The first time I saw Kerry Wood pitch in person, the thing that made my jaw drop wasn’t his fastball. Wood has an erect, deceptively easy motion, and the ball leaves his hand like a living thing. Yet many young pitchers have fastballs that top out on the radar gun near 100 miles an hour. While it’s remarkable that Wood doesn’t throw his with the grunting, leaning-back strain of a Goose Gossage or a Kevin Appier or even a Roger Clemens–he’s much more classic Nolan Ryan in style–that fastball is not the most impressive thing about him. No, the curve is what strikes fear into a batter–and anyone who pictures himself in the batter’s box facing Wood. The first time I saw Wood’s curve, while sitting in the bull pen seats not ten feet from the catcher as Wood warmed up for his Wrigley Field debut in April, it hissed as it went past and bent with an almost animal savagery. When Wood throws a fastball, it’s as if he’s releasing a bird from his hand; when he throws a curve, it’s as if he’s releasing a rattlesnake. The ball seems to rear up at a right-handed batter before striking for the low outside corner of the plate. I’d seen a fastball like Wood’s before, but never a curve like that to go with it–unless maybe it was Dwight Gooden’s. When Wood put on his warm-up jacket and went to the dugout, I stood with the others nearby and clapped with a reverent awe and shouted, “Go get ’em, Kerry!” It was all I could do to keep from hooting like a lunatic.

Wood’s arrival transformed the Cubs from a raggedy bunch that could perhaps scavenge for a playoff spot into genuine contenders–and an exciting team besides. His 20-strikeout, no-walk, one-hit complete-game shutout of the Houston Astros on May 6–described as the greatest game he’d ever seen pitched by no less an authority than WGN TV producer-director Arne Harris, who has seen a few games over the last 50 years–caused a sensation throughout baseball. Of course Wood was only scheduled to pitch once every five days; it helped the team’s excitement quotient that Sammy Sosa erupted for a record 20 homers in June, the most ever hit in a single month by a major-leaguer. Sosa’s hot streak put him in the Roger Maris chase with Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr.; more important, it got the Cubs through their annual June swoon with a minimal loss of ground. They began the month in second place in the Central Division, eight games above .500, and ended it in third place, four games above .500. When they went 19-9 in July, they moved back into second place behind the Astros and into the lead in the wild-card race.

The key stretch was a 12-game road trip immediately after the All-Star break. The Cubs won seven of those games, including the last three in a row, the finale coming in Atlanta, where Wood outpitched the Braves and their Chicago-trained ace, Greg Maddux. The Cubs extended their winning streak to five games with a pair of wins at home against the Montreal Expos, then welcomed the New York Mets, also in hot pursuit of that wild-card slot, to Wrigley for the first key series between those two rivals in at least nine years. The Cubs lost the first two, dropping a doubleheader. Here comes the inevitable collapse, moaned fans across Chicago. Yet they won the next game 3-2 in the ninth on a comeback against New York closer John Franco, and Wood won the next day 3-1, with all the Cubs’ runs coming on a homer by Sosa. The Cubs had split the series and still led the wild-card race, and each of the three dates had drawn more than 40,000 hysterical fans to the friendly confines. The Cubs were a full-fledged phenomenon.

Wood and Sosa were the marquee players, to be sure, but they were augmented by a sturdy bunch of role players, beginning with the other starting pitchers: Kevin Tapani, Steve Trachsel, Mark Clark, and Jeremi Gonzalez. Rod Beck, a free agent from the San Francisco Giants signed late in the off-season, gave them a durable closer with the sort of what-the-fuck attitude required to withstand the shifting winds of Wrigley Field. Beck has long, unruly hair and an almost equally scraggly mustache, and when he leans over to read the catcher’s sign, his right arm swinging back and forth to stay limber, there’s an almost piratical quality about him, as if he also had a peg leg and a squawking parrot on his left shoulder. When the game is over, win or lose, save or not, he goes into the clubhouse and lights up a Kool. Going into last Saturday’s game he had converted 14 save opportunities in a row, 31 out of 35 on the season.

Offensively, the Cubs were getting a career year out of second baseman and two-spot hitter Mickey Morandini, who was batting .328 and getting on base 41 percent of the time through July–a prime reason Sosa was leading the league in runs batted in. Brant Brown proved to be a liability in center field, but his .364 on-base percentage made him at least serviceable as a leadoff man while Lance Johnson lingered on the disabled list with a sore thumb. In the biggest strategic move of the season, manager Jim Riggleman switched Sosa and Mark Grace in the lineup, typically batting Sosa third and Grace cleanup. The change, along with his newfound patience at the plate, got Sosa some pitches to hit. Grace, meanwhile, got support from left fielder and five hitter Henry Rodriguez, another off-season signee, who gave the Cubs exactly what they expected: barely competent defense, a bushel basket of strikeouts, and 27 homers and counting going into August. Finally, the June near swoon forced Riggleman’s hand, and he replaced the ineffective bottom third of the batting order with Jose Hernandez at third, Tyler Houston behind the plate, and Manny Alexander at shortstop, all of whom gave the Cubs more punch at those positions. The Cubs came back home last Friday 13 games above .500, three and a half games behind the Astros, and still leading the wild-card race.

Friday’s game was a Kerry Wood start, so I packed up the kids and went down to Wrigley Field. We weren’t alone. Fans, who usually gather between the dugouts seeking autographs before the game, were six deep at the Cubs’ bull pen 90 minutes before the first pitch and over an hour before Wood would even begin warming up. Ushers chased out non-seat-holders shortly before Wood emerged, but we snuck in a few rows off the field when he came out. One of the things that was so remarkable about Wood’s Wrigley Field debut some two and a half months before had been his poise. He made the atmosphere electric–one could hear the excitement in the left-field bleachers as those fans watched him warm up–but he seemed composed. This time, however, he looked a little tight. After stretching, he began tossing the ball lightly to catcher Sandy Martinez from in front of the mound, then pitch by pitch moved backward up the mound to the rubber until he was popping the ball in Martinez’s mitt. Yet the ball seemed to stick in his hand in his first few tosses from a windup. He took a couple of deep breaths, cranked himself down a little, and began throwing an easy mix of fastballs and change-ups. After toweling off he started mixing in curves, then, fully warmed, tossed in a few sliders before taking the field.

He seemed tentative at first. Even with the wind blowing in, he threw an overabundance of breaking balls early on and didn’t challenge the Colorado Rockies hitters. Putting two runners on in the first inning, he clearly didn’t have his best stuff. Because of that, however, this game was in its way as impressive as his May masterpiece. He was methodical, mechanical. Sosa staked him to a lead with a homer into the teeth of the wind blowing in off the lake in the bottom of the first, and Rodriguez followed with a pair of two-run shots. Though Wood wearied suddenly and walked the bases full in the eighth inning, he left the game with a shutout and a 5-0 lead. Reliever Terry Mulholland, another player who has excelled in a precise role, allowed a sacrifice fly but otherwise mopped up with nary a complaint as the Cubs won 9-1. It was Wood’s eighth win without a loss at Wrigley, raising his record to 11-5 on the season.

That night, however, was the trading deadline, and the Cubs were about to be dealt something more damaging than any mere loss. The Astros obtained the menacing left-handed pitching ace Randy Johnson from the Seattle Mariners for a package of minor-league phenoms, including Carlos Guillen, a switch-hitting shortstop with pop in his bat. The trade may have assured the Astros of finishing ahead of the Cubs, leaving the Cubs to scramble for the wild-card spot. It was a deal dictated by economics, of course, Johnson being a free agent likely to command $10 million a year in his next contract, the sort of deal that troubles baseball traditionalists, who cite the mid-season trades of all-stars Mike Piazza and Jeff Shaw as a symptom of illness in the sport.

It’s true that real baseball is now mimicking the flights of fantasy-league baseball, but as a veteran of many fantasy-league seasons allow me to say that this is not necessarily a bad thing. As I’ve argued before, these “salary-dumping” trades only serve to speed the normal turnover between haves and have-nots. A rebuilding team rebuilds much faster now than it did in past eras, when the process could take a decade if not longer. (Just ask the Cubs.) And what quickly becomes evident in these deals is that talent–like the quantity of mass in a physics equation–cannot be created or destroyed. That is, a team’s overall strength–from top to bottom, including phenoms in the low minors–doesn’t change in mid-season, though talent can be converted from potential energy into kinetic energy by trading prospects for a player “rented” for a few months until he becomes a free agent. In any case, the trading deadline now causes more mid-season interest in baseball than ever before. The game is different, but also more fascinating than ever.

This argument, however, provided no solace for Cubs general manager Ed Lynch, who was in a damage-control mode when he sat down with reporters in the media lunchroom at Wrigley Field the following day. How had it been the Astros and not the Cubs who had pulled off this blockbuster? “We were dismissed rather early on in the process,” he explained. “We didn’t have what they wanted….They didn’t like the players we have. I can’t do anything about that.” In short, the Astros got Johnson because they had more desirable prospects in the minors, which is a painful admission for the one ultimately responsible for the draft choices and free-agent signings the Cubs have made over the years. To Lynch’s credit, he did bring in a couple of good relievers–Matt Karchner from the White Sox and Felix Heredia, who could yet be very good and, at age 22, already has playoff and World Series experience with last year’s Florida Marlins. They’ll help the Cubs make up for the loss of Jeremi Gonzalez, out for the season with arm problems.

Down on the field, Riggleman was a bit more composed than Lynch. “We’ve got a veteran ball club–most of them have been traded themselves,” he said. “We won’t fold the tent because Houston got Randy Johnson.” That’s when it struck me that Riggleman–a calm, levelheaded manager who expects the players to manage themselves–finally has a team that suits him. With the Cubs of the past few seasons and before that with the San Diego Padres, he had always worked with rebuilding teams, teams that tested his patience and reserve–the steadfast qualities that make him a fine manager in a pennant race. It was a big step, for him and the Cubs, when he publicly scolded Sosa at the end of last season for pursuing personal rather than team goals, and the difference in Sosa’s play this season stems from that admonition. Now Sosa has the teammates and Riggleman has the team to make them both look good. The Cubs looked anything but down in winning 3-2 last Saturday; when the game was over the clubhouse had the same level atmosphere it almost always does. Music played, but not too loud or raucous. Beck, after registering his 15th straight save, lit up a Kool. Grace called to him, “Bend but don’t break, Shooter,” an appropriate line considering how things had gone, and as rah-rah as things got. That calm was truly remarkable considering how the Cubs had won. The fans–40,000-plus for the fifth straight date–had gone into a frenzy.

Trachsel started for the Cubs and fell behind when he gave up a two-run homer to the Rockies’ Todd Helton in the second inning. The Cubs nibbled back with a run in each of the second, third, and fourth innings off Colorado’s John Thomson to take the lead. In each inning, the Cubs simply got the leadoff man on and pushed him around to score. Trachsel steadied himself and worked seven innings, then new arrivals Heredia and Karchner shared the eighth, turning the 3-2 lead over to Beck. Quite in contrast with his reputation for causing excitement–he’s the most aggravatingly thrilling Cubs closer since Mitch Williams–he struck out the first two men he faced. Just as the fans rose for the final out, things took an abrupt turn. The Rockies’ Larry Walker drilled the ball to right for a single. Dante Bichette blooped one down the right-field line. Sosa came charging at full speed; he wasn’t playing to protect the run, he was playing to end the game. At the last moment he pulled up short and then, with Walker already steaming toward third base, fell down. The ball bounced over his head, and Walker rounded third for home. Then, however, a miracle: the ball rolled into a gutter under the padding along the brick wall down the right-field line. Sosa astutely threw up his hands, saying the ball was out of play, and the umpires had to call it a ground-rule double. It was not a judgment call. Though Walker surely would have scored the tying run and Bichette wound up on third had Sosa played the ball, instead Bichette was sent back to second and Walker to third. Beck got the next batter on a routine fly Sosa could have caught in his back pocket. Never any doubt.

It aroused memories of Lester Lancaster doubling down the left-field line in 1989, of Ryne Sandberg hitting game-tying homers off Bruce Sutter in two consecutive innings in 1984. It was a sign that this team is blessed–by the baseball gods in general or “Holy Cow!” Harry Caray in particular, who’s to say?–which, as any fan of the Cubs well knows, is more important than mere talent.