Cubs fans want to believe Theo is savior
To the list of the most famous figures in the long history of the Chicago Cubs - which to date include a beer-loving announcer best known for bellowing ''Take Me Out To The Ballgame,'' a goat that wasn't allowed into a game and a fan who bobbled a foul ball - we now can add the name Theo Epstein.
A newcomer who never swung a bat or pitched a ball in the major leagues, the Cubs' new president of baseball operations had fans scrambling to buy Epstein jerseys - at least until Major League Baseball told vendors to knock it off. Chicago faithful are even hoping (stop us if you've heard this before) that maybe they can do something their parents and grandparents never did: Live long enough to see the Cubs win the World Series.
''I'm 84, how much longer can I wait?'' said Minnette Goodman, a lifelong fan whose son, the late folk singer Steve Goodman, wrote the upbeat ''Go Cubs Go'' that's played after every Cubs win. Of course, he also wrote ''A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request'' as well.
For all the excitement, augmented by the 37-year-old Epstein standing strong in front of Wrigley Field's famed ivy-covered wall, fans of the team that hasn't won it all since 1908 are also trying to keep their expectations in check - some more successfully than others.
''They've been promised so much so many times, they're waiting to see what they're going to get before they're jumping for joy,'' said John Klebba, a cook at Murphy's Bleachers, a tavern just across the street from the statute of the late announcer Harry Caray and the centerfield entrance to Wrigley's bleachers.
Then, as another worker hung Christmas lights - since things are usually quiet around here at World Series time - Klebba finished an age-old saying with a decidedly Cubs-like twist: ''Fool me for 103 years, shame on me.''
Others are trying to keep things in perspective, too.
''I'm not saying I have hope, I won't say that,'' said Steve Rhodes, a longtime fan whose Chicago-oriented Web site once posted a song ''Please Stop Believin''' when he sensed Cubs fans thought the team might actually make the playoffs.
But it's hard to keep the optimism in check. Rick Kaempfer sure can't.
''I would describe it as unbridled giddiness,'' said Kaempfer, creator of justonebadcentury.com, the logo of which is a Cub with a big tear on its cheek.
Epstein sure has a sparkling resume. He was named the youngest general in major league history when he joined the Boston Red Sox in 2002 at the age of 28. Two years later, he was the youngest GM to win it all as the Red Sox broke a long championship drought of their own - 86 years, not unlike the misery Cubs fans have famously endured.
Under Epstein's guidance, Boston went 839-619 in the regular season and a 34-23 in the playoffs, winning more than 90 games in all but two seasons. Of course, Epstein presided over two of the biggest meltdowns in baseball history, the 2003 ALCS loss to the Yankees and last month's disaster in which the Red Sox blew a nine-game lead for a wild-card spot and failed to make the playoffs. No team had ever done that before.
The Cubs went on a $300 million spending spree before the 2007 season and won two straight division titles - before being swept in the first round both seasons. The last two years have been a disaster and Epstein is looking mighty good to Cubs fans. And who can't like a guy who once fled Fenway Park in a gorilla suit on Halloween after a tiff over his contract extension went public? He resigned and stayed away from the team for several months before returning to his old job.
To Kaempfer, it's not that Cubs fans don't understand they could be setting themselves up for a fall. It's just that the same fans who knew the Cubs would not reach the World Series the instant Steve Bartman deflected that foul ball in the 2003 playoffs - even though that was in Game 6 and Chicago had another chance - let themselves time and time again believe that everything will be perfect.
''It's like being at a wedding and seeing this beautiful bride come in with all her hopes and dreams,'' he said. ''You know she hasn't found out about the dirty socks and the flatulence, but on this day I'm happy for her.''
Cubs fans are quick to point out some differences between the situation Epstein is walking into now and what he walked into in Boston. Sure, they say, there are similarities, starting with the dueling curses (Billy Goat in Chicago and Bambino in Boston).
But Epstein is not inheriting players like slugger Manny Ramirez or star pitcher Pedro Martinez, guys who were already in place.
''The reason (they won) is they had good ball players,'' said Sam Sianis, the owner of the famed Billy Goat Tavern, whose uncle put the curse on the Cubs when they wouldn't let his pet goat attend the 1945 World Series.
Of course, even if Epstein stocks up on the kind of players that could make a contender of the Cubs, Sianis said he might not want to follow the lead of previous team executives who have turned down his offers to bring a goat over to Wrigley Field to lift the curse. Or, he said, Epstein at least might want to avoid repeating a mistake of 1984 when the Cubs did not take let him accompany the team to San Diego to finish the Padres after taking the first two games of a best-of-five-game playoff series.
''And look what happened?'' he said. ''They lost three games.''
For now, though, thanks in part to the film ''Moneyball,'' guys who pull the strings behind the scenes can grab the stage sometimes. One paper this week wrote about Epstein in a story titled ''The Cubs Latest Rock Star.''
''How can it not be exciting?'' asked Rhodes, before quickly finding the cloud to go with the silver lining. ''We know something's going to go terribly wrong but it's still one of thee most exciting things that's happened to this franchise in a long time.''