Paradise, Lost

There really is no better time for baseball than mid-September. The scoreboards are full of thrilling matchups, as the pennant and wildcard races wind down to their final matchups.

The temperatures will be in the low seventies, still warm enough to keep our more attractive fan base from wearing too many layers, and cool enough to keep that 24-ouncer fresh and crisp all the way to the bottom of the cup. And the setting for the game doesn't get much prettier than the newly redbricked and green-carpeted Midwestern home of baseball civilization, the self-proclaimed "Baseball Heaven," bearer of ten high-flying championship banners, one of them startlingly crisp and new.

That gives us at least one positive about this upcoming series against the Chicago Cubs, so let's hold on to that.

Cubs fans are in unusually high spirits as they make their annual September pub crawl all the way from their shacks and shanties in Illinois to the home of their mortal enemies. And why shouldn't they be? They're having a dream September. The boys in blue are in first place by a half game and are attempting to go worst-to-first in the NL Central, fulfilling a $300 million dollar mandate from the front office. Better yet, they are in a prime position to drive a stake through the barely beating heart of the Cardinals' playoff hopes, as they did in a crucial five-games-infour- days series back in 2003.

And while the division race is far from decided, our St. Louis team has been playing with all of the energy and ability of dogshit on toast for the past week, falling back to our tidewater mark of five games below .500. We look like easy marks for the young bears, perhaps a part of their manifest destiny to avoid having to count their trophy-less era by the century rather than by the decade.

But perhaps best of all for these misguided souls, the Rick Ankiel allegations arrive like a gift from the heavens to give Cub fans a nearly perfect weapon to heckle, to badger, to deflate and demoralize both the Cardinal fans and their team. All our old favorites – "99 years!" hyuk hyuk; "Curse of the billy goat!" haw haw; " 'member Sammy Sosa? He was a jerk!" chuckle chuckle – now have about as much moral authority as a fart in an elevator. The Northsiders now hold the ultimate weapon in their arsenal: "Your golden boy is a cheater!"

And there's not a whole lot of anything we can do about it. For the past month, our team has lived and died with Rick Ankiel. His heroics lifted us up from pretenders to contenders. And now that his past threatens to tear this team back down, Cub fans are more than willing to grab a rope and start pulling.

Pass the Antacid

The Cubs and the Brewers have been dogfighting for the division lead for so long that the recent upsurge in play by every NL Central team (Houston excepted) has been little more than a sideshow. Since July 28th, a Saturday, the Cubs have been no further back than a game and a half, and no further ahead than two and a half games in this division. That's seven consecutive weeks of stomach-churning tension that have followed the eight weeks of inspired play that lifted them into this race in the first place.

The Cubs made their run after going through some high drama and intense media scrutiny of their own at the beginning of June. Carlos Zambrano's dugout scuffle with Michael Barrett, Lou Piniella's dirt-kicking tirade, and Barrett's trade to San Diego portrayed a team coming apart at the seams. However, this turned into a watershed moment for the team, which went on to win 35 of 53 games to catch the eminently catchable Milwaukee team.

Since the highwater mark of their season on August 1st, though, the Cubs have played 18-22 ball. Fortunately for them, the Brewers have a 17-22 record over that same span.

For every series that's gone well for the Cubs during this span, it has been followed almost immediately by something bad. They've weathered Soriano's injury and return, Aramis Ramirez's gimpy leg, Carlos Zambrano's anomalous late-season struggles and agonizing contract negotiations, and a sudden rash of crappy pitching from Ryan Dempster, one of only two trusted names in the bullpen. They haven't had so much as a three game streak, either winning or losing, in nearly a month.

And so the Cardinals, five games back of Chicago back on August 9th, were barely a blip on the Cubs' radar – even when Rick Ankiel made his major league debut as an outfielder and very nearly caused the New Madrid fault to yawn open under us. It was just one game, a footnote in a futile struggle. And Cubs fans liked it that way.

But our team, which had played listless, largely disinterested baseball for most of the year, suddenly woke up and started beating the hell out of the ball, and our starting pitchers started attacking the strike zone like men possessed. It sounds like I'm pulling your leg, but Anthony Reyes and Kip Wells got wins on consecutive starts that very week, which is about as likely as cashing on "00" on consecutive spins of the roulette wheel.

It was like the team couldn't let the kid down, not after all he had done to get here, and not with the fire still burning in his eyes. And then he responded by taking his game to an unbelievable level during a two-week tear where he became Roy Hobbs incarnate. He elevated the whole team, and brought us over .500 for the first time in months, and to the brink, one game out of the division lead. Suddenly, Ankiel and the Cardinals were front-page news in Chicago, and in Milwaukee.

And then, just as suddenly and even more shockingly, Rick Ankiel and the Cardinals and a little-known pharmacy in Florida were front-page news everywhere. And it's a wonder once again that the New Madrid fault didn't rattle open from the sound of our jaws simultaneously hitting the floor.

One excruciating week later, and the NL Central drama has one less actor. The Cubs are right where they were in the glaring spotlight, holding a tenuous half-game lead in the race. But the Cardinals meanwhile have fallen off the stage and crashed into the orchestra pit.

A good offense is our only defense

No matter how unfair the hue and cry over Ankiel has been, or how logical the arguments against – HGH was legal in baseball in 2004; he was still a pitcher; he has always had power-hitting ability; he was following a common medical practice for athletes rehabbing after surgery; he had a legal prescription; if he's guilty of something, let baseball suspend him – we have the disadvantage in the war of words. There's simplicity, for one. Even a Cub fan can spell "HGH." But more importantly, Cub fans know weakness. They know it up close and personally. They know that Rick is a patsy, with a reputation for fragility that Humpty Dumpty himself can't match.

And worse yet, they know that the Cardinal nation still loves him. An attack on Rick is far worse than any dig on Pujols or Rolen, Carpenter or Wainwright – firstly, because those guys are honestly pretty boring, so what is there to attack? – but more so because Ankiel's redemption has become the beating heart of this team, and literally the only positive story to latch on to in 2007.

We're a vulnerable lot. We wanted to take credit for cheering him on, for filling his spirits on that opening day as a major-league slugger when he was 0- for-3 with two strikeouts, stepping to the plate late with his team knotted in a tense 2-0 game. We wanted to reward Tony for sending him out, for challenging him with this opportunity. We wanted to own that home run that he hit, claim it for our own, say that our love and support helped put that ball over the wall. It was ours as much as it was his, our reward for holding out hope for the impossible.

And it wasn't just us in the stands. You could see it across the dugout, especially in La Russa's face. I'll bet there aren't too many regular season home runs, much less in a game his team was already winning, or with his team still six games under .500, that saw Tony jumping up and down like a kid on the last day of school. But he did that night. His sunglasses and his stony, stoic façade were shed as he cheered with us for the kid.

Now, as all parents know, with the love and the good times comes the hurt and the bad times. Now we have to stand up and take a few bullets for him. We'll have to outshout the badgering blueshirts during his at bats, and try to give a little of that hometown love that he's been missing.

But more than anything we can do, our team is going to have to put up. Because that's the only way to get Cub fans to shut up.

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