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10/01/07 5:44 PM ET

Thousands turn out to celebrate Cubs

Fans pack Daley Plaza hungry for World Series championship

CHICAGO -- A light rain drizzled down on Chicago for several hours Monday morning, but that could not stop thousands of Cubs fans from celebrating the team's National League Central Division championship.

An estimated crowd of nearly 20,000 converged at Daley Plaza at noon for Rally Monday, and as if on cue, just minutes before the festivities were scheduled to begin, the rain went away.

"It's a great sign," said Lisa Niebergall of Lansing. "It's a sign of good things to come."

That is what Cubs fans throughout the city and around the world are hoping. It has been 99 years since the Cubs last won the World Series, and 62 years since the team won the National League pennant. Cubs fans have grown accustomed to being identified with an ever-optimistic mindset of loveable losers looking toward greater success in the future.

Not anymore.

"Let me say to some of those pundits and prognosticators, to those nay sayers and doubters who time and time again kept telling us, 'Wait 'til next year,'" Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said. "Guess what -- next year is here."

The 2007 Cubs clinched the Central title on Friday in Cincinnati to become the first team in the Central to ever go from worst to first in just one season. With their National League Division Series matchup with the Arizona Diamondbacks set to begin on Wednesday, the team traveled straight from Cincinnati to Arizona, and was unable to attend Monday's celebration. Those fans at the rally had one common message to send to the Cubs, who will play their first playoff game in Chicago since 2003 on Saturday.

"We'll see you in the World Series," said Amy Mahon of Lincoln Hills.

Rally Monday was established by Major League Baseball in 2004 as a way for playoff-destined teams to celebrate their position as one of eight contenders vying for a world championship, while at the same time recognizing the fans for their loyal support throughout the season.

The Cubs felt that support all year long, as a franchise-record 3,252,462 fans showed up at Wrigley Field, marking the fourth straight season the team drew more than 3 million fans at home.

"To our great fans of the City of Chicago, you deserve this," said Cubs president John McDonough on Monday. "You deserve this, and much more. Your unwavering support of this franchise justifies the title for all of you as the greatest fans in professional sports.

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"The National League Central Division championship is a good first step, but that is not the ultimate goal going forward."

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley joined Blagojevich and McDonough at the rally, and announced a friendly wager of food and merchandise he made with Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.

"We've put together such a great package of Chicago food items, and it's too bad Mayor Gordon will never get to taste them," said Daley, who said he had a great feeling about the turnaround the Cubs made in 2007. "Remember, last year they won 66 games and finished last. This year they won 85 games and finished first. The arrow is pointing in the right direction.

"I think everybody in this plaza feels that this is the year."

Players from the last four Cubs teams to reach the playoffs, as well as Hall of Famer Billy Williams, also took part in Monday's celebration. Doug Glanville represented the 2003 Central Division champs, Mickey Morandini attended as a representative of the 1998 Wild Card winners, and Tim Stoddard was there representing the 1984 division champs. Andy Pafko received one of the largest ovations of the afternoon as the representative of the 1945 team that was the last Cubs group to appear in the World Series.

Also included in the ceremony were replays of the Cubs clinching the division title in 1984 and 2003, highlights of the 2007 season, and video messages from Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, former Cub Andre Dawson, WGN Radio's Pat Hughes, fan-favorite Ron Santo, and a number of current Cubs players.

"Thank you for being the greatest fans in the world," Hughes said. "If ever a group of fans deserved a world championship, it is you."

Although he was not at the rally, Santo said in his message that he knew what the fans were feeling.

"I'm happy as you are, because I'm one of you," the former Cubs third baseman and current WGN Radio announcer said. "Go Cubs, we love you."

Fans began arriving for Monday's rally as early as 8 a.m., and by noon the plaza was filled with Cubs hats, jerseys and flags. Signs carried varying messages from "It's gonna happen," to "99 years is enough," to "How do you spell belief? CUBS."

There was even a custom-made Chicago Cubs wedding dress designed by David Gaffke of West Dundee and modeled by Angela Schapiro of Oak Park during the rally.

It was one year ago to the day that McDonough was named team president, and vowed that it was time for the Cubs to win the World Series. They are 11 wins away from that goal, and although Cubs manager Lou Piniella preached a one-game-at-a-time mentality all season long, fans at Monday's rally were looking forward to gathering together once again in a few weeks to celebrate the world champion Chicago Cubs.

"It's nice to see them in this position," said Bill Saveley of Clarendon Hills. "This city would go bananas if they won."

"It'd be a dream come true," said Chicagoan Steve Kottra. "The City of Chicago would love it. It would be the biggest party in 99 years. "

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