What a golden, glowing, glorious baseball season it was. Even so, when the Cubs came home to Wrigley Field for the third game of their playoff series with the Atlanta Braves, the summer seemed already preserved in amber. The stiff, cold wind blowing in from right field and the lake made the hardiest, most hedonistic Cubs fan go in search of coffee or hot chocolate instead of one last cup of suds. There were tinges of red and gold in the ivy, and everyone sensed this would be the final game of the year. Quite simply, it was time. As the Cubs took batting practice in the gloaming, fans in a third-floor apartment across Sheffield Avenue blasted “Bear Down Chicago Bears” and “Here Come the Hawks” out the window; whether to psych up the players or hurry them on to be replaced by the next sports on the calendar wasn’t clear.

Every detail suggested both the passage of time and the notion that all things in baseball come full circle. The pitching matchup pitted former Cubs ace Greg Maddux against the present and future ace, Kerry Wood. Suffering from a tender elbow, Wood hadn’t pitched in a big-league game in more than a month, but he’d been declared fit after a single practice outing in the Arizona fall instructional league and was now the Cubs’ last, best hope of extending the season. Many, especially in the media, decried the Hamlet-like wavering on Wood: either he should have pitched down the stretch, when it mattered, or not even now, when the season was all but over. Yet the idea of starting Wood in this, the Cubs’ first and perhaps only home playoff game, proved irresistible to both the Cubs and their fans. It was Wood’s arrival in April that first gave the team hopes of a banner campaign. And now, as he stood leaning against the batting cage before the game, calm and composed on the surface and exchanging quips with the few players and reporters with the temerity to approach him, it was clear that if the Cubs’ future rested on Wood he belonged in the playoffs, not just mopping up in relief to get a taste of postseason play but starting.

Warming up, Wood threw fastballs, sliders, and change-ups but no curves–medically restricted like a lung-cancer patient told not to smoke. (Conventional baseball wisdom is that the slider puts more strain on a pitcher’s elbow than a straight curve does, but I trust that Wood and the Cubs knew best in this instance.) The first batter, Walt Weiss, made Wood look like Charlie Brown, lining one back through the box as Wood flailed in self-defense. Images of recent Cubs blunders–from Brant Brown’s dropped fly ball to Terry Mulholland’s feeling around for first base like a half-asleep man trying to put on slippers–ran through one’s mind. Would Wood succumb too? But he quickly settled down, and the fans rose to their feet as he got two strikes on Ryan Klesko and fanned him to end the inning. With a diminished arsenal, Wood nevertheless pitched marvelously. His only real mistake was grooving a fastball on a 2-2 count to Maddux. As ever thinking ahead of the opposition, Maddux was waiting for it and even got in front of it, pulling it into left center for a double. Then Weiss hit another shot up the middle, but this time Wood was ready and stabbed it. Keith Lockhart followed with a grounder that advanced Maddux to third with two out, and Wood had to get the dangerous Chipper Jones to keep the game scoreless. Now add to those other images of disaster the picture of catcher Tyler Houston fanning on a Wood slider and chasing it to the wall as Maddux scored.

Wood’s performance was the one element of the day that pointed to the future. Everything else recalled the past. When he departed after five innings and 97 pitches trailing 1-0, the book closed on promise and the Cubs were free to accept their fate. Truth is, this was not a very good team, and to expect the Cubs to repeat or even to improve next year is unreasonable. They got career years out of Rod Beck, Kevin Tapani, Mickey Morandini, Jose Hernandez, and, of course, Sammy Sosa, none of whom can be expected to duplicate his feats next season. But if the Cubs weren’t very good, then somebody was doing something right to get them to win 90 games–which the critics of manager Jim Riggleman don’t seem ready to recognize. He is not the most astute game-situation manager, and year in and year out he has proved incapable of managing a bull pen (for all the calm confidence he instills in his regulars, his Nervous Nellie way with the bull pen has eroded his relievers’ abilities). Yet it was Riggleman who set the calm, professional keynote of this team in the clubhouse, and he was skillful as ever at keeping the media off the backs of his players. If anyone is to blame for the team’s limitations it’s general manager Ed Lynch; the Cubs’ shortcomings were largely shortcomings of the roster. They lacked pitching depth in general and a veteran ace in particular. Not only would an Andy Benes have looked good on this team (he was interested in joining the Cubs as a free agent last winter), but after Wood went down an Amaury Telemaco would have looked good. (Lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks on inexplicable waivers early in the season, he moved into their rotation and pitched well.) In the short term, Jeff Blauser proved a bust as a free-agent acquisition, and in the long term the farm system proved to be almost devoid of talent. Not only could the Cubs not compete in the Randy Johnson-for-prospects trade sweepstakes, in September the minors couldn’t produce even one no-hit-flyhawk of an outfielder along the lines of a Gary Woods, a weakness that showed up with Brown’s muff.

So if the Cubs were so bad, how did they wind up being as good as they were? They got on base and hit home runs, which in this year of the homer was the recipe for success. A year ago, the Cubs were next to last in the National League in walks and in homers, which meant that although they were fifth in batting average they were 12th out of 14 in runs scored. This year they were fifth out of 16 in batting average, but also sixth in walks, sixth in on-base percentage, and third in homers, which combined to make them third in the league in runs scored. They were 11th in runs allowed and in earned-run average, but the pitching was just good enough to earn 90 victories. The big key was Morandini’s .380 OBP in the number two slot, which led him to score 93 runs, second on the team to Sosa, who of course scored 66 on his own via homers.

It was an absolutely incredible season for Sosa, one that should earn him the league’s most valuable player award. The key for him, as for the team at large, was his newfound patience at the plate. Teams can trade for new players to improve their OBP, but it’s relatively rare for a player suddenly to develop a batting eye in the middle of his career–especially a Latin player. This has little if anything to do with temperament and everything to do with the economics of scouting. Compared with a U.S. collegian, a player in the Dominican Republic has few opportunities to wow a scout with the range of his baseball abilities, and so he must be immediately and obviously impressive rather than exceptional at the little things like taking a base on balls–to put it in baseball parlance, “You don’t walk off the island.” Sosa developed that batting eye this year under the tutelage of hitting coach Jeff Pentland, who also got Sosa to adopt a small but important change in his stance. Sosa moved his hands out away from his head, decreasing the arc of his swing but putting more of his shoulders into it and making his bat quicker. With the White Sox, Sosa had been an early pupil of Charlie Lau’s hitting disciple Walt Hriniak, but he never seemed comfortable under that strict doctrine. His swing still has Lau elements, such as the forward surge of the legs and the acceleration of the bat through the arc into the follow-through, but it has become a hybrid, with elements of the more instinctive see-it-swat-it style of an Albert Belle. Sosa attained the perfect medium between innate talent and developed technique.

It was a magical season, for him and for the Cubs. For each of those horrific images recited above, in which the Cubs insisted they would always be the Cubs, there were opposites–such as the ball lost in the vines to beat the White Sox, the ball trapped in the right-field gutter to hold off the Colorado Rockies, and Mark Grace’s tenth-inning homer with Sosa on deck to beat the Milwaukee Brewers (on “Gracie the Swan” Beanie Baby day, no less). There was the sudden appearance of Dominican flags (including the one that flew every day from a Waveland Avenue streetlight beyond the left-field fence); there was Sosa’s long-distance mutual-admiration society with Mark McGwire, and their nightclub comedy routine in front of the media in Saint Louis, and their bone-crushing on-field hug when McGwire hit his record 62nd against the Cubs. Right down to the end, the Cubs seemed to enjoy two blessed moments for every typical Cubs moment, as when Beck saved a game against the Houston Astros on the final Saturday of the season with the last out coming on an interference call by home-plate ump Eric Gregg (a call the New York Yankees’ Chuck Knoblauch is still waiting for), lost Sunday’s regular-season ender in extra innings, and then saved Monday’s wild-card playoff against the San Francisco Giants, getting potential tying run Joe Carter to pop up to end it.

If the Cubs had been any better, if they had aroused any real hope instead of simply making fans marvel at them day after day, the season would have been too much to bear.

Cubs fans get accused of complacency, but I think that’s less a flaw than simply the proper perspective–the knowledge that, no matter how much the cult of big-league sports (and knee-jerk sports columnists) demands victory, winning ultimately isn’t all that important. As a Chicago sports fan, I wouldn’t trade the Cubs’ season just past for a seventh Bulls title, and I don’t know a Cubs fan who would. Cubs fans, as much as they loved this team, knew it wasn’t as strong as the Cubs of 1984 or even 1989. Both those defeats were far more bitter in the end, because those clubs actually seemed capable of returning the Cubs to the World Series for the first time since 1945 and perhaps even of winning the team’s first championship since 1908. This team went as far as it could, farther than anyone could have expected, and involved a fan in ways that went deeper than winning or losing. Sosa, Wood, Beck, Grace, Henry Rodriguez, Gary Gaetti, and the rest–what they provided over the long, up-and-down course of 1998 was enough. What ingrate would expect more?

That’s the attitude that settled over Wrigley Field in that final game with the Braves, especially after Mulholland and Beck–both totally wrung out at this point–combined to give up five runs in the eighth. Hernandez air-mailed home plate on a relay from the outfield when a baserunning gaffe had the Braves’ Jones and Gerald Williams all but side by side on second base, but–like Brown’s muff in Milwaukee–it was a moment spared its place in Cubs infamy because in the end the point was moot. (Beck, it should be noted, received a standing ovation from the fans behind the Cubs’ dugout when he was removed.) The Cubs chased Maddux and got a couple back in the bottom of the frame, but then went out uneventfully in the ninth, losing 6-2.

As cold as it was, most of the 39,597 fans stayed put–stayed politely put while the Braves, a team with more ability and grander ambitions, celebrated the last out and bustled themselves into the visitors clubhouse, while Grace methodically went down the Cubs bench hugging everyone. Then the Cubs emerged, much as they had at the end of the last home game a year ago–only different, of course. That final appearance in 1997 was a heartfelt gesture of thanks to the fans for staying with them through the worst of times; this was a fully deserved curtain call. The applause was long, loud, sustained, yet measured–in a word, enough. Sosa, who had said good-bye to his legions last year with a final mad dash into right field, this time trotted out there, surrounded by cameras, circled back through center field and left field as the applause continued, and rejoined his teammates as they filed out.

One last image of 1998: as Sosa hit in the eighth, three geese rose out of the darkness beyond the left-field fence and, tracing an arc along the fringes of the lights, disappeared to the south–gone like lost regrets.

Satisfaction, contentment, satiation, joy: what puzzling emotions for a Cubs fan to experience, especially at this time of year.