In the major leagues in the past two seasons, there were two positively, unequivocally incredulous occurrences, the hard-ball equivalent of the cow jumping over the moon, of Martians lining up to order lattes at Starbucks. One of them was enough to stun fandom; the second, on the very heels of the first, was sufficient for people to wonder if this was simply a coincidence for the ages or evidence of an invisible celestial hand.
Two of the three franchises in baseball that had gone the longest without winning a World Series won them: the Boston Red Sox in 2004, after an 86-year-drought, and the Chicago White Sox in 2005, after a fallow and frustrating 88 years.
As in a weird game of musical chairs, that leaves only the Chicago Cubs standing, or staggering. Forlorn but not forgotten. And if ever the cliche "hope springs eternal" applies to anyone, it is to the Cubbies, spring after spring after spring, for nearly 100 of them, all the way back to 1908, their last World Series championship.
This spring is no exception. As the Cubs begin their spring training endeavors, what happened in Boston two years ago and what transpired last October with their South Side rivals have not been lost on them.
"I like the trend," said Kerry Wood, one of the Cubs' top pitchers, when he isn't hurt. "But there's no added pressure on us because of it. There's plenty of pressure in this profession, period -- pressure to win, the pressure you put on yourself to perform."
Dusty Baker, the Cubs' manager, said, "One thing for sure, the law of averages is on our side."
"It's got to happen," he added. "This team has to win it one of these days. And I'd like to be here when it happens."
Baker, whose team finished fourth in its division last season, with a 79-83 record, spoke about "overcoming a century of negativity," not a new refrain for Baker, now in his fourth season as the Cubs' manager.
"We have to try to eliminate the `Oh no's!' when we get close to winning," he said. "We can't always be asking, `What went wrong?' We need a few breaks, too."
It would help if Wood and his fellow right-hander Mark Prior could remain in one piece for an entire season; if the future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, nearing age 40, could return to at least semi-Hall of Fame form; if the bullpen could shape up. It would help, too, if the newly acquired Juan Pierre could be the daily catalyst as the Cubs' leadoff man and center fielder.
Pierre fulfilled that role for the Florida Marlins in 2003 when they beat the Cubs in the National League Championship Series, the Cubs just five measly, but monumental, outs from going to the World Series when everything fell apart in Game 6.
"I'm a newcomer here, and I can feel the history," said Pierre, sitting in front of his locker at Fitch Park here. "I was with the Marlins and Rockies, relatively new teams in baseball, and never felt the sense of urgency to win that I do here. And I think the White Sox winning put Cub fans on edge. But if we win, and I think we have the talent, what better place to do it than in Chicago? The loyalty of the Cub fans has been amazing. The team loses and there's still 40,000 fans filling up the park for every game. They really deserve a winner."
Maddux said that the success of the White Sox last season was not an incentive for the Cubs. "We don't need an incentive to win, that started here 50 years ago," he said. He was referring to the last time the Cubs appeared in a World Series -- actually 61 years ago -- in 1945, losing in seven games to the Detroit Tigers. "What we need is good pitching and good defense. That's what wins. Look at the White Sox. Their lineup wasn't any better than anyone else's. But their pitching and defense was better."