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Cubs faithful convey passion

Cubs faithful convey passion

CHICAGO -- The Bleacher Bums. The Rooftop Owners. The Shawon-O-Meter. The Bleacher Preacher. Wait 'til Next Year. It's Gonna Happen. The West Side Rooters. The Ballhawks. The Lovable Losers. Ronnie Woo Woo. Billy Sianis. Bartman.

They have many faces, names, nicknames and catch phrases. They share one goal -- a World Series championship to end 100 years of suffering. They are Cubs fans, perhaps the most unique population in all of sports.

Truth be told, it may be impossible to convey their passion in words on a computer screen, but we'll let a famous one try.

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"The Cubs have the best fans in baseball," said Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers, the self-proclaimed No. 1 Cubs fan in the universe. "Every kid who wants to be a big league ballplayer would like to play for the Cubs because the Cubs have got a good following."

Don't just take his word for it.

"When you hear that crowd, it moves you to another level, that's what it's like," said legendary Cubs third baseman and fan favorite Ron Santo, who played for the Cubs from 1960-73 and has been one of the team's broadcasters since 1990. "I don't care what you say, these fans are like having a 26th man on your ball club. It's fantastic."

The Bleacher Bums, the nickname formed by a small group in 1966, are the loudest and the proudest. They inspired a self-titled play in 1977. At $5 per ticket, it used to be that mainly the working class of Chicago called the outfield benches home. Not anymore, but that hasn't dulled the regulars.

"The fans are loud and crazy, it's a different environment," said Jason Starke, 33, who gets out to the bleachers four or five times a season. "You definitely have to experience it once. No other Major League stadium is general admission. Here's your ticket, sit where you want."

The atmosphere is like tailgating for college football in the South. Diehards line up for hours before the gates open, crack open beverages and talk away the wait. During the game, R-rated chants are not uncommon.

The ballhawks look up to the Bleacher Bums. They stand on Waveland and Sheffield Avenues during batting practice and games -- gloves in hand -- ready at a moment's notice to turn potential energy into kinetic energy.

"A ball hit out of Wrigley Field, the best stadium in baseball, you catch it and you have the respect of all the fans out here," said Israel Pinto, 18, who said he has caught 37 balls in three years. "Even if they try to fight you for it, and you get it, they will respect you. It's just so addicting."

Few other parks are designed to allow non-paying fans the opportunity to grab a game ball, namely San Francisco's AT&T Park and Fenway Park in Boston.

At Wrigley, a spotter stands at the back edge of the bleachers and uses hand signals to tell the ballhawks whether a righty or a lefty is at the plate and which team is up. If a ball is headed out of the park, the spotter is the first to know and runs toward the ball. The ballhawks follow his lead.

About 10 regular ballhawks epitomize the struggle of Cubs fans. They can spend six hours in the summer sun, waiting for one opportunity for fame that may slip through their grasps.

"Patience," Pinto said, describing his passion. "It was a little frustrating in the beginning because I'd come so close to getting a ball. I'd always miss out, and then I finally got one. It's thrilling when you get your first ball. Once you get one, that's it, you're hooked from that point on. You don't want to stop coming."

Beyond the bleachers and behind the ballhawks, the rooftop fans are perched. More than a dozen buildings offer bird's-eye views of Wrigley with their trademark makeshift grandstands. The rooftoppers are a laid-back bunch, but that's not to take anything away from their passion.

They were popular enough to entice Cincinnati pitcher Tom Browning to join them for an inning of a Reds-Cubs game in 1993. He wanted to one-up Pirates pitcher Bob Walk, who had previously snuck into the scoreboard during a game.

Browning called the experience one of his career highlights -- he also threw a perfect game. Once Browning made it to the top, he was offered a beer and a bratwurst. He politely declined. The Reds caught his act on television [he waved his hat to cameras in full uniform] and fined him, but the fans Browning met left a priceless impression.

"I sat there, talked to those people for a while. They certainly love their Cubs," said Browning, now the pitching coach for the Reds' rookie-league team in Billings, Mont. "They've been waiting a long time to get to the World Series. Very diehard, true fans. I used to go into Murphy's [Bleachers, a sports bar on Sheffield Avenue] and hang out there after games and sit with Cubs fans. Cubs fans are very loyal. They're genuine fans. They're true fans. They're certainly appreciative of good baseball."

Just to prove that Cubs supporters aren't stale, two fan clubs were born in 2008, the West Side Rooters Social Club and the Lovable Losers Literary Revue.

The Rooters were actually reborn from 1908. The Rooters were the first official fan club of the Cubs, disbanded by unpopular owner Charles Murphy. Grant DePorter, in his latest effort to break the curse, rekindled the club. He saw the Red Sox reinvent their fan club and win two World Series and is hoping that luck strikes twice.

DePorter is the president, Ernie Banks is the chairman, Dutchie Caray (widow of Harry Caray) is the treasurer, Ryne Sandberg is the secretary and Ronnie Woo Woo is the sergeant at arms. Now that's a Hall of Fame roster.

The 5,000-member club is attempting to recreate 1908 by aiding an effort to commemorate the site of the old West Side Grounds, the Cubs' home park that year. They will host a 1908-themed party on Aug. 8, and may plan something for Sept. 23, the 100-year anniversary of the infamous "Merkle's Boner" game that helped the Cubs win the pennant over the Giants.

Anything that can help bring another World Series trophy home.

"The magnitude of this is unparalleled in any sport," DePorter said. "No team has had to wait 100 years for a championship."

The Lovable Losers Literary Revue is an artistic forum for Cubs supporters. Fans meet once a month in the back room of El Jardin Restaurant on Clark Street to regret and rejoice. They sing Cubs songs, read stories or memoirs, tell jokes and perform skits and poetry. It begins with a good-luck toast and ends with a prayer of hope.

"I think we kind of treat it both as a celebration and a mourning," said Donald Evans, the Chicago author/Cubs fan who formed the group. "Here we are 100 years into not winning. But on the other hand we're in the middle of a season where I think all of us think it's possible."

The hope is sprinkled across the nation, thanks in part to the club's 60-year relationship with WGN-TV. At home, they continue to sprout as well. Wrigley reached two million fans in 50 games this year -- the quickest ever to that mark.

Something has kept them coming, despite the inevitable heartbreaks.

"The fans have not changed [since I played], there's just more of them," Santo said. "They love the Cubs. There's something about the Cubs. Let's face it, it's like they believe in next year. I'm a Cub fan, and I believe in next year."

Nick Zaccardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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