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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 October, 2003, 10:12 GMT 11:12 UK
Cubs fall at final hurdle
By Kevin Asseo & Mark Barden

The mood among baseball fans on Chicago's North Side will be pretty bleak following the Cubs' failure to reach the World Series.

A Cubs fan seeks divine intervention as his team fall to the Marlins in Game Seven
Cubs fans are in despair but have reasons to be cheerful
At 3-1 up, they had looked in firm control of their National League Championship Series against Florida.

But the Marlins reeled them in, even winning the final two games at Chicago's Wrigley Field to clinch their place in the Fall Classic.

Florida, a modern-era 'franchise' team with little history behind them, won their first and only World Series to date in 1997.

The Cubs, one of baseball's oldest and most storied teams, have been to the Series no less than 10 times and won it twice.

Unfortunately their last appearance was in 1945, their last victory 1908.

Hence, the sign carried by a supporter at Wrigley Field during the post-season which said: "Want to borrow my ice skates, Satan?"

Yes, hell was seemingly about to freeze over as the Cubs and their fans finally dared contemplate competing in the Series again.

It wasn't to be, but their long-suffering followers can take a lot of heart from the team's achievements this year.

Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker
Baker has turned the Cubs into winners again
A sense of restrained optimism was in the air at the start of the season following the appointment of the popular, high-profile Dusty Baker as manager.

He had taken San Francisco to the Series last year, seen Anaheim spoil the Giants' party, then parted ways with the club.

So he had a pedigree, but even Baker himself seemed resigned to suffering in Chicago, at least for a while.

"I'm not a miracle man. I don't know if it will take two or three years or whatever, but we're dedicated to winning," he said.

Not a miracle man?

Despite the loss to Florida, Baker can still reflect on a job well done after turning the Cubs from 95-game losers into pennant winners in a single season.

He made all the right moves in 2003, manoeuvring his team through controversy and distraction - including Sammy Sosa's mid-season corked bat scandal.

He also got the most out of his talented young pitching staff and attracted high-calibre players to the long-time non-contenders.

Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez, Damian Miller and Tom Goodwin - all recruited by Baker - played key roles in the Cubs' revival.

Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood overcame serious injury problems early in his career
Wood's power pitching helped fuel the Cub's revival
But there are far more reasons for their success this year than the man in the dugout.

The two most important cogs in the Cub machine are sensational starting pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

It is easy to forget that Prior, a favourite to win the National League Cy Young Award, is in just his second Major League season.

The 23-year-old right-hander has posted numbers far beyond his years in 2003, such as 245 strikeouts, an 18-6 record, and a 2.43 earned runs average.

Wood led the league in strikeouts this season (266) and has continued to intimidate opposing hitters in the post-season.

And then there is the main man in the middle of the line-up, Sammy Sosa, the team captain and emotional leader.

Sosa emerged from a poor first half of the season and the corked bat scandal to have a superb second half and, for the first time in his career, enjoyed play-off success.

Baker's next trick will be trying for a repeat next season as he attempts to ensure the Cubs' return to winning ways is not just a flash in the pan.

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