- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

As Mark Prior is now painfully aware, stemming the tide of history takes a lot more than talent. Roger Clemens, superhuman as he was in 1986, couldn’t rid the Red Sox of the Curse of the Bambino. He left Game6 of the World Series that year with a 3-2 lead; only six more outs, and the Sox would have been champs for the first time since Kaiser Wilhelm. But then the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs and … you know the rest.

Tuesday night it fell to Prior, the Windy City’s new wonder boy, to end 58 years of Cubs pain and suffering. The Chicago Tribune, daring to anticipate, ran a half-page picture of him that day, accompanied by the headline, “Streak stopper.” And like Clemens in ‘86, Prior got through the seventh inning in fine shape; only six more outs, and the Cubbies would have been in the Series for the first time since the Truman administration. But then Luis Castillo sliced a foul ball down the third base line, a fan’s long arm prevented Moises Alou from catching it and … you know the rest.

And so fate has claimed another dogged victim. Clemens, you may have noticed, won his 300th game this season, just last week, outdueled Pedro Martinez in the playoffs at the age of 41 and will try to do it again tonight in Game 7. But his powers of pitching, even in the Cy Young/MVP year of ‘86, weren’t enough to alter the Red Sox’s destiny.

Prior seemed just as primed the other night to change the Cubs’ fortunes once and for all. Since the All-Star break, he’d been nigh invincible 12-1, with a teeny-weeny ERA. And only a few days earlier, he’d beaten the Marlins in Game2 of the NLCS. He was the right pitcher in the right place at the right time, or so it appeared.

But then the Cubbies were foiled by one of their own. A guy wearing a Cubs hat named Steve Bartman came between Alou and the ball, and Wrigley Field once again was the Village of the Damned. Castillo wound up walking on a wild pitch, a sure sign that things were getting out of control — and that was followed by a single, an error, a double, a new pitcher, an intentional walk, a sacrifice fly, another intentional walk, a double off the wall, another new pitcher and a single. When the blood stopped flowing, the Marlins had eight runs and an improbable 8-3 victory. Improbable, that is, if they hadn’t been playing the Cubs.

It makes you wonder: Who did the Cubs trade after the ‘45 World Series to cause them to be so cursed? Ed Heuser (a pitcher who went to the Dodgers for outfielder Augie Galan)? Nah, couldn’t be him. Maybe it was one of the players they dealt after winning their last Series in 1908. Doc Marshall? George Browne? Vin Campbell? Fred Liese? Doc Miller? Hardly a Sultan of Swat in that group.

Actually, in one respect, the Cubs are lucky. If that fan hadn’t made like a defensive back on Castillo’s fly ball, all postgame fingers would have been pointed in the direction of shortstop Alex Gonzalez — the poor soul who booted Miguel Cabrera’s easy grounder and really put the match to the fuse. Gonzalez, a .243 career hitter who lives by the glove, was even the recipient of a waist-high charity hop. But somehow he failed to make a play most high school shortstops could execute blindfolded.

This was Snodgrass’ Muff revisited. This was Johnny Pesky holding the ball in left field and watching Enos Slaughter score the winning run in the ‘46 Series. Or rather, it would be — if Chicagoans didn’t have the Fan in the Cubs Hat to blame for everything.

Only in baseball. Seven years ago, you had 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier taking the ball out of the glove of Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco — and affecting the course of the ALCS. Just last week, you had another Yankees fan try to grab a high drive near the foul pole — and nearly affect the course of the ALCS. (Fortunately, the umpiring crew reversed itself and ruled that Boston’s Todd Walker had, indeed, hit a homer, not a foul ball.)

When you stop and think about it, it’s surprising it was a player who threw Don Zimmer to the ground during that scrum at Fenway Park over the weekend and not some tattooed spectator and his son.

But back to Prior and the Cubs. As Game6 progressed, and Chicago built a 3-0 lead, I actually had visions of the ‘69 Mets dancing in my head — with young aces Prior and Kerry Wood playing the parts of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Silly me. The Mets were never jinxed the way the Cubs are. They were just incredible stumblebums for a few seasons.

And last night Wood was sent out to slay the dragon …

Not that it means anything, but I’m pretty sure Bill Buckner played for the Cubs, too.

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