Baseball can rest easy. Its ancient order remains intact. The Cubs are still the Cubs.
The Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field will, again next year, be the home of loveable failures.
The ivied park that illustrates a parable -- that you don't have to go to the World Series every year, or even every lifetime, to be cherished -- is safe. Thanks to the San Diego Padres, an American institution's been preserved.
After their 6-3 victory today in the fifth game of the National League playoffs, the Padres can go to the World Series now. The Cubs will just have to go home, and that could feel like hell.
Baseball's oldest tradition of failure continued today just as its newest tradition of victory was born.
The Cubs, who haven't won a pennant since 1945 or a World Series since 1908, blew it. In true Cubs style. With bad luck and bad plays, bad hops and bad nerves.
The Cubs became the first National League team ever to build a 2-0 lead in games in the championship series then lose three in a row.
They not only trashed three games, they blew a 3-0 late-inning lead today. Squandered it with baseball's best pitcher this season -- Rick Sutcliffe, Mr. 16-1 -- on the mound.
Chucked it away as the tying run scored when a grounder squirted between the legs of kneeling Leon Durham.
(Did someone mention Mickey Owen's dropped third strike in the 1941 World Series?)
The Cubs let it escape as a smash by Tony Gwynn, a potential inning-ending double play ball, leaped at the face, then over the Gold Glove of second baseman Ryne Sandberg for a game-winning two-run double.
(Did somebody just say, "Remember Bill Virdon's grounder that hit Tony Kubek in the throat in the seventh inning of the seventh Series game in 1960?")
"Tough, huh?" said Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray.
"We had them by the throat and let them get away," said Cubs General Manager Dallas Green. "I've always believed in emotion, the juice of the crowd, pride, team character. Those things overcome ability in short pressure series. And they overcame us here. This hurts bad."
But the Padres also took this pennant, snatched the thing as though it were their divine right to play the Detroit Tigers here in Tuesday twilight in Game 1 of the World Series.
"No one play decided it," said Padres leader Steve Garvey, who won the playoff MVP award. "Our tenacity won it."
The Padres took the first pennant in their 16-year history because the bullpen of Andy Hawkins, Dave Dravecky, Craig Lefferts (winner) and Goose Gossage (save) shut out the Cubs for the final 7 2/3 innings on two singles.
Yup, blanked 'em after starter Eric Show was routed early by long homers from Durham and Jody Davis.
The Padres snatched this prize from the Cubs' worried hands by battling for two tough runs off Sutcliffe in the sixth. Until that moment, Sutcliffe had held San Diego to one run in 29 1/3 innings this season. Graig Nettles and Terry Kennedy bashed long sacrifice flies to cut his lead to 3-2 and get the record crowd of 58,359 totally involved in the pandemonic proceedings.
In the end, the Padres wrestled this title from the Cubs with a four-run seventh inning that felt more like a battle of wills than a game.
"The added pressure of all that Cub history might have affected them late in the game," said Gossage. "That stuff can make you or break you and today it broke them. "I'm sure Cub fans won't forget this for years.
"We didn't have that (extra pressure). For us, it was just sweet natural fun. Sweet, I tell ya. We're like a Little League team. The only thing you don't hear out there is, 'Hey, swing batta-batta.'
"It's a crazy damn game," said the Goose, shaking his balding head, "and that's an understatement."
Crazy and cruel from the Cubs' view. That four-run seventh must seem like the ultimate Cubs inning -- a disaster that combined malfeasance and misfortune.
First came a leadoff walk to Carmelo Martinez on four pitches. "That was the key to the game," said Sutcliffe. "It set the stage."
After a sacrifice, pinch hitter Tim Flannery, the only Padre to survive the four-year housecleaning of General Manager Jack McKeon, cracked a routine five-hop daisy-cutter at Durham.
What happened in the next instant will send shivers down the backs of hundreds of big leaguers when they see it. There but for the grace of God . . .
Durham did everything but lie down in the ball's path. "Every grounder bounces," explained Garvey. "You never keep your glove all the way down. Well, that ball never came up one inch."
There was just room between Durham's big leg, his big knee and his big glove for a baseball to pass. And that's where it went.
The crowd gasped in disbelief, then exploded in cheers as the white streak skittered into right field and Martinez dashed home. The Cubs' lead was gone. And so was their heart.
It took a ton to break the Cub spirit, but that did it.
"I have nothing to be ashamed of," said Durham, who had 420-foot, two-run homers in each of the last two games. "That was my first error with the glove all year . . . I'm not going to think about it, but it'll stay on my mind."
What followed seemed as inexorable as it was fluky. Alan Wiggins, who'd beaten out a bunt toward Durham to open the sixth-inning rally, poked a meek two-strike, bloop single to left.
Up stepped Gwynn, who hit .368 with eight runs produced in this series. Cubs Manager Jim Frey had the decision of a lifetime. Should he let his certain Cy Young winner face the batting champion? Or should he wave for his only lefty, Steve (Rainbow) Trout, who won Game 2 as a starter, and play percentages?
Frey managed from the heart, not the book. He knew who'd brought him to the dance so that's who he danced with.
"This guy has pitched out of more jams than anybody in the National League," said Frey. "They weren't exactly killin' the ball against him now were they?" Sutcliffe, a well-rested workhorse, had thrown only 73 pitches.
Gwynn hit a bullet, but a lucky one, too. "He ripped it, but if it takes a normal hop, we got a double play by 30 feet," said Frey, adding disgustedly, "One stays down, the other jumps up."
Up at Sandberg's face. "I was expecting it to stay low," said the probable MVP. "I just gave it a wild swipe. It almost hit me in the head."
The ball found the perfect spot in right-center, the alley everybody gives Gwynn, where Wiggins and Gwynn could do their track star worst. Wiggins slid home and the savvy Gwynn, who'd also singled and scored in the previous inning, took third on the throw.
That forced the Cubs' infield in and, as purely unnecessary window dressing, Garvey smoked an RBI single past Sutcliffe's feet, the ball sending up a puff of mound dirt like the sheriff in a Western movie shooting his pistol at a bad guy's feet to make him dance.
"I didn't think I had the proper words for this time. It would have been kind of hollow and artificial to go in there and make a speech," said Frey afterward. "I just went around and talked to guys. Everybody has their own thoughts at a time like this."
The more the Cubs gather their thoughts, the harder it's going to be for them to believe this. It's not just that they won the first two games, 17-2, or that they held leads in all the games here (1-0, 3-2 and 3-0).
It's not just that they battered the Padres' right wing ace Eric Show for a playoff record five homers in 5 1/3 innings in two starts. It's not just that the Cubs set playoff records for most homers (nine), most doubles (11) and more extra-base hits (20). The Padres had two homers and four doubles.
It's not just that the top three hitters in the Cubs' lineup -- Dernier, Sandberg and Matthews -- reached base 28 times. It's not just that Davis tied Garvey for a playoff record seven RBI in a five-game series.
It's that the Cubs never really believed that they would lose, never really doubted that they were the better team. Not until the seventh inning of the last game.
"If you can't win one out of three, with the talent we have, you can't make any excuses," said veteran Dave Lopes. "Man for man, I honestly think we're the better team, but in a short series, that doesn't always win for you. They came back from tremendous adversity. I tip my cap to them. But . . . "
But the Cubs never thought they'd see Gossage march to mound with a three-run lead and just two innings to play. No human being ever looked more like an executioner.
It was hope the Goose was killing. Hopes that have curdled since 1908.
Now, those hopes can sleep for another winter while the tailgaters in the Jack Murphy Stadium parking lot toss Frisbees and sing "Cub Busters."
Perhaps only a Cub fan could keep proper perspective on all this.
Somehow the Cubs managed to win something -- the Eastern Division -- for the first time in 39 years, yet remain true to themselves.