My dog is dying. He’s ten years old–not that old for a wheaten terrier, but not young for any dog–and suffering from inoperable abdominal tumors. He has good days and bad, days he can eat and days he doesn’t. His spine has become a spiky ridge leading to the increasingly protruding hip bones. I’ve had to carry him up and down the steps on more than one occasion, but recently he’s rallied–though as I write this he’s staggering around and losing his footing on the wood floor after barking at the doorbell. I thought we were going to have to put him down a couple of weeks ago, but he came back from that and then from another, milder episode. The vet says he’s not in terrible pain, so each good day, every wag of the tail, is worth it. How strange for such a sweet dumb brute to offer a poignant reminder to take things one day at a time.

That’s a sports cliche, of course, and sport offers its own lessons on the subject. Athletes may be human beings–there’s no denying it, no matter what anyone says to the contrary–but their careers are much closer to the life span of a pet than to the “normal” course of human events. One hopes an athlete will finish a career on his or her own terms, but that’s not always the case, especially for the greats–players so driven by pride that, in the end, pride is all they have. Most Chicagoans I’ve talked with on the subject consider themselves lucky that Michael Jordan took that stage of his career to Washington, making it easier for us to preserve the last shot in the 1998 NBA finals as a parting memory.

All this comes to mind, of course, because Greg Maddux returned to town this spring to pitch for the Cubs, his original team, with whom in 1992 he won the first of his four straight Cy Young Awards. Then he left for Atlanta. Such departures are known to cause grudges on the part of fans, but Maddux proved immune to them. It was commonly reported that he had agreed to a long-term deal with the Cubs only to have the Tribune Company honchos yank it off the table; so when push later came to shove and he signed with Atlanta to play for more money with a better team–a team he helped to the 1995 world championship–few held it against him. Cubs management and the Tribune Company, not Maddux and his agent, Scott Boras, caught most of the blame. Maddux went on to establish himself as the best National League pitcher of his generation, all the more admirable for doing it with guile–throwing a darting array of twisting, turning pitches at various speeds and to precise locations, punctuated by his masterful quasi-palmball of a changeup, which typically wandered up to the plate like some character from Alice in Wonderland, saying, “Hit me,” only to drop out of sight as if down a rabbit hole.

In recent years, however, age and deceit prevailed less often over youth and beauty. He was still a good pitcher, but more prone to occasional struggles. He won 16 games last year with the Braves, setting a record with his 16th straight year of winning 15 or more games–a mark of consistency unmatched even by the titanic pitchers of the dead-ball era–but his 3.96 earned run average was his highest since the 5.61 he posted as a 21-year-old apprentice with the Cubs in 1987. He also lost his only postseason start, to Mark Prior and the Cubs, when he had trouble getting out of the first inning of a damp, chilly game at Wrigley Field. Though Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said he expected to see Maddux back with the Braves, it didn’t work out that way. The team declined to offer him arbitration, and after a long winter waiting for offers that didn’t come he signed with the Cubs, accepting a three-year deal from general manager Jim Hendry at less than half the annual salary he’d been making in Atlanta.

This was widely cheered by Cubs fans, myself included. It was a sentimental move, bringing Maddux home to win his landmark 300th game–he opened the season with 289 career victories–but it also made sense to hire a savvy veteran to temper the youthful promise of Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Clement. Still, I remembered the moment in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the schoolteacher says she’ll follow them anywhere, but she won’t watch them die. No matter how things went, this contract would likely cover the end of Maddux’s career.

With Prior’s Achilles injury, Maddux moved up to the second spot in the rotation, behind Wood, and he pitched well in his season debut in Cincinnati against the Reds, though he got beat 3-1 when he left a couple of home run balls up and out over the plate to Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr., who smashed one 440 feet to center field. Maddux got the honor of pitching the Cubs’ home opener at Wrigley Field, and he was greeted by thunderous applause, but he never seemed to loosen up on a cold, dank afternoon. He gave up eight hits and five walks in three-plus innings–at one point committing the cardinal sin of walking pitcher Kris Benson, who was trying to lay down a sacrifice bunt, to open the gates for a big Pittsburgh rally–and he surrendered six runs as the Cubs took a 13-2 drubbing. I was watching the game in WGN’s new high-definition TV–notoriously unforgiving, bringing out the flaws in the loveliest Hollywood stars at awards shows–and Maddux looked just plain old: grizzled and unshaven, with bags under his eyes frighteningly familiar from my own reflection. Luck played a part in his next game, back at Wrigley against the Reds, when the April winds suddenly turned around and blew straight out at 30 miles an hour, leading to a slugfest. He left the game with the lead after six innings, but the seven runs he gave up were nothing to brag about, and the Cubs’ bullpen went on to lose it 11-10.

Last Friday at Wrigley, however, Maddux finally got a glorious day to pitch. It was warm in the sun, especially as he wore a long-sleeved mock-turtleneck sweatshirt under his jersey, but the temperatures were seasonably crisp and the wind wafted in off the lake. He looked purposeful and determined, taking just a couple of turns in the cage during batting practice–laying down a few bunts, slapping a few soft grounders–before retiring to the clubhouse to prepare. Even the opponents–the hated New York Mets, a team he’d mastered throughout his career–seemed chosen to oblige.

Maddux made good on the opportunity–though he came tantalizingly close to disaster in the third inning–and looked lovely doing it. His motion seemed fluid and easy, much as it had a dozen years ago and more. Taking catcher Paul Bako’s signs from behind that big, black fielder’s mitt he likes, he bowed his head and drew his hands up and back to the nape of the neck as if tugging on a T-shirt, then briskly kicked into a straight-legged stride, bending his knee at the end to absorb the impact with a distinctive hop that set him in textbook fielding position. There was one noticeable difference: where he used to flex his mitt inward at the wrist, so that his left arm took on the look of a spinnaker leading his body directly down the mound, the mitt now hung down, as if he’d learned not to expend the extra energy. Regardless, his pitches moved as much as ever, and he directed them just where he wanted them to go, forcing the Mets to earn each hit. In the first inning, Shane Spencer chipped a good inside fastball into short right center for a single, but Maddux fanned Karim Garcia on a changeup and got Mike Piazza to pop to second on a high, inside fastball. Staked to a two-run lead by Moises Alou’s homer with Corey Patterson on, Maddux gave one right back in the second when White Sox product Mike Cameron inside-outed a fastball and sent it into the right-field bleachers.

It was in the third, though, that Maddux’s game almost went awry. New Japanese import Kazuo Matsui drilled a flat fastball off the wall in left center for a leadoff double. Spencer dribbled an infield single to shortstop, with Matsui moving to third on the throw to first. Maddux got two quick strikes on Garcia, but then walked him when a pair of fastballs on the low inside corner were called balls. That loaded the bases for Piazza. Again Maddux threw two pitches in the exact same location, low and outside to the right-handed hitter, and again they were called balls. Maddux threw his shoulders forward as if to loosen his shirt with each call, but otherwise did not complain to home-plate umpire Paul Schrieber. Then he threw a fastball high and outside, and Piazza bit on it, slapping the ball straight back at Maddux. He threw home to start a 1-2-3 double play, pitcher to catcher to first. With runners now at second and third, he got ahead of Cameron and again threw a fastball low and on the outside corner. Cameron took it, and this time Maddux got the call for strike three to end the inning.

From there, Maddux made it look easy. Todd Walker rewarded him with a solo homer in the bottom of the third, and Maddux coasted through seven innings before turning the game over to the bullpen for a 3-1 victory–the 290th of his career, and the first in his second tour with the Cubs. With Maddux righted, everything seemed to settle into place. Prior was cleared for the next step in his rehabilitation, a return to Arizona to face live hitting in extended spring training, and the next day Wood and two relievers combined on a 3-0 shutout. Talk in the media interview room afterward was about nothing so much as how calm, composed, and confident the Cubs all seemed, how they talked little and simply went about their business–qualities Maddux brings to the team, though in all fairness it’s an attitude Prior has as well. When Clement came out and completed the sweep of the Mets on Sunday with a 4-1 triumph, the Cubs had won six straight and led the NL Central at 12-6, as good a start as they could have hoped for sans Prior. One more thing was worth noting. Maddux’s 290th win came on Wrigley Field’s 90th anniversary. It was on April 23, 1914, that what was then known as Weeghman Park was christened in a Federal League game. With 38,862 on hand to see Maddux redux, the Friendly Confines seemed as vital as ever–ageless, classic, youthful–with its best days still ahead.