Last Sunday I walked to the Cubs’ last home game of the year, taking my usual route: down Lincoln, across Grace, a slight jog down Janssen to Waveland, and then across to the ballpark, trying to keep Wrigley Field itself out of view until the last possible moment. Above, the clouds had that low, gray, heavy, dirty look typical of autumn, but they were spread out enough to avoid being threatening, and the temperature was comfortable. Up until the instant the light standards loomed above Bernie’s on Clark Street it was just a pleasant walk through the neighborhood of baseball, past women jogging, fathers walking their children, and squirrels foraging for nuts in the first fall leaves. The church bells at Saint Ben’s had been ringing as I left the house, and there was an air of ritual to the occasion: the Cubs’ last home game of the season and the last home game of Ryne Sandberg’s career. When I arrived at the ballpark, stepping around the corner of Bernie’s to be confronted with Wrigley Field in all its bustling glory, I discovered that other fans–about 29,922, in fact–felt exactly the way I did. On this afternoon we wouldn’t have been anywhere else.

The final day’s attendance brought the Cubs’ season total to 2,190,308. That’s an amazing figure for a team that lost 14 straight games to open the season, that was battling the Philadelphia Phillies on this afternoon for bragging rights to the worst record in the league, and that is no closer to its first pennant since 1945 or its first championship since 1908 than it has been for most of those years in between. Like the White Sox, the Cubs made some recent moves that improved them for the future (they were, however, out of contention at the time, a distinction worth noting), trading Mel Rojas, Turk Wendell, and Brian McRae to the New York Mets for pitcher Mark Clark, outfielder Lance Johnson, and infielder Manny Alexander. This corrected two of the major off-season mistakes of last season: signing McRae and free-agent bull pen ace Rojas to long-term contracts, when the Cubs–in the midst of their annual rebuilding program–would have been better off going with youth. The Cubs now have Terry Adams installed as their closer, and it appears they’ll be making regular space for Doug Glanville in the outfield. What’s more, Kevin Orie is putting the final touches on a decent rookie year, and the starting staff has improved its look of late, with Clark and the recuperated Kevin Tapani joining Jeremi Gonzalez–an 11-game winner in his rookie year–and 10-game winner Kevin Foster to form a solid rotation.

Still, were those humble signs of optimism what brought people out on this day? Adams, Glanville, and Orie remain–for all their modest success this year–unknown quantities. Adams has blown four saves and lost nine games, amassing a 4.19 earned-run average and a .298 opposing batting average–not exactly the sort of figures that make a starting pitcher want to surrender a game to his care. In fact, Adams had blown a beautiful three-hit shutout by Gonzalez in the ninth inning only the day before, spoiling Ryne Sandberg Day. Glanville entered the week hitting .305 in 140 games with 19 steals, but his 24 walks on the season and .330 on-base percentage–while good for an Ozzie Guillen–are substandard for a leadoff man. Johnson, the former Sox center fielder, performed like a true leadoff man for the first time in his career over the last couple of years with the Mets, but he immediately reverted to light-hitting form on returning to Chicago. Most important, the Cubs had been outhomered 179-124 going into the last week of the season; they’d appear to need a power hitter in left field, perhaps making Johnson off-season trade bait. Orie has hit .274 in his rookie year but been part of the power shortage, hitting only eight homers and driving in 44 runs at third base, a traditional power position. Across the infield, Mark Grace entered the week hitting .321, and his .411 OBP was among the league leaders, but his 12 homers were, again, low for a power position such as first base. As for Sammy Sosa, for all his impressive numbers–36 homers, 119 RBI, and 22 steals–he also had a league-leading 165 strikeouts and had proved surprisingly susceptible to any sort of intelligent pitching. Finally, the Cubs were losing Sandberg, had already lost Shawon Dunston–meaning an entirely new double-play combination for next season–and still lacked an ace to lead the starting staff. The Cubs–especially the executives in the front office–seem to have a renewed sense of purpose, but they have the look of a mediocre team next year.

The future incarnate is pitching phenom Kerry Wood. Starting the season at Class AA Orlando, he went 6-7 with a 4.50 ERA. Promoted to AAA Iowa, one step from the majors, he went 4-2 with a 4.68 ERA. For the season he was 10-9 and allowed just about an earned run every other inning–unimpressive numbers. Yet those are the only unimpressive things about him; they don’t come close to suggesting his potential. Take Iowa alone, because that offers the closest thing to major-league competition. In 57-plus innings he allowed only 35 hits. Opposing hitters batted only .181 against him. That’s outstanding. In those 57 innings he struck out 80 hitters–he accounted for almost half the outs he got all by himself. That shows stuff, my friends. He is said to possess a high-octane fastball and a curve that drops off a table–Nolan Ryan-type stuff. The downside? He walked 52 men–more than he allowed to reach base by hits, almost one an inning. Such pitchers can be aggravating in the extreme. Ryan, in fact, was ditched by the Mets at a time when they had the best reputation in baseball for developing young pitchers, and before that Sandy Koufax needed several years to harness his gifts and become a star.

If it’s true, as they say, that young pitchers will break your heart, then Wood is coming to the right place, the place where heartbreak is the normal state of affairs. Me, I think someday soon he’ll be one of the best pitchers in the league. Then again, I look at Orie and see a player remarkably like Sandberg as a rookie–cautious, watchful, fundamentally sound–and who may well develop the same power Sandberg did once he learns to pull the ball. Their rookie stats are very similar, with Sandberg hitting seven home runs with 54 RBI and a .271 batting average in 1982–hardly a debut foretelling a trip to Cooperstown. From great hope comes great heartache but, on rare occasions, great satisfaction; that’s the essence of being a Cubs fan.

So it’s a matter of faith, I thought. But as I moved around Sunday from area to area dodging ushers, late arrivals, and people returning to their seats from the concession stand, I began to wonder if hope had anything in particular to do with the Cubs fan’s peculiar faith. In the upper deck I sat behind a family of four, with the teenage son pretending to sleep with his flannel shirt over his head, the younger daughter keeping her feet on the railing in front of her and playfully refusing to lower them to let her father by, and the mother resting her head on the father’s shoulder between innings. It didn’t seem to me that the Cubs’ future prospects had anything to do with why they were there. In the lower deck there was the older couple making faces at the child seated directly in front of them, and the multigenerational family–a mother, her mother, and the mother’s two sons–sending the older son off to the bathroom by himself for what must have been one of the first times in a public place. (They looked at me as if to say, “What have you done with our boy?” when I sat down in his empty aisle seat, and it wasn’t until he returned that I understood why.) And there were the couples and the ballplayers’ wives and the four teenagers just down the aisle, who had to leave their seats to get a glimpse of Harry Caray at the seventh-inning stretch. Most people cheered the Phillies’ fine rookie third baseman Scott Rolen when he went into the stands to catch a foul pop-up with the score 9-2 Cubs, and they rooted for Lance Johnson to double when he came up in the bottom of the eighth needing only a two-base hit to achieve the cycle, and they booed the pitcher when he walked Johnson, and in the right-field bleachers they cheered Sosa when he came out to the field after striking out for the third time in the game–each of them looking–and they stood on their feet and cheered with two outs in the Philadelphia ninth, and let out a series of three groans when reliever Rodney Myers allowed a hit, a walk, and then another hit before finally getting the last out of the game. And at that point something unexpected happened.

There had to be 20,000 people still in the stands; the bleachers were full right up to the center-field scoreboard. They had stayed past Sandberg being removed from the game to a sustained standing ovation after a fifth-inning single; they had stayed past Caray singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”; they had stayed when the game was long since decided. They had stayed to cheer a 66-90 team and to exact the last bittersweet drops of pleasure from the baseball season on the north side. That is what I had come to the game for, to get all there was to be gotten of baseball at Wrigley Field this year, but I had no idea so many other fans felt the same way.

Even after the last out no one went anywhere. The Cubs lined up to shake hands with each other, as they do after every victory, and then gathered on the pitching mound as if to decide how to respond to this crowd of 20,000 crazies who wouldn’t be vacated. What they did was march first to one side of the screen behind home plate, near the visitors’ dugout, and shake hands and throw a few caps into the stands, and then to the other side of the screen to do the same, before descending into their dugout and their clubhouse. Sosa took one last longing look at his loyalists in the right-field bleachers, then suddenly dropped his glove and went sprinting out there at full speed, the way he does at the start of each game. Let’s leave the season right there, with Sammy Sosa tracing a rapid, graceful arc near the right-field wall and 20,000 Cubs fans insisting that no 90 losses–that’s 90 this year, and 86 last year, and 89 seasons without a championship–are enough to chase them away.