CHICAGO — Oct. 6, 1945. Nick Paolella knows the date by heart and he knows the Chicago Cubs lost. The rest has faded away over time.
It was Game 4 of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers, and Paolella's first game with his father, Angelo, a restaurant owner and brick mason. Nick Paolella, born and raised in Chicago, lived near Andy Pafko when he was a kid, and he thinks his father got the tickets from the Cubs outfielder.
"At 10 years old and not knowing the sport," he said. "I had no idea what that was."
He knows now. They all do, from Ann Lantolf, who picked up the Cubs after she moved to Chicago in 1961, to Frank Gronn, who started going to Wrigley Field with his grandfather when he was just a kid. From generations of Cubs fans gone to Cubs fans now, hoping and praying for the opportunity to experience that joy just one time.
It has been 108 years since the North Siders last won the World Series, beating the Tigers in five games in 1908. Now one of the best Cubs teams in decades is looking to pour champagne on one of sports' most famous droughts, and its devoted fans are watching with a mixture of excitement and foreboding generated by years of heartache.
Those who have suffered the longest know this mixture well.
"There is some trepidation, I think, just being a Chicago Cubs fan especially," said Gronn, 70, a season-ticket holder since 1985. "One of the best teams ever, and it's just always in the back of your mind, I guess. But I'm kind of leaning more, maybe 70-30, that this is going to be the year."
It's a brand new day for the franchise so used to the annual refrain of "wait 'til next year!" The NL Central champions had the majors' best record this season and will host the winner of the NL wild-card game in the opener of the NL Division Series on Friday. The Cubs advanced to the NL Championship Series a year ago, but most fans believe this year's team is better.
Everywhere they go in Chicago, and quite often on the road, the current Cubs hear all about the franchise's World Series futility.
"Listen, I've been a fan of different teams for many years that haven't won, and I get the fan perspective," manager Joe Maddon said, "but you cannot go about your business from inside in that manner daily. You just can't, because we'll definitely have a bad inning if you do. That's why I constantly preach the day, because that's the only way we're going to do this."
The 62-year-old Maddon has turned into a folk hero in Chicago, taking the Cubs to the playoffs in each of his two seasons at the helm . The Wrigley faithful soak in every word, even wearing his slogans on T-shirts — everything from "Respect 90," which refers to the number of feet between home plate and first base, to "Try Not To Suck."
"The bad things don't happen to a hustling team and that team hustles because the guy who's managing them makes them have a good time," said Paolella, 81, a season-ticket holder for 32 years who works in sales and education.
Paolella wasn't hooked on the Cubs just yet when he went to the World Series with his father. He started following the team more when he got a little older.
When he was a teenager, he skipped school to go to Wrigley with his friends. He was sitting in the outfield during batting practice when he got hit by a ball, breaking his nose.
"But I couldn't tell my father, I just cut school (to) go see a game," said a chuckling Paolella, who instead told his dad he got beat up.
Gronn got his love for the Cubs from his grandfather. He was in the Navy when the Ernie Banks-led Cubs contended for the NL East title in 1969, but his mother sent him newspaper articles to help him keep up with the team.
He and the others know well the heartbreak that has followed the Cubs all these years, from the billy goat curse to the black cat that taunted Leo Durocher in 1969 to the Steve Bartman foul ball 13 years ago with the Cubs five outs from a trip to the World Series. In fact, Gronn was there in person for the Bartman play, followed soon thereafter by Alex Gonzalez's critical error in Game 6 of the 2003 NL Championship Series against the Marlins.
"Just dropping that ball and making that error and then the floodgates opening," said Gronn, who retired after working as a traffic technician for the Illinois Department of Transportation for 36 years. "We were there and you could hear a pin drop. It was just unbelievable what happened."
Gronn played baseball while he was growing up in his native Chicago, also feeding his love for the Cubs. Lantolf, 82, was a first baseman in high school and followed the minor league affiliate in her hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
She became a Cubs fan after she moved to Chicago with her husband.
"When we came to Chicago in 1961 we bought one box seat and we alternated going to the games because we had two children at the time and nobody took kids to the game in those days," she said.
The Cubs last won the NL Central in 2008, and then got swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series. Lantolf, a season-ticket holder for 27 years, is hoping for a better result for this year, and maybe even that elusive World Series title.
"It's something that I'm hoping to experience," she said. "You know, not everybody gets to experience it in their lifetime."
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap