Mike Nadel: On Ernie's day, Cubs lose again

Mike Nadel

A statue honoring Ernie Banks, the most Lovable Loser of them all, now graces the entrance of a 94-year-old ballpark that never has housed a champion. What a fitting way for the Cubs to commemorate a century of futility.

Now, I'm not suggesting Mr. Cub caused his club to lose. It isn't the Hall of Famer's fault the Cubs had a .456 winning percentage, never came close to reaching the postseason and finished an average of 24 games back during his 19 years on the North Side.

Nor am I suggesting Banks didn't deserve the honor. Actually, the opposite is true: He personifies everything the Cubs have represented forever: happy times at the old ballyard, eternal hope and lots of losing.

"Ernie and Billy Williams back-to-back ... and then (Ron) Santo behind them," Lou Piniella said Monday, recalling the heart of the team's '60s-era batting order. "How in the hell didn't the Cubs win?"

The second-year Cubs skipper laughed heartily, enjoying a moment of levity at the expense of his chosen franchise.

Lou's lots of fun, but he's a short-timer who plans to retire to Florida in a few years. Clearly, he hasn't felt the pain that goes with Cubbieland residency, and he probably never will.

Piniella and his lads weren't laughing later Monday after newly crowned closer Kerry Wood and bullpen buddy Bob Howry wasted Kosuke Fukudome's otherworldly big-league debut in a 4-3 season-opening loss to the Milwaukee Brewers -- a defeat that resembled so many other disappointments over the decades.

"We're trying to get a win, and I didn't do my job," said Wood, who entered a scoreless game in the top of the ninth, hit Rickie Weeks with his first pitch and promptly surrendered three runs. "My job is to go in and get guys out ... and I didn't do it."

Neither did Howry. After Fukudome tied it with a three-run homer in the bottom of the inning -- his third hit of the day and a blast that elicited jubilation from both the Japanese press corps and the crowd, which chanted until K-Fu came out for a curtain call -- Howry gave up the winning run in the 10th.

"It's just one game, but it's the opener," Derrek Lee said. "In a game like that, you want to pull out the win."

Of Fukudome, he said: "Not bad, huh? He was our offense and he had our fans going crazy. But I hope we don't start expecting that every day."

Ah, great expectations. Those never are kind to the Cubs. Not wasting time with measly pennant predictions, ESPN's John Kruk became the latest expert to ignore history and pick the Cubs to win the World Series.

"It doesn't make me nervous; it's flattering," Piniella said. "I think it's probably an in-vogue thing to pick the Cubs because of the 100th year."

There you have it. Even before the media broached the subject -- and way before Carlos Zambrano left in the seventh inning with an arm cramp, his malady of choice the last few years -- Piniella brought up the magical, mind-numbing, three-digit number.

"Well, I mentioned 100 years because that's all I hear," Sweet Lou said. "It's something we'll have to live with. Like I told the players, this is this year's team. Don't put that burden on 'em."

Fair enough. After this, I will try my darnedest to avoid bringing up 1908 in my Cubs columns. Honest. But I won't stop Piniella or any other Cub from wondering how any franchise can go an entire century without winning a championship.

"It seems rather improbable," Lou admitted. "A long time."

Rather improbable? Try freakin' impossible! Yet the Cubs somehow keep finding ways to avoid the ultimate reward.

Nevertheless, the fans/enablers/lemmings keep coming back for more. No matter how high ticket prices rise, fans keep throwing money at the team, sellout after sellout, disappointment after disappointment.

Before Monday's game, a few folks outside the ballpark tried to rally fellow fans against temporary Cubs owner Sam Zell's plan to sell Wrigley Field naming rights. Ho-hum. Tens of thousands of people pushed past the protesters, eager to buy $8 beer, chat on cell phones and cheer their heroes.

Due to bad weather, the game started 41 minutes late and was interrupted in the third inning for 49 more minutes. All the better for WGN to entertain viewers at home with Rain Delay Theater: highlights of the team's glorious past, mostly featuring Ernie Banks.

As for the statue, it would have been nice had sculptor Lou Cella contacted a high-school English teacher before engraving Ernie's pet phrase -- "LETS PLAY TWO" -- sans apostrophe.

On second thought, doesn't such imperfection suit the Cubs perfectly?

Mike Nadel ( is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at