Let the celebration begin

Let the celebration begin

CINCINNATI -- Party on, Cubs fans.

Spray champagne, smoke a cigar, hug your best friend and get a T-shirt that says "National League Central Division Champions." Don't think about goats or curses. Celebrate.

"We like parties," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said, drenched after a champagne shower from his players on Friday night. "Hopefully, we can have a few more."

The Cubs opened 30 cases of bubbly to celebrate clinching the National League Central Division, and they are headed for the postseason for the first time since 2003. It just seems longer than that.

Chicago beat Cincinnati, 6-0, to reduce its magic number to one, and then the players stayed in the clubhouse to watch the San Diego Padres beat the Milwaukee Brewers, 6-3. Then the fun began in the visitors' clubhouse at Great American Ball Park.

"I'm not going to lie, we were playing 'Hell's Bells' in here when [Trevor] Hoffman came in," Cubs closer Ryan Dempster said of the San Diego closer's theme song. "This is a big game for us and the Chicago Cubs. It's not over. We've got 11 more wins to go. We'll start with one in the first game of the playoffs and go from there. It's sweet, this is awesome. We want to win the World Series."

It's been an uphill climb for the Cubs this season, coming off a 96-loss season in 2006. The front office spent $300 million in the offseason, signing players like Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly and Mark DeRosa, but the club began with a 10-14 April and fell as far back as 8 1/2 games behind the Brewers.

Now, they're in first place, and the division is theirs.

"These kids deserve it," Piniella said. "They really let loose, and I mean let loose. They've had a lot of emotion and it's been a rough summer for us. It hasn't been easy. These kids endured and they got the job done. They're letting it loose and having fun, and a few of them mentioned to me, 'Let's have a couple more of these before we're through.'"

Ron Santo was sitting on the side of the drenched clubhouse and was left temporarily speechless. The Cubs broadcaster and longtime third baseman has never played in the postseason, and missed the 2003 postseason because of illness.

"I'm lost for words," Santo said. "After last year, and it was very disappointing, and then the high expectations this year, and the way we started -- what makes it great is that when we had to do it every time, we did it. That shows me a winner. The postseason is like a brand new year. I'm so excited.

"Lou, in my opinion, has been the difference this whole year," Santo said. "Everybody knows it."

Piniella arrived with one goal: To win. He's tinkered with the lineup, played rookies, dealt with dugout scuffles and the preseason hype.

Last October, then interim and now current team president John McDonough said the goal was to win the World Series. The Cubs took that first step on Friday.

"I said, 'It's time for us to win and reward these great fans in Chicago,'" McDonough said. "I think we're going in the right direction. I'm just thrilled for the great Chicago Cub fans."

He probably won't be sending his gray suit to the dry cleaners any time soon. The smell of champagne is sweet.

"It's been a long time coming," Dempster said. "We're playing good baseball and we just have to keep doing our thing. We've had a lot of big moments. We don't have an MVP candidate on this team -- we've got 25 of them; we've got 30 of them now.

"We've had walk-off home runs, we've had guys come in during big situations and get out of jams," Dempster said. "We've had everything -- everybody has contributed in different ways in every different game, and that's why we pulled so hard for each other in here and this is a lot of fun."

It's especially memorable for players like Kerry Wood, who is the only one on the roster to have been with the team in both 1998 when it won the NL Wild Card and in 2003. Then, he was a starter. Wood's career was in jeopardy because of his shoulder. All those days of rehab paid off.

"I was pleased to come back and pitch again, but to be able and be a factor and be in games that mean something, that's what it's all about," Wood said. "We got there, and we've got work to do, and we're going to have fun tonight. This is why I did the work; this is why I'm here, this right here."

The visitors' clubhouse was rocking, and it was hard not to get sprayed by the champagne as players splashed each other. No one was immune, from the medical staff to the bullpen catchers to the scouting department secretary.

The Cubs haven't gotten to the World Series since 1945, and haven't won since 1908. What would it mean to play baseball deep into October?

"It would be wonderful for our organization and the city and Cub fans," Piniella said. "That's what we're going to try to give them. We'll do the best we possibly can do in the postseason. We would love more than anything else ... You know what? There's no sense even mentioning it. That's our goal and objective."

Cubs fans know what he's talking about.

"We played pretty good baseball for a long period of time," Piniella said. "We dug ourselves a hole early. Very few teams can do what the Yankees did [and come back from a large deficit]. We had to bide our time, win some games. We had our periods of good times and we had some periods like in Miami when we didn't play all that well [and were swept]. It's to be expected. I've been to a few of these and I've never seen as much emotion as I've seen tonight."

Losing three to the last-place Marlins didn't detour the Cubs. They can celebrate.

"You go out there and you leave it on the field and play as hard as you can, but this has nothing to do with me personally -- this is the Chicago Cubs and the franchise and the organization, and everybody can take part in this," shortstop Ryan Theriot said.

"It's a grind, and it's a long season -- but all this stuff makes it worthwhile," Theriot said. "The last few weeks have been a grind, but this is why we do it, this moment right now. It's all worth it. We're not done yet."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.