Baseball: Victories keep dream alive for Red Sox and Cubs

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The Independent Online

In the great baseball cities of Boston and Chicago, October has never looked better. Against the odds, the Red Sox and the Cubs have made it to their respective league pennant series, thus keeping alive the prospect of the World Series of which neutral romantics dream.

Not since 1908 have the Cubs won a Championship ("anyone can have a bad century," a philosophical Cubs manager once remarked). For the Red Sox the drought extends back to 1918, the year before the team sold Babe Ruth to their nemesis, the New York Yankees.

But on Monday night Boston earned their place in the American League championship series final by winning their divisional play-offs against the Oakland Athletics. The Red Sox, of course, did it the hard way, coming back from a 2-0 series deficit to win the deciding fifth game 4-3.

By contrast, in the National League divisional play-offs, the Chicago Cubs defeated the heavily favoured Atlanta Braves with quite unaccustomed aplomb, travelling to Georgia to win the decider - which was oddly lacking in suspense - 5-1, to win a series they never trailed.

On paper, the Cubs, who started the best-of-seven NL pennant series against the Florida Marlins last night at Wrigley Field, face the easier task. The starless Marlins play tough and gritty baseball, as they showed in their first-round win over the San Francisco Giants, Barry Bonds and all.

But you have to fancy Chicago. Amazingly, their new manager, Dusty Baker, has managed to banish the old fatalism and defeatism. In Kerry Woods and Mark Prior, moreover, the Cubs have arguably the best pair of starting pitchers in the big leagues. Just as the Randy Johnson and Kurt Schilling tandem led the Arizona Diamondbacks to an unexpected World Championship in 2001, Woods and Prior can do the same for Chicago now. And the Cubs have something the Diamondbacks did not: the slugger Sammy Sosa, the only man in history who has hit over 60 homers in three seasons.

None the less, Cubs fans now paying touts $1,000 (£600) a ticket for seats should study recent history. In 1997, the Marlins won their first and only World Series. That year, as this, they were wild cards; then, as now, their first play-off victims were the Giants.

The mountain facing the Red Sox is steeper still. To win the American League pennant and a place in the World Series, they must see off the highly unpopular Yankees, complete with a $185m (£110m) payroll and 26 World Championships since the Red Sox last won 85 years ago. The Yankees looked ominously good as they cruised past Minnesota in the AL divisional series.

A Boston win in the best-of-seven match-up which begins in the Bronx tonight will require better hitting than the vaunted Red Sox line-up managed against Oakland, and pitchers who take some of the weight off the peerless Pedro Martinez.

Still, there is nothing wrong with dreaming. "Wait until next year," is the usual refrain of the Cubs and Red Sox faithful as they contemplate the wreckage of another failed season. Maybe, just maybe, this is next year.

AMERICAN LEAGUE Play-offs: Boston Red Sox 4 Oakland Athletics 3 (Boston win best-of-five series 3-2).