whisper to one another how similar it looked.
To root for the Cubs means to accept all the idiosyncrasies that go with it – and also to remember that losing is a birthright, not a curse.
Even with the Cubs entering Saturday down 2-0 in the best-of-five series, the atmosphere outside Wrigley pulsed. Kegs drained, scalpers bartered, Chads hugged. It was a beautiful, genial, drunken mess until the first pitch to Young, a 91-mph fastball that bisected home plate.
"I should've known," Hill said. "He's been doing it all year, jumping on that first pitch, and he did it again."
Nine of Young's 34 career home runs have come on the first pitch, an absurd ratio.
"Yeah," Hill said, "I wasn't expecting it."
He not only summed up the game's first at-bat but his team's entire series. Though the Diamondbacks finished the season with the NL's best record, they entered this series as somewhat of an afterthought. The Cubs hog attention like that, because no matter how things end, they're interesting. Win and it's the biggest story of the year. Lose and it's just another wasted season.
Actually, that might be a bit harsh. The Cubs did rebound from a 96-loss season in 2006 to win the division. They developed some young talent on the cheap and rounded out their pitching staff and stabilized the heart of their order for $300 million or so.
"This is just the start, fellas," warned Piniella, and yet he wasn't standing in his clubhouse, where only laments remained. The players sulked while the clubhouse attendants pounded away to remove the dirt from the Cubs' spikes. They used extra Scrubbing Bubbles, because this marked the last cleaning the shoes would receive all season.
At 8:56 p.m., another clubbie walked up to the classroom-sized dry-erase board. In his right hand he wielded a towel, and he started to smear away the black writing. The time to stretch, to take batting practice, to throw out the first pitch.
Finally, it was empty, a blank canvas, everything wiped away, at least for now.
"Things just weren't meant to be," Floyd said.
Not this year.
And not the 98 before it, either.