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Saturday, October 11, 2003
Updated: October 13, 5:43 PM ET
Cubs' October joy ride gaining steam

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Historians tell us that not much has happened since the last time the Cubs played in a World Series.

Except for color TV, cable TV, computers, the internet, space flight, Elvis, the Beatles, Springsteen, Walkmen, cell phones, lasers, CDs, DVDs, MP3s, VCRs, ATMs, microwaves, tanning salons, Frisbees, credit cards, debit cards, Viagra, AstroTurf, retractable domes, sliders, splitters and, of course, J-Lo.

But what the heck. Time flies when Harry Caray is having fun.

Aramis Ramirez
Aramis Ramirez, 25, should remain a Cub for the foreseeable future.

The last time the Cubs played in a World Series, a mere 58 years ago, there was no such thing as the Florida Marlins for them to beat to get there, either. And there was no such thing as an NLCS to get in the way, for that matter.

But there's something about these Cubs. They actually seem to enjoy all these obstacles that keep getting deposited in their path. And now, in an announcement we feel we can securely make only if all seatbacks are in an upright and locked position, the Cubs -- the Cubs -- are one win away from visiting another World Series.

After their 8-3 whomping of the Marlins on Saturday night, the Cubs -- the Cubs -- lead this NLCS, three games to one. After losing Game 1, they now have won three postseason games in a row, for the first time since 1907.

So the only way they could avoid making that trip to the World Series, to play the winner of the Don Zimmer-Pedro Martinez Ultimate Fighting LCS, would be to turn around and lose their next three postseason games in a row.

All right, so they've done that in seven of the 11 postseason series they've played in since 1907. Nevertheless, that's still hard, especially when Mark Prior and Kerry Wood would be invited to pitch two of those three games.

So it's time to prepare yourselves psychologically for this: The World Series starts in a week. And do not attempt to adjust your sets if you find the Cubs -- the Cubs -- are playing in it, for the first time since 1945.

"I know 1945 was a long time ago," said Cubs outfield-witticist Doug Glanville. "I didn't watch much ESPN back then. I know that."

Yeah, the Worldwide Leader was having technical satellite difficulties back then, if we recall. So those Cubs Sportscenter highlights were kind of sketchy. But if they make it to this World Series, they'll be everywhere you look. On every network.

They'll be hanging with everybody, from Katie Couric to Larry King, from Dr. Phil to Homer Simpson. And it will be hard to tell the city of Chicago from New Year's Eve in Times Square. Except for the weather. It will be a lot colder in Chicago.

"If we do it," said leadoff whiz Kenny Lofton, a Cubs fan way back in his youth, "it'll be fun. And scary. And crazy."

Asked if he would want to leave his car on the street during that World Series bash, Lofton replied: "I don't want my car there -- but I'll be right there in the middle of the street."

We realize we're getting ahead of ourselves to even think about this, because it hasn't happened yet. You might recall that the last time the Cubs were one win away from finishing off an NLCS, in 1984, they turned around and went winless in the postseason for the next five years.

So stuff can happen. And since they're the Cubs, there's no doubt it can happen to them. But there's something different about this Cubs team. It seems built for this moment, built for October, built to blow away all the ghosts, goats, hexes and curses that have hovered over their franchise since the Truman administration. If not the Teddy Roosevelt administration.

"This team doesn't need any pep talks," said left fielder Moises Alou. "This team shows up to play every day, and to win every day, whether it's today, April, May, June, July, August or September."

It's just better equipped to win now than it was in a bunch of those months. And it demonstrated exactly why on Saturday, during a four-run first inning that turned Pro Player Stadium into a teal-infested, tropical-motif sort of Wrigley Field South.

That first inning began with Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis walking Lofton, who didn't even become a Cub until July 22. Good thing he did. The Cubs have played nine postseason games this year, and Lofton has gotten on base and scored in the first inning in seven of them. "It all starts with Kenny," Alou said. "He's our sparkplug."

After his walk, it turned into One Of Those Innings for Willis, whose troubles throwing strikes in the second half have taken some of the luster off Dontrelle-mania. He then proceeded to walk Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou on four pitches apiece. Which filled up the bases for another Cub who wasn't around in April, May or June -- third baseman Aramis Ramirez.

Seven pitches later, Willis served up a thigh-high fastball. Ramirez launched it in the general direction of Universal Studios. And when it stayed inside the foul pole, the Cubs led, 4-zip.

This team doesn't need any pep talks. This team shows up to play every day, and to win every day, whether it's today, April, May, June, July, August or September.
Moises Alou, Cubs left fielder

Naturally, Willis hadn't given up a grand slam all year. And Ramirez hadn't hit one all year. But these Cubs seem to feel compelled to score about four runs in the first inning every day of October.

They're batting .432 in the first inning in the postseason, and .474 in this LCS. The Marlins' starters have a 24.75 first-inning ERA. And the Cubs have now scored in the first inning seven times in nine postseason games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team has ever scored in the first inning in more than 75 percent of its games in any postseason in which it played eight games or more.

"That's huge," said starting pitcher Matt Clement. "It seems like Kenny has been on base to start every game since he's been here."

But somebody has to drive him in, too. And Ramirez, who came from Pittsburgh in the same deal as Lofton, has gotten the hang of that since he arrived. That slam was just the beginning of a two-homer, six-RBI evening that made him only the second National League player in history to drive in six runs in a postseason game. (The other: Will Clark, in the 1989 NLCS, against the Cubs.)

Two years ago, Ramirez drove in 112 runs for the Pirates, at age 23. So it isn't news that he has talent. But this year, he was so out of sync that the Pirates practically had to beg the Cubs to take him off their hands in that Lofton trade. Maybe these fascinating little numbers would explain why:

You know those two home runs he hit Saturday? That equaled the number he hit for the Pirates in his first 222 at-bats of the season. You know those six RBI Saturday? They equaled the number of runs he drove in in his first 106 at-bats of the season.

So you can understand why the Cubs didn't relent and trade for him until their first choice, Mike Lowell, was yanked off the market by the Marlins. "But I'll tell you this," said Cubs hitting coach Gary Matthews of Ramirez. "Without him on this team, we wouldn't be where we are."

By the fourth inning, they'd built a 7-0 lead for Clement, the most top-secret, 14-game-winning 200-inning man in baseball. And he wasn't about to give it back.

Before Saturday, the only games the Cubs had won in this postseason had come on days when Kerry Wood or Mark Prior pitched. But Clement can be a dominator himself when he isn't walking the ballpark. And this was one of those nights. He gave up just five singles in 7 2/3 commanding innings.

"You know," Clement said later, "I savor every moment in a big-league uniform. But to be in a situation like this, wow. When I was a kid growing up, my dad and I watched every (postseason) game, every series, every night. So I kind of looked around tonight and said, 'This is what you've always dreamed of doing. This is what you've been watching your whole life.' "

Clement is one of many players in this series who seem to look on this as almost an out-of-body experience. It doesn't seem like the playoffs -- because they're playing in them.

"I was joking with my wife about that," Clement laughed. "Usually this time of year, I'm back home and I've got ESPNNews on, and I'm getting ready to watch the pregame news conference with the starting pitchers. I said, 'I guess I don't have to watch that this year.' "

Nope. Because he's living it. They're all living it. And with every game they win after this, the images will get more and more vivid, more and more surreal. Because one more win, and the Cubs -- the Cubs -- will complete a journey that's taken nearly six decades: the journey back to the World Series.

"If you parallel that into environmental terms," Glanville philosophized, "it's sort of like we've been in the Sahara and the Gobi Deserts. It's like we've been living in the Sahara and vacationing in the Gobi. That's a lot of time in the desert. So our thirst level is off the charts. We're tired of seeing the mirages. We need to make it into some sort of reality. But there's still a lot of desert to traverse -- and the camels don't move too quickly."

But the camels are moving faster every day now. One more win, and the Cubs -- yes, the Cubs -- will finally be over the hump.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.