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10/02/07 7:01 PM ET

Wrigleyville remains hub for Cubs fans

For new and old fans alike, there's no place like home

CHICAGO -- When the calendar turns to October and the Major League Baseball regular season winds down, Wrigleyville usually becomes just another neighborhood on Chicago's North Side.

Not this year.

These days, Wrigleyville remains a mecca for Cubs fans. That's why Melissa Lajka, a fan for more than 35 years, was celebrating across the street from Wrigley Field on Monday night. She was in Wrigleyville to finish the paperwork for the apartment she rented one-half block from the ballpark, which will allow her to root for the Cubs with thousands of her closest friends.

But Lajka is not moving the 30 miles from her home in Roselle. She only rented the apartment for one month -- the month of October.

"Wrigleyville has a dynamic environment," Lajka said. "It's inviting. It's energizing. It's a homey feeling."

This is not her first go at becoming more familiar with the Wrigleyville postseason environment. Four years, ago, she did the exact same thing.

"In 2003, as soon as they clinched I came down here and took numbers for apartments so I could be around the atmosphere, and run out into the streets," said Lajka, who was fortunate enough to get tickets for October baseball at Wrigley that season. "We had walkie-talkies to communicate between the house -- where there were between 20 and 40 people -- and the stadium to meet up and celebrate."

Exuberance, passion, celebration -- welcome to Wrigleyville, the tight-knit area surrounding Wrigley Field, and home to the 2007 National League Central champions. The Cubs open their NL Division Series Wednesday night in Arizona against the Diamondbacks, and do not play at home until Game 3 of the series on Saturday, but fans around the stadium are already voicing their support before the series even begins, as chants of "Here we go Cubbies, here we go" occasionally ring out from cars passing by.

"It's electric; the energy in the air, you can smell it," said Zach Strauss, general manager of Sluggers World Class Bar on Clark Street. "You can feel it. When the Cubs win in the playoffs, when it really counts, then it's like times-10 what it would be on any other Cubs win during the season. The people are just loving it. The bars are full, on the streets [people are] high-fiving. It's fun."

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Wrigley Field is one of the few Major League ballparks that, rather than being surrounded by parking lots, is nestled closely within a residential neighborhood. The stadium's boundary of Addison Street, Clark Street, Waveland Avenue and Sheffield Avenue is all that divides the ballpark from the apartments, bars, restaurants and clothing stores that surround it.

"People that don't have a tradition of having this amazing stadium and this amazing neighborhood, and an awesome team with a great tradition or heritage, I don't think really get it until they get here and become Cubs fans," said Rebecca Keithley, a bartender at Bernie's Tap & Grill on Clark. "This neighborhood is very trendy now, and people move here from all over the country, but they kind of jump on the Cubs bandwagon. If you are from here, and you were born and raised as a Cubs fan, you went to games your entire life, it means something totally different."

Wrigleyville was filled with cheers and partying on Friday night when the Cubs clinched the division title, but Keithley, who worked at Bernie's in 2003 when the Cubs were last in the playoffs, said this year's fan base is a little more cautious than then.

"Right now, I think people are a little standoffish," Keithley said. "In 2003, more people right off the bat were crazy, and now I think people are apprehensive. They don't want to get their hopes up yet. You could tell on Friday night when people were coming out, it was crowded in the bars, but it wasn't until after the Cubs won and then Milwaukee losing that people were starting to pour into the bars."

Esteban Ortiz, who is a first-year employee at Wrigleyville Sports on the corner of Sheffield and Addison, was working Friday night when the area surrounding the stadium erupted in joy.

"Everyone was on a great high," Ortiz said. "The Cubs won, and we knew there was a chance, but we still had to have Milwaukee lose. Once that happened, people rushed in here from all the local bars. It was just insane -- pandemonium.

"After a game day, it's usually pretty intense. But there wasn't a game here, so to see all these people flock in at 10 and 11 at night, it was definitely [as intense], if not more so."

Ortiz grew up a Chicago White Sox fan, but admitted he has become wrapped up by the love for the Cubs that extends in and throughout Wrigleyville.

"Working here, it's infectious," Ortiz said. "Early on in the season, I didn't know I would be this deep into Cubs glory, but it's just been quite an experience.

"It's consistently been pretty hectic. I think this is one of those teams where they're lucky enough to have fans regardless of whether they win or lose. But in particular, definitely within the last two months or so as we made a real strong playoff push, and players stepped up in their given roles, the atmosphere has been really intense and really exciting.

"We're regularly scheduled to close around 9 o'clock," Ortiz said. "On [Friday], we were open past midnight."

Hours of operation are being extended all around the neighborhood, from The Cubby Bear, which usually opens at 10 a.m. only for home games, but will now open for Cubs road games as well, to Sports World, where employees have put in four to five additional hours per day to prepare for postseason crowds.

"People love to be here, love the town, love the city," said Brad Rosen, co-owner of Sports World. "The bars are great, the atmosphere is great. It's like no other Major League town.

"When the Cubbies are in the playoffs, it's probably bigger than the six Bulls championships [during the 1990s], together. It's a lot of enthusiasm, it's been a long time."

Nineteen-year-old Zach Jacobs has not had to endure the same heartache and pain that older Cubs fans have been forced to deal with over the years, but he realizes the uniqueness of the Cubs current postseason run. On Monday night he was posing under Wrigley's famous marquee, under one simple message: Chicago Cubs 2007 National League Central Division Champions.

"It's been surreal," Jacobs said of the Cubs making the playoffs. "You don't know when it's going to happen again."

As a sophomore at Kendall College, he has not had much time to spend in Wrigleyville, but he clearly understands what makes it such a special place.

"It's like a big community," Jacobs said. "It's like your home.

"If you're a Cubs fan, you're home."

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