Will Cubs end century-long drought?

Will Cubs end century-long drought?

When we last left the Chicago Cubs, Lou Piniella was walking off his team's field toward the dugout for the last time on Oct. 6, 2007. A fan shouted, "Get 'em next year!" and the manager nodded and replied with a wave: "Yeah. We'll do better."

Fans were pouring stoically out of Wrigley Field toward the gates and some held back their despair, while others saw a storybook emerging.

"We hope every year that we'll come here and it will be different," Robyn Kane said on her way out after the Cubs were swept by Arizona in the National League Division Series. "We'll keep doing it, too."

When we last left the Chicago Cubs, Ryan Theriot was getting dressed one last time in the little home clubhouse and saying the kinds of things that have defined his team's players and its fans for generations: "You've got to take a positive out of it. You just have to regroup and come back strong."

Next year is here, but this is not just any next year. This is the next year. This is 2008, the 100th anniversary of the Cubs' last World Series championship. Which leads to the obvious question: Will this be the year that the team with the longest drought of titles in North American professional sports finally win?

Will Piniella be right? Will they do better? Will Kane be right? Will it be different? Will Theriot and his teammates come back strong? Is there really a Curse of the Billy Goat, and if so, can it be reversed the way Boston reversed its so-called Curse of the Bambino in 2004?

Cubs' pitchers and catchers are due to report on Wednesday to HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz., and their first formal workout of Spring Training will be held on Thursday. It will feel like the same beautiful tradition as snowbirds gather and balls pop into mitts, signaling a new year. The backdrop this time is a big storyline for many observers around the national pastime, as if something so banal as a round number really can get you into a postseason, much less into a World Series victory parade float.

The number "100" is so -- what is the right word? -- noticeable. A society is conditioned to see it and accept it as significant. Willard Scott and a jelly-maker have been glorifying people 100 years old for a long time. We are a society that rounds off numbers in just about every part of life. So here comes the big 100.

Just look at that letter on the Cubs cap. It's a C, which is the Roman numeral for 100.

"My message, first and foremost, to this team -- and I've been thinking about that -- is don't put the load of 99 other years of not winning on you," Piniella said before heading to Arizona. "Worry about this year only. We've got a good ballclub; don't put any pressure on yourself. Let this team stand on its own merit, and that's really going to be the message as far as Spring Training is concerned.

"You can't redo the past. We've got a good chance to go forward. If we start looking at what's happened and for so long, you put undue pressure on yourself. Let this team stand on its own merit and go from there."

Cubs fans have been counting the years for a long time. The last time the Cubs were even in a World Series was 1945. In 1908, they beat the Tigers and reigned as the best of 16 Major League Baseball clubs.

Along the way, a goat became a chief part of Cubs lore. Even Piniella alluded to it during the Division Series last fall. Upon hearing criticism for his removal of starter Carlos Zambrano after six innings during a 3-1 opening loss at Arizona -- where reliever Carlos Marmol gave up a key homer to Mark Reynolds -- Piniella said, "It's like the billy goat came out of the grave."

The billy goat. Here we go again, for those who somehow do not know.

Billy Sianis, a Greek immigrant who owned the nearby Billy Goat Tavern, had two $7.20 box seat tickets to Game 4 of the 1945 World Series between the Cubs and the Tigers. He brought along his pet goat, Murphy (Sinovia in some references), which Sianis had restored to health when the goat had fallen off a truck and subsequently limped into his bar. The goat wore a blanket with a sign pinned to it which read: "We got Detroit's goat." Sianis and the goat were allowed into Wrigley and even paraded around the field before the game.

Despite a heated argument with ushers, Sianis and the goat were allowed to stay in the box seats for which he had tickets. But before the game was over, Sianis and his goat were ejected from the stadium, at the command of Cubs owner Philip Wrigley, due to the animal's odor. Sianis was outraged and allegedly placed a curse upon the Cubs that they never would win another pennant or play in a World Series at Wrigley again because the Cubs organization had insulted his goat.

Now it is the mother of all "next years" and, much like the deal that sent Babe Ruth to the Yankees went hand-in-hand with Boston's championship drought, no one can write about it without mentioning the goat.

The Cubs have done more eliminating than adding since their quick 2007 postseason departure, and their fans are fired up. Gone are one-time savior Mark Prior, Jacque Jones and Cliff Floyd, and new is Kosuke Fukudome in right field, along with the return of pitcher Jon Lieber. Perhaps Felix Pie (center) and Geovany Soto (catcher) are ready for regular roles. Time will tell. The rotation is deep, led by Zambrano and Ted Lilly, and there is a strong offense, though it was one that went mysteriously silent in the NLDS.

If you are the Cubs' front office, all you can do is build and promote the best team possible for 2008. It is a team and a ballpark and most important a way of life that more people want to experience than the Friendly Confines possibly could hold. There is no scheduled fanfare for a drought. Who would celebrate futility? However, on July 9, the team will give the first 10,000 fans at Wrigley a 1908 hat.

"In the back of your mind, from the players' standpoint, you want to be one of the guys who is part of a winning team, always, and more importantly here because it's been so long," Theriot said. "One hundred years -- wouldn't that be a storyline finish? Then we could tell everybody, 'All right, see you all in 100 more years and we'll win another one.'"

He was just joking about waiting another 100 years.

"Last year, it was 99, and we wanted to do it then," Theriot said. "But I can't remember one time, honestly, in that clubhouse, when somebody said we haven't won in 99 years. It wasn't talked about. We want to win for the city of Chicago and ourselves and this organization, and not because of the length of time since we had a championship."

The Cubs are ready to start another Spring Training. "We'll do better" are three words that many people will hold on to as it all begins again.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. Reporter Carrie Muskat contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.