By Timothy Mclaughlin
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Chicago Cubs have a chance to end a 108-year championship drought this weekend as they play in Major League Baseball's World Series, leaving the baseball world grappling with how to handle the turnabout of the sport's "Loveable Losers."
Capturing baseball's biggest prize for the first time since 1908 would dramatically change the National League ballclub's reputation and image, built in large part by heartbreaking near misses and long stretches of utter futility.
"It is the ultimate underdog story," said Scott Rowan, author of "The Cubs Quotient: How the Chicago Cubs Changed the World."
Cubs fans, much like those of the Boston Red Sox, who ended their own 86-year title drought in 2004, have grudgingly embraced the team's seemingly endless ability to come up short.
"The fact they (Red Sox) hadn't won for so long made them special," said Glenn Stout, a baseball historian who has written books about both the Red Sox and Cubs.
CURSES AND GOATS
But the Cubs have had a singularly odd series of failures and curses.
In the 1938 World Series, the legendary Babe Ruth pointed his bat toward Wrigley Field's ivy-covered outfield fences, and then hit a "called shot" home run that led the Yankees to victory.
In 1945, a local bar owner was denied entrance when he brought a goat to a World Series game, giving rise to the "Billy Goat Curse" that fans feel has vexed the team ever since.
In the 1984 playoffs, a crucially missed ground ball was blamed on a first basemen's glove being soaked, between innings, by a spilled drink of Gatorade.
And in 2003 - with the team was five outs away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945 - a fan, the notorious Steve Bartman, interfered with a foul ball before a subsequent string of on-field gaffes ultimately cost the Cubs the game.
Grant DePorter, chief executive of a restaurant named after famed baseball announcer Harry Caray, bought the Bartman foul ball at auction and exploded it in front of a crowd of fans. He displays the remains in a glass case at his restaurant.
Today, DePorter said he is obsessed with the number 108 - the number of years since the Cubs' last championship. He has exhaustively tracked the number, compiling dozens of instances where it appears, from the number of stitches on a baseball to the number of stories at Chicago's tallest building, the Willis Tower.
"Even the biggest skeptics believe, because it is everywhere," DePorter said.
BUT NOW'S THE TIME
Cubs fans have carried the franchise's winless streak to near fetish status.
The Emil Verban Society was formed in 1975 as a collection of high-profile, D.C.-based Cubs fans who wallowed in the team's luckless streak.
Verban was a middling infielder for the Cubs from 1948-50, and his lack of distinction as a player made him a suitable namesake for the Cubs fan conclave.
The group grew to 850 members before going idle in the mid-2000s, and at points, included among its members the columnist George Will, former vice president Dick Cheney and former president Ronald Reagan. Chicago-born Hillary Clinton was also inducted.
Bruce Ladd, founder of the Verban Society, said he is taking the Cubs' World Series run in stride.
"Serious Cubs fans don't get too excited for a little success, thinking that it will be the ultimate success," he said.
For Cubs fans, a big risk of reaching the World Series is the guff they will get from fans of the Chicago White Sox if the Cubs do not win the championship. Bill Savage, a baseball historian and professor at Northwestern University outside Chicago, said White Sox fans would not go easy if the Cleveland Indians triumph.
"If the Cubs lose, it is an offseason of hearing about it from the White Sox fans," Savage said, referring to the Cubs' crosstown rival, who ended their own skid when they won the 2005 World Series - their first title since 1917.
But he added that the talk of a cursed Cubs franchise has been overdone, nothing this year's team has reached this point for one reason: the players and coaches are very, very good.
"The Cubs weren't cursed. They have had bad players and bad managers," Savage said.
(Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin, editing by G Crosse)