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The Cubs came home to the Friendly Confines two weeks ago down in third place in the NL Central after two costly losses in Saint Louis. They were only a game and a half out of first, but the fans were too mellow to be a crowd that gave the Cubs a serious shot at the playoffs. Don't get me wrong--they were delighted to arrive at a game they'd bought tickets to months before and find their team still in contention. But there was little of the mania and tension smaller crowds have generated at White Sox Park in the second half of this season. The limited number of Sox fans who have returned to the fold expect the Sox to make the playoffs. They attend games with a dreadful expectancy, so that when bad things befall the team they're crushed and when the Sox prevail they're elated. The crowd at Wrigley Field two weeks ago had an interest in seeing the Cubs win--so much so that they booed when slumping reliever Antonio Alfonseca simply got up in the bullpen--but they didn't seem to invest themselves in it.

That would all change the following week, when the Cards came to town for five games in four days that might have been the best sustained series of baseball ever played at Wrigley Field--and I don't write that lightly. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. Let me return to that Friday game against the Milwaukee Brewers and relive the calm concern of fans before they were infected, once and for all, with pennant fever.

It was the beginning of the Labor Day weekend. I took my older daughter out to the game as a final summer idyll before she started high school. We got her an upper-deck ticket, and resolved to move around as much as it took until we settled in good vacant seats. The 2:20 start meant the crowd would probably be late to arrive, and I figured hints of showers in the forecast would keep season-ticket holders away and make it easier for us to find openings. We got there early, but unfortunately the Cubs--who'd arrived in town early in the morning after a game in Saint Louis the night before--were given batting practice off by manager Dusty Baker. We sat in the stands and talked about baseball and the summer and high school, and I commented now and then about the few Cubs players strolling out to take some swings in the batting cage under the right-field bleachers--Sammy Sosa, of course, foremost among them. Then we watched the Brewers take batting practice. When we saw the Cubs' Mark Prior stroll out to left field to play catch, we walked down to the pen in hopes that he would throw a few from the mound, but no luck; he was just stretching his arm out a little between starts. As he walked back to the dugout he was beckoned with shouts of "Mark!" and "Prior!" but ignored them with the aloof calm of the superior athlete--an entirely different breed of Cub from the fan-friendly sort that's populated Wrigley Field for decades. After BP ended we went upstairs to get a panoramic view of the infield being smoothed and the baselines chalked, and like a modern-day Polonius I took the opportunity to give her the pre-high-school drug talk. Most of the other fans were similarly engaged, albeit on other topics. When the game began they were attentive to the action on the field, but also involved in conversations. We had to move only twice before settling into seats we'd hold the rest of the afternoon, right behind home plate and just a few rows back in the upper deck. We were sandwiched between a group of Milwaukee fans in front of us--if you couldn't tell from the way they rooted for the Brewers, their butcher-block haircuts gave them away--and a raconteur of a firefighter right behind us. He seemed to be the last remaining Blackhawks fan, and he talked about how he loved going to the Chicago Stadium and stood by them in the United Center. The Cubs occupied his thoughts only when something exciting was going on, as when they scored single runs in the first, third, and fifth. A young Hispanic woman down the row from us turned late in the game and asked the guy if he knew a certain firefighter at a station house near his.

"Yeah, I know him," he said. "Good guy."

"He's my uncle," said the woman.

"That's your uncle?" said the firefighter. "What a prick."

Something in the dry note of that joke--he didn't soften it with any sort of chuckle--to an utter stranger struck me as so beautifully Chicago that I laughed out loud. It provided the scene--the Wrigleyville skyline, the dark-bottomed clouds rolling across the sky, the beer drinkers drawing distinctions between Budweiser and Old Style, and the clock at the top of the scoreboard reminding everyone that as idyllic as Wrigley can be on a summer afternoon it's part of the real world--with a distinctive local flavor. The Cubs' starter, Matt Clement, was having one of his good days, and after giving up a run in the fourth he retired ten straight batters before giving up a homer to Wes Helms in the seventh. He allowed the leadoff man to reach in the eighth, which is when Alfonseca got up, rousing boos, but Clement settled down and finished things out, aided by Damian Miller's solo homer for an insurance run in the eighth. The Cubs had won 4-2, and we all went home happy. But I don't imagine that the fans who attended the next two games, both lost by the Cubs, were that much more gloomy when they left.

The fever came on slowly and then all at once when the Cards came to town for the Labor Day opener of their five-game series. Hopes had been tempered by the two losses to the lowly Brewers, and an all-day rain delayed the first Saint Louis game for more than four hours. (Having already scheduled a day-night doubleheader--meaning separate admissions required--for the following day in order to keep a full-house meeting with the Cards from being washed out, the Cubs weren't about to postpone this game.) I was running end-of-summer errands, and had promised to take my kids to see The Adventures of Robin Hood at the Music Box, and as I checked in on the Cubs while driving hither and yon I kept getting not Pat Hughes and Ron Santo but a series of WGN radio hosts, as if there were a pledge drive on. The good thing was that when the game finally started I was able to watch; it's important to realize that throughout the series the fever was delivered to most fans not by direct contact but by airborne broadcasts, if not second- or third hand word of mouth. In fact, by the time Monday's game started, most of the people who'd gone to the game were home watching it on TV.

With day games scheduled for each afternoon--Tuesday's was a rescheduled rainout from earlier in the season--I had the feeling of 1969 and the years immediately following, when the Cubs played only day games and I watched them on TV as a child in the suburbs. The Cubs were drawing about 35,000 a day--twice that on Tuesday, with the day-night doubleheader--but the vast majority of fans were monitoring from a distance, and that distance seemed to make their hearts pound faster. It was almost more exciting to hear about the games from others--or share them, as I did later in the week, on my office TV--than it was to be there. Almost.

Prior went to the mound in the first game against the Cards, as he had the previous week in Saint Louis when he gave the Cubs their only win of a three-game set, and again he mowed them down. He and Woody Williams matched goose eggs into the fifth inning, when the Cubs exploded for six runs, triggered by a Sosa leadoff single and a hustle play in which he went from first to third on a single by Alou, who moved up to second on the throw. If anyone has come to epitomize the Cubs' new toughness, it's Prior, with his grim, down-turned mouth and prim, erect posture, the brim of his hat curled and pulled low on his forehead like blinders on a racehorse. He pitched eight scoreless innings before turning the ball over to Kyle Farnsworth to mop up the 7-0 shutout. The Cubs had dropped the Cards into an identical first-place tie with Houston and were just a game and a half behind themselves.

Carlos Zambrano started the matinee the next day and couldn't quite keep pace with Prior, but the Cubs tied the game with two runs in the fifth as Albert Pujols dropped a fly ball in left field. Pujols later switched positions. One of manager Tony LaRussa's favorite interchangeable parts, Orlando Palmeiro, went to left and almost single-handedly retained the tie in the bottom of the ninth, first throwing out Alou trying to go from first to third on a single to left, then ending the inning with a leaping backhanded grab of Ramon Martinez's liner in the ivy with the bases loaded. That was where the series turned. LaRussa burned bullpen closer Jason Isringhausen with a two-inning outing, while Baker used counterpart Joe Borowski for only one and then shuttled a series of effective relievers through to keep them all fresh and available. Sosa finally ended the game in the 15th with a sayonara two-run homer, and the Cubs hurried everyone out in order to get another paying crowd back in for the night game.

Kerry Wood pitched well in the nightcap but again seemed ineffective compared with Prior, giving up a homer to Pujols and then an unearned run to lose 2-0. The game was decided in the seventh, when the Cubs loaded the bases and Alou hit a screaming line drive down the left-field line that appeared to kick up chalk in the replay but was ruled foul by the third-base umpire. At first Alou didn't argue, but after he flied out to end the inning he had to be restrained by Kenny Lofton, leaving no one to protect Alfonseca, who raced out of the bullpen to bump the ump, resulting in a five-game suspension he began serving last weekend. Things were getting undeniably testy.

Yet that was just the beginning. The next game would be the best of the year, the one that prompted the epidemic outbreak of pennant fever. Clement started and settled down after allowing two runs in the first. But in the sixth he ran into trouble again and was replaced by rookie Felix Sanchez, making his major-league debut as Baker nursed a depleted bullpen. Sanchez gave up a grand slam to J.D. Drew, putting the Cubs behind 6-0. They immediately scored three in the bottom half, sparked by Sosa's leadoff double that led to a two-run homer by Aramis Ramirez, while LaRussa rashly yanked rookie starter Danny Haren and again drew upon his weary relievers. The Cards scored what looked to be an insurance run in the seventh, but then the Cubs scored three more in the bottom half on homers by Alou--who was in the process of making up for his base-running gaffe of the previous day by going five for five--and Alex Gonzalez. In fact it was Alou who singled in the go-ahead run with two out one inning later, after Mark Grudzielanek tied the game with a run-scoring triple off Woody Williams, pressed into service as a reliever and absorbing his second loss of the series. Borowski had come on to squelch a Saint Louis rally in the eighth, and he worked an efficient ninth to seal the 8-7 win. Hughes and Santo seemed close to jumping out of the radio booth as I listened to the final outs going home, with Santo talking about how his heart was pounding and Hughes pointing out how the crowd of 32,710 was in hysterics.

That game was marked by Baker and LaRussa exchanging four-letter pleasantries they couldn't have said to the umpires without being tossed, after Clement and Haren had traded beanballs. But in the series finale the Cubs returned to fighting with the umps. The erratic Shawn Estes got the start, and home-plate ump Bill Hohn simply refused to give him the calls he needed on his backdoor curveball, even when it appeared to cut across the edge of the plate. Estes gave up two runs in the first, and after the Cubs got him a 3-2 lead gave up three more in the fifth, which is when pitching coach Larry Rothschild got thrown out defending him. Along the way, Sosa was chased when he complained about a checked-swing call Hohn made without appealing to the first-base umpire for help. The Cubs were down 5-3 and without their main offensive threat. Yet with the help of doubles by Tom Goodwin, Grudzielanek, and Alou, they scored three in the bottom of the fifth to chase Saint Louis starter Brett Tomko. The Cards tied it in the seventh when Mike Remlinger couldn't put out a rally, but the Cubs took the lead back in the bottom half as Mike DeJean walked Alou, plunked Ramirez, and gave up a run-scoring single to the newly acquired Tony Womack. Farnsworth and Borowski finished with dispatch in the eighth and ninth, and the Cubs won 7-6, claiming four of the five games in a series that was like a heavyweight title fight, with each side trading body blows--to move past the Cards and into second, a half-game behind the Astros.

Well, that did it. Chicagoans traveled to Milwaukee in droves last weekend, setting a record on Saturday with 46,218 filling the new Miller Park for Prior's start. Sosa staked Juan Cruz to a 2-0 lead with a homer in the first inning of the Friday game, and the hard-slinging right-hander made it stand up for a 4-2 victory with help from none other than Alfonseca, who came on to end a Milwaukee rally in the seventh and perform a standing, full-body, voodoo version of Jerry Krause's lottery-winning victory dance on the mound. Prior basically threw his glove out on the mound to beat the Brewers Saturday, and Wood finally got some offensive support as he coasted to a 9-2 win and a sweep of the three-game series on Sunday. The Astros were beating up on the San Diego Padres at the same time, but on Sunday Houston ace Wade Miller was pummeled, putting the Cubs in first by a half-game with three weeks to go. By then there were no survivors; everyone was infected. Our fate was in the hands of the Cubs.

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