The Cubs began the season looking farther than ever from their 2003 high-water mark: five outs from the World Series. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, the two “horses” who carried them to those heights, were once again on the disabled list with arm woes, which is where they’ve spent much of their time since manager Dusty Baker rode them so hard three years ago. The team had finally acquired a leadoff man in center fielder Juan Pierre–at the cost of some highly regarded pitching prospects sent to the Florida Marlins–but failed during yet another off-season to entice a high-priced free agent to replace Sammy Sosa. At two positions they were going with players starting their first full seasons–Matt Murton in left field and Ronny Cedeno at shortstop. And then, of course, there were the White Sox, showing them up on the south side of town. As the season opened, it looked disheartening to be a Cubs fan, and the cold, blustery weather on opening day made the picture even worse.

Yet nothing dissuaded a crowd of more than 40,000 from packing the grandstand and the newly expanded bleachers as the Cubs faced their archrivals, the Saint Louis Cardinals. They were rewarded by a performance by Greg Maddux that bordered on the miraculous. Maddux returned to Chicago two years ago to provide the young pitching staff with the sort of veteran presence that might put the Cubs over the top. But with Wood and Prior available only in fits and starts, Maddux’s second Chicago tour became nothing more than a late-career victory lap that saw him close in on and soon surpass 300 wins. He clearly wasn’t the pitcher he’d been, but he was a good, sturdy starter who’d take his turn every five days and give the Cubs a chance to win, even when he was getting knocked around.

His opening-day performance, though, was an epiphany. He inexplicably returned to his prime. Every pitch had that late movement typical of his work in the mid-1990s. His fastball drifted just out of reach of left-handed hitters. His changeup affected innocence only to dart for the dirt like a rabbit seeking cover. His sinker sank at the last second, and his curve–his weak pitch going back to his earliest days with the Cubs–came up singing “hit me” only to snap down and away from right-handed hitters. He made every pitch go exactly where he wanted, and when batters expected the fastball he threw the change and when they expected the change he threw the curve. I was watching on TV at home as I prepared for a fantasy baseball draft the following day, and I got caught up in tracking the pitches, trying to guess where Maddux was going to go next and with what. He got two quick strikes on a right-handed hitter, and I said, “Now here comes the curve, looking good, but curling off the plate,” and Maddux threw just that. The only reason the batter laid off was that it came up to him looking right down the middle before it veered savagely; he must’ve realized it was too good to be true.

His pitching was all the more remarkable for the weather. As Maddux has aged he’s had difficulty loosening up in the cold–and this goes back to his loss in game three of the first playoff round three years ago, when he was with the Atlanta Braves. But against the Cardinals he looked slimmer than in previous years, limber and smooth, dipping his neck in that distinctive fashion as he brought his hands overhead, then striding purposefully down the mound. He occasionally challenged the Saint Louis batters and let them hit bombs, but they hung up in the wind and dropped peacefully into the gloves of the Cubs outfielders. When one bomb was hit with two outs, Maddux turned his back on the play and walked to the dugout, confident of the result. The Cubs won 5-1. It was a masterful performance by Maddux, a return to his springtime with the Cubs 15 years ago.

Then he did it again last week. This time the wind was blowing out, another weather condition that’s troubled Maddux in recent years, as his pitches have flattened out and he’s gotten the ball up. Yet again he threw each pitch the way he wanted, befuddling the Cincinnati Reds’ fearsome lineup. When he fell behind catcher Javier Valentin three balls and no strikes, Valentin fully expected Maddux to go ahead and walk him. There were two outs and the pitcher was up next. Instead, Maddux threw two strikes, then a letter-high fastball tailing over the inside corner for a called strike three. He sauntered to the dugout, having saved the pitcher to lead off the next inning.

He didn’t give up a hit until the fourth, and although that two-out double scored a man Maddux had walked, the Cubs were already ahead and went on to win 4-1, for the 320th victory of Maddux’s career.

His third start was another impressive 4-1 win, over the Dodgers this week in Los Angeles. It’s been a full-fledged renewal, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Cubs, for de facto ace Carlos Zambrano has added insult to Wood and Prior’s injuries by struggling in his early outings. By acting as bell cow for rookie Sean Marshall and veteran Glendon Rusch–both of whom need to be as precise as he is to win with the stuff they have–Maddux gave Cubs fans a reason for optimism. The Cubs’ early-season schedule is relatively soft, and if the team can hold its own until Wood and Prior return–and if they return when the Cubs hope they will, in May–the Cubs may yet challenge for a playoff spot. They justified those rose-colored dreams by sweeping the Cards, one of their few early series against a league powerhouse. They finished what Maddux started with a raucous 8-4 win in which Jacque Jones hit a three-run homer, the Cards retook the lead, and then catcher Michael Barrett hit a game-winning grand slam off Saint Louis bullpen ace Jason Isringhausen. It was a brutally cold Sunday night, but the almost 40,000 fans in attendance made it feel like a playoff game as Barrett rounded the bases. For a moment it was the way it had been in Wrigley Field three years ago, when the Cubs were five outs from the World Series.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.