CHICAGO -- Before he draws his last breath -- and this is a man who in the service of the Chicago Cubs hit 342 home runs, fielded countless ground balls, made nine All-Star teams, broadcast hundreds of games, lost both legs to diabetes, survived two heart attacks, bypass surgery, and bladder cancer -- Ron Santo vows to witness the end of some unfinished business.
If it can happen for the once star-crossed Red Sox, who this afternoon at Wrigley Field will play the Cubs in a game that counts for the first time since 1918, it can happen for the Cubs, the pie-faced Santo said here the other day.
''I've had a wonderful life," said the Cubs player-turned-broadcaster whose popularity here eclipses even that of New England favorite son Jerry Remy back home and Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks. ''When they retired my uniform number here a couple of years ago, that was like getting to the Hall of Fame for me. Now I want the Cubs to win the World Series. It's something I want to see happen. I know it's going to happen.
''I said something on the radio. If I die before the Cubs win the World Series, I'm going to find that goat and kill it again."
''People have always maintained that the 'Curse of the Bambino' is worse than the 'Curse of the Billy Goat,' " says Gene Wojciechowski, author of ''Cubs Nation: 162 Games, 162 Stories, 1 Addiction." ''That's nuts. Cub fans would lick shards of glass to see a ball go though Bill Buckner's legs. They'd jump off the Sears Tower to be in as many World Series as the Red Sox have."
Beyond the right-field wall in Wrigley Field, stretched across one of the three-story apartment buildings whose rooftops have been converted to homemade bleacher sections, two signs have been draped across the balcony railings. One says, ''Eamus Catuli." The other looks like an automobile serial number: AC016097.
Roughly translated, Eamus Catuli is Latin for ''Let's Go Cubs." The other stands for Anno Catuli (the Year of our Cubs), 01 (number of years since the Cubs have been in the playoffs), 60 (number of years since they were in the World Series), 97 (number of years since they've won a World Series).
Billy goat to scapegoat
In a place where they resort to Latin to chronicle failure -- although T-shirts abound with ''Chicago Cubs 1908 World Champions" in English -- it should come as no surprise that some folks would cling to that most ancient of devices, the curse, to explain the unfathomable. Hence, Santo's reference to the goat, the central character in an enduring tale of how Bill Sianis, the owner of a Chicago watering hole, the Billy Goat Tavern, took his goat to the 1945 World Series -- he had one ticket for himself, one for the goat -- was denied entry, and vowed the Cubs would suffer ever after.
Since then, the Cubs have been to the postseason four times -- in 1984, '89, '98, and 2003. They've played six games in which a victory in just one would have sent them to the World Series. They lost them all. And like Grady Little's Red Sox of 2003, they had a three-run lead, their best pitcher on the mound, and were only five outs from a ticket to the Series but never got there, the scapegoat morphing from the hoofed variety to a hapless spectator named Steve Bartman, who followed a fan's instinct -- reaching for a pop fly headed in his direction -- and wound up being blamed for interfering with destiny because Moises Alou, the Cubs' left fielder, could not catch the ball.
Just a few nights later, on the stage of Second City, the improvisational theater that launched the career of John Belushi, among others, actor Brian Boland, wearing headphones, glasses, and a Cubs hat, reenacted Bartman's blunder. But it didn't stop there.
''I'd come out and say, 'Hi, Mom, hi, Dad, I'm home from a Cubs game,' " said Boland, sitting in the stands in Wrigley Field not far from the spot along the left-field line where the seat once occupied by Bartman has become something of a tourist attraction, much like other notorious pieces of Chicago history, such as the Biograph Theater, where John Dillinger was gunned down.
''Then you'd see little vignettes of his parents disowning him, kicking him out of the house, his girlfriend breaking up with him. We'd go into a song and talk about how all the problems in the world were basically his fault. The war in Iraq, everything was the fault of Bartman."
On stage, Bartman ruins a wedding reception when the bride throws her bouquet and Bartman knocks it down. A mother throws her baby out of a burning building to a waiting fireman. Bartman intrudes. A weapon of mass destruction falls from the sky. Bartman thinks he's doing a good deed when he tries to catch it, but calamity ensues.
''It was blaming somebody when actually the real reasons are not his," Boland said. ''I saw him, myself, as a sympathetic character. I think I played him pretty pathetically. He was a very sad sack. I remember a quote from Bartman the next day, how he was 'sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan's broken heart.' Of course, he was.
''He'll probably hate himself forever. His cousin apparently came to see our show and sent a message back to us to tell us it wasn't very funny. I kind of wanted to talk to him and tell him, you know, if you paid attention, he was certainly a funny character to exploit, but the point is this guy is being blamed for everything and he really wasn't to blame."
Bartman is not likely to be at the ballpark this weekend. He has not surfaced publicly since that fateful night. For months, Wojciechowski exchanged e-mails with Bartman's brother-in-law, but that's as far as he got. ''The last night I was doing a book signing," the author said, ''and a guy comes up and asks me to sign one, 'To the Steve.' I said, 'Excuse me?'
''He said, 'To the Steve. I'm Steve Bartman's brother-in-law.' The last book I signed was to Bartman."
Overstated link to Sox
For generations, Red Sox fans and Cubs fans shared pews in the fellowship of the miserable. Until last October, the Sox had not won a World Series since 1918, when they beat the Cubs. But when the Sox show up here today, they are no longer united in decades of disappointment. The Cubs stand alone.
That's not exactly true. On Chicago's South Side, the city's other professional baseball team, the White Sox, has not won a World Series since 1917 and has not appeared in a Series since 1959. But few people seem to notice.
''It's hard to hear Cub fans whine about their team's curse when your own team hasn't won a World Series since 1917," said Steve Bogira, author of the critically acclaimed ''Courtroom 302" and a lifelong White Sox fan. ''South Siders, who tend to be working class, are plain thinking. They know why the White Sox have suffered such a drought: because no White Sox team has outscored its opponents often enough in any of those years.
''Cubs fans are a more affluent bunch, accustomed to success in their professional lives. With their mystical explanations for their team's failures, they transform a legacy of losing into something special. Cubs fans are indeed saddled with a curse: narcissism."
Andy MacPhail, the president of the Cubs, said he never understood the connection between the Red Sox and Cubs, beyond the fact they both play in baseball's most venerated temples, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, built within two years of each other. (When the Cubs and Red Sox met in 1918, the games in Chicago were played in Comiskey Park, the home field of the White Sox, because it could handle larger crowds.)
''I've felt, and it's not great to say, but I always thought that Boston and Chicago should not be linked because in reality, the Red Sox have done a lot better, in terms of World Series appearances and postseason games," said MacPhail, speaking by phone from Arizona, where the Cubs brass had assembled to oversee Tuesday's amateur draft.
''We had back-to-back winning seasons in 2003 and 2004; the last time we did that was 1971 and '72, so we have a lot of work to do before we are like the Red Sox," said MacPhail.
''But I know we're going to get there eventually, just like the Red Sox did. The Red Sox have gotten a lot closer, a lot more times than we have. But the Red Sox got across that bridge, and we will, too. I think our fans share that faith, too."
Beyond the losing, the Sox and Cubs have had innumerable touching points. Buckner was once a beloved Cub. Little is now a special adviser to Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. Terry Francona played 86 games for the Cubs before becoming manager of the Sox. Don Zimmer was manager of the '78 Sox team that was beaten by Bucky Dent's Yankees, and the 1989 Cubs team that lost to Will Clark's Giants. Dennis Eckersley pitched for both teams. So did Fergie Jenkins, Lee Smith, Dick Radatz, and Rod Beck. The Cubs ended last season with the double-play combination that was Boston's the year before, Nomar Garciaparra and Todd Walker.
Sox pitcher Matt Clement spent the previous three years pitching for the Cubs. He lived in a townhouse in a high-rise building just across the street from the Lincoln Park Zoo, about an eight-minute cab ride from Wrigley Field. He loved pitching for the Cubs. Fans showed up at the ballpark wearing little Abraham Lincoln beards in his honor. His wife, Heather, came to every game with their toddler son, Mattix.
Clement didn't want to leave, he said, but playing for the Red Sox in Fenway Park, there are a lot of similarities.
''It's festive every game," he said before the Sox left on their current trip. ''It's so exciting. Fans can't wait for the game to get started."
Clement said he pitched the last month and a half of the 2003 season with a pulled groin. He outpitched Marlins rookie phenom Dontrelle Willis -- who had gone to Florida in the trade that sent Clement to Chicago -- in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series to give the Cubs a 3-2 lead in the series, with aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood lined up to pitch the next two games. He doesn't blame Bartman for what happened.
''It was blown up like it was because of the circumstances," Clement said.
''In all honesty, who's to say Mo [Alou] is going to catch the ball. It's not as if he [Bartman] reached over. As much as people want to get upset, I think other fans, if a ball was hit at them, nine out of 10 would have done the same thing.
''A lot of stuff happened in that game to cause us to lose."
Destined to fail?
Lovable losers. That's what the Cubs were called. Defeat wasn't enough to spoil a beautiful, often beer-soaked afternoon at the Friendly Confines, as Wrigley Field is called, a place where they didn't play under the lights until 1988 but still doesn't have a video replay scoreboard, and the only music is provided by the organ and whichever celebrity is invited to sing ''Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch (Monday night, it was former Celtics great Dave Cowens, just named coach of Chicago's new entry in the WNBA, the women's professional basketball league).
''I hate that term, 'lovable losers,' " Santo said. ''I don't think people ever came here just to lounge around. These Cubs fans, they know the game. They understand the game. Nobody loves to lose. Nobody."
In 1969, Santo was third baseman on a Cubs team that had three future Hall of Famers on the field -- Banks, Jenkins, and Billy Williams -- and a fourth, manager Leo Durocher, on the bench. On Aug. 19, the Cubs had an eight-game lead over the lightly regarded New York Mets. Santo, so popular fans tore off his shirt one day as he left the ballpark, had taken to celebrating Cubs wins by clicking his heels, much to the annoyance of the opposition.
But even as they were winning, Santo said, there were doubters all around, especially in the media. That atmosphere of negativity, similar to the one that existed for years on Yawkey Way, had a trickle-down effect, Santo admitted. From that date on, in one of the game's historic collapses, the Cubs went 15-25, while the surging Mets went 33-11, won the division by eight games and eventually the World Series, and became immortalized as the ''Miracle Mets."
''Maybe players won't admit it, but I will," said Santo, who points to a Sunday game (Sept. 7, 1969) as the day the doubts began to erode his confidence. ''We're playing the Pirates, we're ahead by a run, and there's a 30-mile-an-hour wind blowing in. You'd have to have a cannon to hit it out. Two outs in the ninth, Phil Regan has a 1-and-2 count on [Willie] Stargell, he throws him a low sinker, and Stargell hits a line drive onto Sheffield Avenue.
''All of a sudden I said to myself, 'What's going to happen next?' We lost that game in extra innings, and I'd have to say from that moment on, things changed."
Fast-forward almost 25 years. The Cubs had one of the game's greatest sluggers in Sammy Sosa, two of its hardest-throwing pitchers in Prior and Wood, a proven winner in the dugout in manager Dusty Baker, and the same aura of doubt among the team's followers. Did it cause a new generation of Cubs players to question themselves, to wonder if they, too, were fated to lose?
''I didn't," Clement said. ''Never. I don't think anybody felt that way.
''But it was always mentioned. Even if you didn't believe it, somebody was always talking about it, whether it was the media, fans, or you heard it on a TV show the way it must have been around Boston last year."
Cubs fans showed their support for the Red Sox last October. At Harry Caray's, the restaurant that bears the name of the team's late broadcasting legend, a 4-foot-by-6-foot greeting card was placed in the entrance, which read, ''Good Luck, Red Sox. Prove curses don't exist. In solidarity, long-suffering Cubs fans." The card was covered with signatures of Cubs fans.
Boland, who has appeared on Boston TV in Friendly's Ice Cream ads (''I play this schleppy-looking guy who always has a super-hot wife"), said he was sorry his fantasy of a Cubs-Sox World Series wasn't realized.
''But I think we're happy for Red Sox fans, good for you guys, maybe that means we can get ours," he said.
That's what Hendry was attempting to do when he pulled off a four-team deal for Garciaparra last July 31. The reaction in Chicago?
''Exultation," said Wojciechowski, who in the course of writing his book left his wife and family in their suburban home and took an apartment for the summer just a few blocks from Wrigley, where he could see the field from his kitchen. ''The day they made the trade, they could have shut down Michigan Avenue and had a parade. People would have lined the streets.
''It almost didn't matter what Nomar did. The idea was that the Cubs were trying to do something to win."
But Garciaparra was damaged goods, and ineffective down the stretch. Sosa, whose bunny hop out of the batter's box and sprint-and-salute in right field made him almost as popular as basketball's Michael Jordan, was hooted out of town, traded this winter to Baltimore, after he corked his bat, groused about being dropped in the batting order, and bolted on the team in the early innings of the season's final game. Wood and Prior battled injuries all season, and Clement was hurt, too. He was ultimately dropped from the rotation.
The Cubs stumbled badly down the stretch, and missed the playoffs on the season's last weekend. And that wasn't love that was being showered upon these losers.
''Cubs and Red Sox fans share fatalism," Wojciechowski said, ''but Cubs fans' fatalism had always been wrapped in cotton balls, still soft, a little bunny. Sox fans' fatalism was wrapped in razor wire.
''But it's getting to be like razor wire with Cubs fans. Sammy would have had to wear earmuffs this season. Corey Patterson [the team's young and erratic center fielder] has scar marks in his ears from the boos.
''The expectations after '03 aren't the same anymore. In a way, it's great. It's raised the bar. But no one is immune. It's not the warm and cuddly lovable losers thing anymore."
This weekend, Garciaparra will be here to receive the World Series ring the Sox are giving him in recognition of his years of service, but he won't play. On April 20 in St. Louis, he stumbled out of the batter's box and tore his groin muscle right off the bone. He was batting .157 at the time after a sensational spring in Arizona, and Santo suspects he was hurt even before he crumpled into a heap in Busch Stadium.
''In spring training, he was Nomar again, driving the ball to left field, right field, hitting line drives," Santo said. ''But after the season started, he wasn't getting the bat around. When you're swinging good, those hips are flying, and his weren't. I knew something was wrong. I don't know if it was the groin."
Garciaparra has been rehabbing in Arizona, but his return this season is uncertain. Wood has a sore shoulder and is slowly working his way back; a line drive struck Prior in the pitching elbow and has sidelined him for at least three months. First baseman Derrek Lee is putting up Triple Crown numbers, but so far it has been a challenge for Baker to keep this team above .500.
Winning the World Series appears a distant hope.
''I'm a positive person," said Santo, who wears his heart on his microphone. ''But sometimes things happen, and you don't know why. But the Red Sox got there, which was the best thing that happened in baseball last year, and we'll get there, too."