CHICAGO – They believe the billboard because blind faith demands such things from fans. It overlooks Wrigley Field from Sheffield Avenue, and its premise, to anybody who hasn't died with the Chicago Cubs for almost a century, is rather laughable.
99TH TIME'S A CHARM, it reads, irony-free, as if to say, really, honestly, seriously – finally! – this is the year.
Of course every year is the year in Wrigleyville, every team the team that's going to break the Curse of the Billy Goat and allow Steve Bartman to show his face at Murphy's Bleachers and win the World Series for the first time since 1908. People may have found the snowflakes a bad harbinger and the steel-wool sky ominous – another cold and dark year, huh? – but the Cubs spent $300 million this offseason, and Lou Piniella is as real as a Vienna Beef dog with electric-green relish, and the Old Style was as fresh as it will get all season, and this was the home opener, so worries were banned Monday.
For, oh, two hours or so. Nowhere else does unbridled optimism turn to unrelenting cynicism as quickly as it does here. By the eighth inning, when Adam Everett, the Houston Astros shortstop with the build of a Mag-Lite, torched a home run over the left-field fence for a 5-3 lead that would hold up, the first boos rained.
Yeah. Sure the 99th time's a charm.
"For us, in here, it's not about that," said Cliff Floyd, the left fielder who watched Everett's home run fly over his head and a native Chicagoan playing his first home game for the Cubs. "It's about this day, this moment, winning as many games as you can. And when it gets to the end of the season, you don't think about the history.
"If we worry about that, heck, we'll probably never win."
And if they don't worry about that, heck, they'll probably still never win.
OK, OK. One game. The Cubs are 3-4, not 0-7. It's just that of all the players to hit a big home run, to sully one of the great events in Chicago every year, it had to be Everett, who has averaged one homer every 57 at-bats in his seven-year career.
"He's the last guy you'd expect," Cubs center fielder Alfonso Soriano said.
Soon enough Soriano, the $136 million free-agent prize, will learn that to expect anything with the Cubs is like expecting Santa Claus to write back. Only a week on the job, Piniella, the grizzled 63-year-old whose face has settled into a natural scowl, seems to understand this.
"If you want to concern yourself about something in baseball," he said, "there's something to concern yourself with every day."
It took Piniella nearly 20 minutes to gather himself after the game. He did not address his lieges. He's not big on meetings. The reality of watching the Cubs fight back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game on a brilliant bit of baserunning by Soriano – after he beat out a double play, he stole second base, then the next play never stopped running when Craig Biggio's bad throw to first base scooted away from Lance Berkman long enough to allow Soriano to score – only to lose on a fluke home run took a little while to digest.
What made it all palatable was the Cubs' budding fortunes in the National League Central. St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter went on the disabled list Monday with elbow problems, and if he's out any extended period, the Cardinals will have trouble surviving. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Houston are missing an integral piece or two, and the Cubs' main competition, Milwaukee, lacks in experience what it might have in talent.
One gander at the Cubs' everyday lineup brings reason for optimism, with 40-home run potential from Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. If Rich Hill can be to Carlos Zambrano what Chris Capuano is to Ben Sheets in Milwaukee, and the bullpen holds up better than it did Monday, the pitching is viable enough to stand up in a division as flimsy as a spaghetti strand.
"It's going to be a battle the whole year," Floyd said. "It's not going to be this team is outright better than every team in the league. It's going to be a fight. And if we win this division by one game, a half-game, I don't care."
So what if it's impossible to win a division by a half-game? Sentiment sells here, and Floyd's is classic early-season Cubs. The guy knows his crowd.
And until the Cubs really flounder, they will buy whatever Floyd and his 24 teammates sell. Last year, rhetoric stopped working around May 1, and the Cubs slogged to a 66-96 record, their second worst in 25 years, which is saying something.
For now, the talk – and a healthy dose of humor – suffice.
"Let's hope we don't have any more opening days this year," Piniella said. "We're 0-2."
Actually, Piniella might want to recant that. Three openers remain.
NL Division Series.
NL Championship Series.
Really? Seriously? Honestly? Finally?
Soon enough we'll know if these Cubs truly are charmed.
- Lou Piniella