CHICAGO (AP) Billy Williams couldn't help but let his mind drift, thinking about his old teammates Ernie Banks and Ron Santo.

At a time like this, it was only natural.

The Chicago Cubs are heading back to the playoffs with a young team that has many believing they just might break that dreaded spell and finally bring home a World Series championship soon, if not this season.

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As the Cubs get set for their first postseason game since 2008, Williams could imagine the unbridled joy Banks would be feeling. And he could see Santo in the radio booth, agonizing over every pitch just like all those fans tuning in to hear the former slugger.

''A lot of people ask me, `How would Ronnie take it?''' Williams said. ''I say if he doesn't have a heart attack, he'll be fine.''

Santo, a nine-time All-Star over 15 seasons, died in 2010 after a 21-year career watching and agonizing with his team from the broadcast booth. Banks, the smiling Hall of Fame slugger known as ''Mr. Cub'' after a 19-year career in the majors, died in January.

When Chicago takes the field for the National League wild-card game, Williams figures two big supporters will be looking down, enjoying the moment as much as he is.

It's one that was a long time coming, after five straight losing seasons and a top-to-bottom overhaul under president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. Years spent stocking the farm system paid off in a big way, and with four rookies in the lineup almost every day, there is a strong sense that big things are in store for years to come, that this is just a start.

''They stuck with their guns,'' Williams said. ''They stuck by it. They said, `We're gonna build a good minor league system, and in the future these guys are gonna get in here and they're gonna play well. And they're gonna play well for a long time.' This is what I see.''

He sees contributions from Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, not to mention All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant.

All three debuted this season, with Bryant making a strong case for NL Rookie of the Year after breaking Cubs rookie records for that Hall of Famer Williams owned for home runs and shared for RBIs.

On a recent day at Wrigley Field, Williams pointed from the dugout toward first base, where Bryant was warming up before a making a spot start there for Anthony Rizzo.

''He wants to learn everything about this game, which Rogers Hornsby used to tell me, `Don't get complacent. You always can learn something each day in the game of baseball,''' Williams said.

He also can't imagine a better fit to lead this team than Joe Maddon, who came to Chicago in the offseason after a long, successful run with Tampa Bay. Maddon has kept it light and loose as he tries to do what Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella and every other manager since Frank Chance in 1908 has failed to do - bring home a World Series championship.

Williams sees a team headed to the postseason - a place he, Banks and Santo reached with the Cubs. The team in some ways reminds him of the 1969 Cubs.

''Not the final three weeks,'' Williams said, referring to the team's late collapse that year. ''But at this time how they're playing, how much fun they're having, how they're enjoying it, the fans are enjoying it. It's a great thing not only for the players but Chicago, the fans. Just in general, it's great.''