CHICAGO (AP) -The Cubs better get used to this.
Suffering is not just a fad around here at this time of the season, it's practically a way of life. Still, somebody has to win baseball's worst division, aka the National League Central, and the thought finally seems to have taken hold of Chicago and its long-slumbering franchise, ``Why not us?''
Well, for one thing - boo! - as a few select Cubbies teams from the past could tell this one - boo! - there are expectations to deal with. And those expectations are why their ace pitcher, manager and general manager each took a few minutes out of their pregame routines Tuesday to hammer out an apology.
``I love the Cubs fans,'' Carlos Zambrano said a few hours before the Cubs hit into five double plays and dropped their second straight to the Dodgers, 6-2. ``I still think they are still the greatest fans of baseball.''
Turns out that Zambrano, who only three weeks ago signed a $91.5 million contract extension to anchor the staff through 2012, got rocked in an 11-3 loss the day before, got booed as he was departing and ripped the fans in return.
Zambrano cocked his index finger and pointed to his ear on the short walk to the dugout, then said afterward, ``I will remember that. ... They showed me today they just care about them.''
Less than 24 hours later, he'd already forgotten. Apparently, it's tough to stay mad at the people who help pay your wages when you're 0-3 since the extension and 0-5 since the end of July.
``They have the right to boo people, do whatever they have to do because they have been waiting for 99 years,'' Zambrano said. ``Sometimes we don't do a good job and they get frustrated, too. I apologize to them.''
But contrition alone won't cut it. Not this year. Not with the division there for the taking.
Milwaukee, Chicago's NL Central rival to the north, is still reeling after getting off to a surprisingly strong start. St. Louis, its nemesis to the south, has cooled off after climbing off the deck and back into the race.
What frustrates the Wrigley Field faithful is that the Cubs grabbed first place by cobbling together the second-best record in baseball since early June, but recently lapsed back into playing .500 ball, all the while failing to shake the Brewers and Cardinals.
The offense has stalled and worse, they're making some of the same fundamental mistakes that drove manager Lou Piniella into a dirt-kicking, cap-throwing, umpire-baiting frenzy on June 2 that got him suspended, just before the Cubs' season took off.
Zambrano might have been swamped by the first wave of that growing discontent, but if only to prove that it won't be the last, Cubs fans let the entire team have it - boo! - in the top of the eighth Wednesday as the Dodgers pushed their lead to 6-2.
By the end of the night, after both Milwaukee and St. Louis won, they led the Brewers by a half-game and the Cardinals by one. Unlike earlier this season, Piniella didn't see a need to hit the panic button. His clubhouse is still loose, thanks largely to a mix of experienced veterans like Zambrano, Derrek Lee, Jacque Jones and Alfonso Soriano and youngsters like Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot and Carlos Marmol.
So when somebody asked Piniella whether ``it feels like you're in first place,'' he calmly replied, ``We are in first place.
``Look, it's been like this all year,'' he quickly added, ``and you all asked me that question yesterday.''
But Piniella is going to hear it every day from now until the end of September, along with a growing number of boos, so long as his team is in the race. It may not be much consolation, but at least it means the town still cares.
``When I played, and I played on many successful teams in New York,'' Piniella said, ``when the fans didn't like what was going on, they let you know it. The best way to quiet them is to go out there and do well. They'll cheer you right back. They want to see you do well.
``So, the thing about it is you turn a deaf ear to that and you go about your business as a professional and you do good things and they'll cheer you again. I think the only sport where they don't boo is golf,'' he added. ``That's it.''
An hour before the game, Piniella sat in the Cubs dugout with GM Jim Hendry and former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and swapped stories and jokes for nearly 20 minutes.
``He's been through this before. All I did was remind him of something,'' said Lasorda, who recently turned 80. ``When I had the heart trouble, everybody just said, 'Well sure, that's because of all the stress you built up managing the Dodgers for 20 years.
``But that wasn't it. It was never the baseball. It was those damn L.A. freeways.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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