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NLCS: Cubs drop the ball

MARLINS 8, CUBS 3: A near-fan interference contributes to bizarre eighth as Florida forces a Game 7.

MARC TOPKIN
Published October 15, 2003

CHICAGO - Curses.

If the Chicago Cubs still don't want to be believe there is a curse on them, that's their decision. But for anyone else, it's hard to think otherwise when you consider what happened Tuesday night.

Leading by three and needing five outs to secure their first World Series appearance in 58 years, with a frenzied crowd inside and outside Wrigley Field on the verge of a wild celebration, the Cubs ran smack dab into some unbelievable misfortune and a dash of their own sordid history.

They lost the game 8-3 to the Marlins, forcing a seventh and deciding game of the NL Championship Series tonight, with Florida's Mark Redman facing Chicago's Kerry Wood. In the process, they had to lose the faith of millions of fans who were hoping, and praying, that the legacy of losing finally was behind them.

"I'm not a Cubs fan. I'm a Cubs player," Moises Alou said. "And I don't believe in all that c---."

So if this wasn't the latest installment in a history that includes a curse put on the team by a bar owner with a goat in 1945, a black cat on the field in 1969 and an eerily similar collapse in the 1984 NLCS, how would you explain it?

"It makes you think a little bit," Florida manager Jack McKeon said. "You guys keep talking. I think it might happen."

First a fan - a fan wearing a Cubs hat! - reached out to catch Luis Castillo's foul ball, denying leftfielder Alou the chance to record the second out of the pivotal eighth inning. There was no fan interference call because umpire Mike Everitt felt the ball was in the stands.

"No doubt in my mind I was going to catch it," Alou said. "It was something that happened out of our control."

Castillo instead walked, with Juan Pierre moving to third on a wild pitch. Mark Prior got ahead of Ivan Rodriguez 0-and-2 but gave up a run-scoring single.

Then the Cubs were vexed again. Surehanded shortstop Alex Gonzalez booted Miguel Cabrera's grounder, a fairly routine play that should have led to at least one out but instead loaded the bases.

"When that happened you could see the opening," McKeon said.

Derrek Lee, who was 3-for-25 in the series, ripped a double to make it 3-3, chasing Prior. After an intentional walk, Jeff Conine's sacrifice fly put them ahead 4-3, and a bases-loaded double by Mike Mordecai (Mike Mordecai!) pretty much spoiled the night. Pierre's single made it 8-3 and over.

"It has nothing to do with the curse," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "It has to do with the fan interference and the very uncharacteristic error by Gonzo, because he doesn't miss anything. And then they just started hitting. It has nothing to do with the curse. It has to do with their bats."

Since losing Game 5 on Sunday, the Cubs have been insisting their past had nothing to do with the present.

You decide.

In 1984, they were one win away from eliminating the Padres and going to the Series. They had their best pitcher, Rick Sutcliffe, on the mound and a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning. The Padres rallied, and the game turned on an error on a routine ground ball by first baseman Leon Durham.

Tuesday, they were one win away from eliminating the Marlins and going to the Series. They had their best pitcher, Prior, on the mound and a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning. The Marlins rallied, and the game turned on an error on a routine ground ball by Gonzalez.

"History had nothing to do with this game," Baker insisted. "Nothing."

The Marlins, meanwhile, have been insisting they were going to shock the world. They did a pretty good job of shocking 3-million Chicagoans, and millions of other Cubs fans around the world, who were ready to celebrate their first Series appearance since 1945.

"We just have to forget about this one," Sammy Sosa said. "If you go home and think about this one you're not going to get any sleep."

The fan was led away by security, his face covered by a jacket, getting a fair amount of verbal abuse from other fans and a few beers thrown his way. He was taken out a side exit for his own safety.

"I pray to God the guy is not a Cubs fan," Marlins pitcher Carl Pavano said. "That's a tough thing to swallow, but that's the breaks of baseball."

Alou initially was upset at the fan, then said he realized he did what was natural, trying to bring home a souvenir from what had a chance to be one of the most historic games in Cubs history.

"Hopefully," Alou said, "he doesn't have to regret it for the rest of his life."

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