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01/31/07 10:00 AM ET

Can the Cubs break the curse?

Spending spree allows North Siders to load up on talent

CHICAGO -- Andy Pafko turns 86 in February, and the silver-haired former outfielder, who played for the last Cubs team to get to the World Series, says he's running out of time.

"I'm a diehard Cubs fan," Pafko said. "I hope they win one before my life is over."

He's not alone. Senior citizens gave new Cubs manager Lou Piniella the same message during a Winter Caravan stop at the Olympia Park Community Center in Chicago. They were tougher on him than anyone else, Piniella said.

The Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years in 2004. The Chicago White Sox raised the trophy in 2005, their first championship in 88 years. Having their crosstown rivals celebrate just rubbed more salt into the Cubs' already tender wounds. The city of Chicago now is giddy over the Bears' return to the Super Bowl, calling the 21-year stretch between championship games a "drought."

Twenty-one years is nothing. The Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908, the same year Henry Ford developed the first Model T automobile, Teddy Roosevelt was president and the Wright Brothers were still fine-tuning their airplane.

The 98-year stretch without a championship is the longest in pro sports, and there are some who think the Cubs should wait one more year -- for historic reasons only.

"I think the Cubs will win in 2008 because that's when the curse of the goat ends -- it'll be 100 years," said 10-year-old Cole Hartley of Princeville, Ill., who attended a Caravan stop in downstate Peoria.

If you don't know about the goat, you're not a Cubs fan. Legend has it that Chicago tavern owner William Sianis was forbidden to take his goat to the fourth game of the 1945 World Series at Wrigley Field, so he put a curse on the team. Sianis had a ticket for the goat, but stadium officials said no, reportedly because the goat smelled. Sianis' son, Sam, was invited back twice in an effort to lift the hex. Obviously, it didn't work.

"I don't believe in curses," Pafko said. "That had nothing to do with it -- a goat didn't come out to play the game. He's part of history and it makes a good story, but there's no truth to that."

Pafko, Len Merullo and Phil Cavarretta are the only living members of that '45 Cubs team, which lost in seven games to the Detroit Tigers despite Cavarretta's .423 effort in the series. The Cubs may not have even reached the championship series that year if some of the best players were playing baseball and not serving their country in the war. The Cardinals, playing without Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter, among others, finished just three games behind the Cubs.

That was then. Now the Cubs have made it very clear about their intentions. The makeover began on Oct. 1, when marketing director John McDonough was named interim team president.

"My goal is singular," McDonough said in a news conference after Andy MacPhail announced his resignation. "The purpose of why I've been asked to do this job is for the Cubs to win the World Series -- not win the Wild Card or win the division or win the pennant. It's time to win. It's time to win the World Series."

A few days later, general manager Jim Hendry, who survived the front-office purge, met with McDonough, and they established their game plan. They didn't want to sign just any free agent. They wanted the best player available, and they were willing to pay the price. On Nov. 20, Alfonso Soriano agreed to an eight-year, $136 million deal, the largest package ever given a Cubs player.

McDonough and Hendry apparently found the secret combination to the Tribune Co. safe.

"I don't look at it as being 'handcuffed,' " Hendry said about years past. "I've never felt that since I was the general manager I wasn't given a respectable amount of money to compete. We certainly have done business a little differently this offseason."

A little? The Cubs have committed more than $300 million to Piniella and 10 players, including two-sport Notre Dame star Jeff Samardzija, who signed a five-year, $10 million contract on Jan. 19. Soriano got it started.

"I don't know where they got [the money], but I was liking it," said first baseman Derrek Lee.

"For the first time in a long, long time, we wanted to get the best player," Hendry said about targeting Soriano. "We wanted to show people that last year is not going to happen again. It was going to be a different way. Once we did that, a lot of good things happened."

The Cubs are coming off the worst record in the National League, a 96-loss season. Hiring Piniella and signing Soriano led to other free agent signings -- and even helped Samardzija make his decision to take a pass on football. Projected as a first-round pick in the NFL draft, Samardzija was a fifth-round pick by the Cubs last June.

Get your calculator ready: Aramis Ramirez inked a five-year, $75 million deal; Ted Lilly signed a four-year, $40 million contract; and Jason Marquis agreed to a three-year, $21 million pact. Mark DeRosa signed for three years, $13 million; Cliff Floyd signed a one-year, $3 million deal; and Daryle Ward agreed to a one-year, $1 million contract. Kerry Wood ($1.75 million), Wade Miller ($1.5 million) and Henry Blanco (two years, $5.25 million) are returning. As of this writing, the Cubs still had to work out terms with Carlos Zambrano, the arbitration-eligible right-hander who was asking for $15.5 million, while the team has countered with $11.025 million.

"You can tell we're going in a different direction by the way they're signing some players," Ramirez said. "That's a lot of money they're giving to Soriano. To bring that kind of player to the organization, you can tell they want to win real bad."

That was the message Piniella got during his interviews for the job.

"I don't get too involved at all in the money aspect of it," the 63-year-old skipper said. "I get involved more on the talent aspect, but, you know, the market is the market. These guys get paid because they're good. Some clubs spend more than others, and I've been places where they don't spend, and now I'm here where they are spending, so I feel good about that."

The Cubs maintain a strong following despite last season's disappointing finish, which resulted in the decision not to renew Dusty Baker's contract. More than three million fans packed Wrigley Field in 2006.

"When you're in an organization like this, when the ballpark is packed every day, and there's 38,000 to 40,000 people here every day at Wrigley, that's what you should do," Ramirez said of the spending spree. "You have to show the fans you want to win -- not just the fans but also other players that you want to win."

The new Cubs were overwhelmed by the boisterous fans during the three-day Cubs Convention in January. None had seen 15,000 devotees.

"Cubs fans haven't seen a World Series champion in 98 years, and they're still here with a lot of passion, enthusiasm -- and a lot of patience," Lilly said.

Floyd, a Chicago native elated to be playing for his favorite team, is eager to turn things around.

"You talk about the curse and this and that, and I don't believe in it," Floyd said. "I believe this team will win some games. It's up to us. It's up to us to believe it'll take little things to win ballgames. I know it will happen. We have too many veteran guys to not win now. I don't think the fans will be disappointed."

What about that goat? Is it still loitering around Clark and Addison streets?

"I don't believe in curses," Pafko said. "On paper, they've got a great ballclub. Of course, you don't win on paper, you have to go out and prove it."

It's 98 years and counting.

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