For years they were the team that could blow any lead, squander any game. The Chicago Cubs teased and tormented their faithful fans, who kept flocking to their picturesque neighborhood park nonetheless.
Losing was just what the Cubs did, pretty much every summer. And if it wasn't good baseball, it was often entertaining, always eventful, an excuse to party.Now, in a season that almost defies description, the Cubs have found a way to win the National League wild card - not easily, of course - and are in the playoffs for the first time since 1989.
"It wasn't going to be any other way for us," first baseman Mark Grace said.
Grace, the only remaining member from the last playoff team, led a parade around Wrigley Field following Monday night's 5-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants in the first one-game NL playoff in 18 years.
The Giants scored three runs in the ninth before burly ex-San Francisco closer Rod Beck got 1993 World Series hero Joe Carter, playing in his final game, to pop out with a runner on.
"Five-run lead, tying run at the dish. That's the way it's going to be with the Chicago Cubs," Grace said.
Now it's on to Atlanta to face the Braves. And even though they beat the Braves six times in nine meetings, the Cubs will be decided underdogs against the team of the '90s when the best-of-5 series begins Wednesday.
But in this wacky and unforgettable season, why not?
There was the ball that got stuck in the ivy against the Chicago White Sox and was ruled a ground-rule double, keeping a run from scoring. Another run was saved when a ball wedged under a wall for a ground-rule double against the Colorado Rockies.
Perhaps legendary broadcaster Harry Caray, who died during spring training, has been looking down as Sammy Sosa has often suggested.
And there was the agony. The Cubs lost six of eight going into Monday night but still got into a playoff when the Giants blew a 7-0 lead Sunday and lost to the Rockies.
The Cubs haven't been to a World Series since 1945 and haven't won one in 90 years.
"Maybe it's the Cubs' year," Giants manager Dusty Baker said. "When we were behind, I kept looking out there at the balloon in left field with Harry Caray on it. Maybe the ghost of Harry Caray is sending those balls right to them."
Sosa, whose home run challenge to Mark McGwire fell short 70-66, had two key singles Monday night. And Steve Trachsel, who gave up McGwire's 62nd homer, pitched hitless baseball until the seventh.
And how's this for a finish? The Cubs turned to their No. 1 starter, Kevin Tapani, for relief, along with Terry Mulholland and Beck, who did the pitching in Sunday's crushing, 11-inning loss to Houston.
"We had a fun time, but it was pretty touch-and-go for a while. Everybody ran the whole gamut - nervous, angry, elated - everything. That's how it goes sometimes," said veteran Gary Gaetti, a late-season addition whose two-run homer Monday night got the Cubs started.
"I never thought this would happen to me," added the joyful Sosa, in the playoffs for the first time. "I'm never going to forget it."
Giants star Barry Bonds had another forgettable big-game performance. He grounded out with the bases loaded to end the seventh, and came up again with the bases loaded in the ninth, but managed only a sacrifice fly.
Bonds, a career .200 hitter in four postseason series, went 0-for-4.
"They had the momentum and Trachsel pitched a great game," Bonds said. "There is nothing you can say except, `Congratulations.' "
Trachsel (15-8) didn't give up a hit until pinch-hitter Brent Mayne singled with one out in the seventh. It was his first win since Aug. 28.
"I knew I hadn't given up a hit. And when Gary hit that homer, I just tried to keep zeros on the board and not let them score," Trachsel said.
In the ninth, Tapani relieved and gave up a pair of leadoff singles. That brought on Mulholland, who went eight innings and threw 121 pitches on Sunday.
Stan Javier hit an RBI single and pinch-hitter Ellis Burks walked, loading the bases with no outs and the score 5-1. But Bonds flied out, scoring the second run, before Beck earned his 51st save, getting Jeff Kent on an RBI forceout and retiring Carter on a popup.
"I'm as happy as I can be," Beck said. "When (general manager) Ed Lynch signed me and brought me to Chicago, I've been hearing about their losing ways since I got here. I'm just glad to be able to help turn it around."
Singles by Lance Johnson and Sosa drove out Mark Gardner (13-6) in the sixth. Rich Rodriguez relieved and after Grace walked to load the bases, Matt Mieske, called up from the minors earlier this month, lined a two-run single to right for a 4-0 lead.
"The anxiety was high. Nobody was surprised it came down to a game like this," Mieske said. "We made things interesting."