Hey, Chicago, whadd’ya say?

Dave Veres, Dusty? Dave F. Veres?!

Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine that a manager is really serious about winning when he makes such boneheaded moves. Runners on second and third in the seventh inning, still only down two runs, and Baker goes to about his fifth-best reliever. Remlinger was available. Borowski was available. Hell, even Zambrano and Clement should have been available.

This is even assuming we give Baker the benefit of the doubt that it was the right thing to bring Wood back out in the sixth after having already given up six runs. Most intelligent Cubs fans won’t give him that much. It’s certainly hard to fathom how he left Prior out to dry in the eighth inning of game six after Ivan Rodriguez whacked a curve ball that had more hang time than Michael Jordan at his peak.

Game seven of tonight’s Red Sox-Yankees game echoed the Cubs-Marlins game six eerily. The BoSox were up by three runs with their best pitcher in the mound, five outs away from going to the Series. And the Yankees started sending screaming liners all over the place. Grady Little even comes out to the mound after the Williams RBI single.

He’s got a great lefty in the bullpen in Embree, with three lefties in a row coming up. But Little stays with Martinez even though the Yanks were obviously figuring him out. He proceeds to give up the lead before Embree and Timlin come in and keep the game tied. Little absolutely blew this game for the Red Sox, no question about it.

I don’t think you could go so far with Baker. The Marlins did what they weren’t supposed to do — they beat Prior and Wood. Prior gave up five runs (only three earned) and Wood gave up seven. The Cubs didn’t get as far as they did with those kind of performances, or by winning those games. In that sense, while Baker made some important strategic errors, he was more obviously done in by his team’s failure to execute the way they had all season long. Alex Gonzalez’s error was emblematic of that failure. That said, Baker’s abuse of Wood, Prior and Zambrano throughout the course of the regular season (and especially of Prior in the game two laugher) may have been a factor in how they performed in the NLCS.

Anyhow, the magic number for a Cubs-Red Sox World Series was down to two. And it stays there. Who the hell am I supposed to root for now? It’ll have to be the Marlins. If they could come back from 3-1 to take the pennant from the Cubs, they better damn well beat the Evil Empire.

While I’m really disappointed, there is much cause for hope, at least for the Cubs. They have an extremely promising nucleus of young talent (Wood, Prior, Zambrano, Patterson, Ramirez and Choi) along with some older players who will be in the mix for a while yet (Sosa, Alou, Clement), a healthy farm system and a lot of dough to spend in the offseason (thanks to greater ticket revenues and the contract expirations of Alfonseca, Veres, Estes, Grudzielanek and Karros).

With Hendry as GM and Baker to lure in the talented players, the Cubs should put a much better ballclub on the field next year. It’s too early to say how good of a ballclub, and it would be silly to expect that next year’s team will achieve more than this year’s did. The 2003 Cubs were aided greatly by subpar years from the Cardinals and Astros, and they got hot at just the right time. Prior and Wood led the way by going on the equivalent of a 30-game hit streak at the same time down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Next year’s Cubs may even fare worse, if certain things don’t go their way. New free agent hires may not perform up to expectations. Prior, Wood and Zambrano may not pitch as well, or worse yet get hurt. If Grudzielanek re-signs with the Cubs, he very well could revert to his traditional form, as compared to his way above average year in 2003. As always with the game of baseball, it’s a crapshoot. Which is why, in spite of my optimism, it still hurts to see this chance at the pennant slip away.

In spite of all that, I’ve got high hopes for 2004. I do not believe it will be like 1985, 1990 or 1999, when the Cubs followed up postseason appearances with below .500 seasons. The Cubs may not make the playoffs, but they should be in the hunt for a long while.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast, especially in the hearts of Cubs fans. But next spring, that hope will be driven as much by the head as by the heart.

So just wait. Yeah, just wait.

Until next year.