- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

CHICAGO — Count Jack McKeon among all those people who counted out the Chicago Cubs when it came to the postseason.

Then again, the Florida manager hardly expected his team to make it, either.

No matter. Barry Bonds is gone and so is Chipper Jones. Albert Pujols, Jim Thome and Jeff Bagwell never even got a chance to play.

October is here, and so are the Marlins and Cubs in the NL Championship Series starting tonight at Wrigley Field.

“I think it’s good for baseball. I think it’s good for the country,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker said yesterday.

“The Marlins, I don’t think they were picked over there and I know we were picked third or fourth over here,” he said.

But back to McKeon.

A few days after the All-Star break, when the Marlins and Cubs were both struggling along, Kerry Wood pitched a two-hitter and beat Florida 1-0 at Pro Player Stadium.

“That’s the reason he’s an All-Star,” McKeon said at the time. “Thank God we don’t have to see him anymore.”

The 72-year-old manager was then asked about the possibility — albeit a remote one at the time — that Florida might meet Sammy Sosa and the Cubs in the postseason.

“I don’t think the Cubs will be in the playoffs,” he said, brushing aside the notion.

So Trader Jack, any second thoughts on it now?

“I don’t remember saying it,” McKeon said. “If I did, it was a mistake.”

Too late for the Cubs’ taste.

“Oh yeah. That’s well-documented here,” Cubs batting coach Gary Matthews said during an afternoon workout. “Surprise, surprise.”

Truth is, few really expected the sign outside Wrigley to be lit up with “Cubs Win!” at this time of year.

In fact, the Cubs were below .500 until Wood’s gem at Florida on July 19. The Marlins, meanwhile, stumbled to a 19-29 start that put them far back of the pack.

“We thought in spring training we had a chance to be here,” pitcher Josh Beckett said. “Our team is not surprised by how we’ve done.

“We underachieved the first few months, that’s how we became a surprise team,” he said.

Beckett will start the opener against the excitable Carlos Zambrano. Beckett is aware the Cubs have tremendous national appeal, with baseball romantics across the country watching to see whether the team can win its first World Series championship since 1908.

The wild-card Marlins started playing in the majors in 1993 and already have won one title. Still, Beckett thinks his club makes for an equally feel-good story.

“Well, we changed managers in the middle of the year. We’ve overcome some injuries and stuff like that,” he said.

Plus, the Marlins shocked most everyone by bouncing Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in the first round.

Not quite what McKeon might have expected in late May when he took over after Jeff Torborg was fired. Back then, he would’ve brushed off such predictions.

“I would have probably told them they are crazy,” he said. “You figured a lot of us wouldn’t be here. I think a lot of clubs didn’t think the Cubs would be here, a lot of people didn’t think we would be here.

“Maybe we didn’t think we would be here, who knows? Things happen. Things turn around. You get lucky.”

The Cubs surged to win the NL Central, then used the dominant pitching of Wood and Mark Prior to beat Atlanta in the first round.

Chicago did it without a lot of production from Sosa, who hit only .188 and drove in one run. During the season, Sosa hit .320 with three homers in six games against Florida.

“I’m going to stay with my same plan,” he said. “I don’t want to go crazy, trying to hit home runs. It’s not about home runs, it’s about winning.”

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