When I climbed the steps into the grandstand before the first game of the National League Championship Series, Wrigley Field appeared more beautiful than I had ever seen it. After a full day of Indian-summer sun the park was warm and welcoming–even if Sammy Sosa, taking batting practice, had already settled into fall fashion and sported a blue watch cap. The wind wafted out to straightaway center, and the ball carried well, each crack of the bat echoing off the grandstand with a little extra crispness in the thin autumn air. The setting sun, low on the horizon, gave everything a rosy glow, and the ivy on the outfield walls was just beginning to hint at another color. Indeed, reserve catcher Josh Paul would soon take to calling this team “the red-ivy Cubs,” for how late they played into the season. So, before we advance to the inevitable realization that red ivy is also dying ivy, before we grant that the Cubs’ demise on October 15 came too soon even if it was the latest game ever played at Wrigley, let’s preserve that image of the Friendly Confines as if under a massive glass dome. In great beauty lay the seeds of great tragedy.

The story of this season’s Cubs was, of course, a tragedy, full of curses and omens, heroes and goats, and both players and fans complicit in the team’s collapse simply because they acted according to their natures. As Terry Eagleton pointed out in Sweet Violence, his fine recent book, the postmodern world is not conducive to tragedy, full as it is of colorful irony and a moral spectrum that tends toward a prevailing gray. But I think most Chicago fans experienced the end of the season as pure tragedy–pure as one can have without the intrusion of an actual death.

The other memory worth preserving is the unique feel of playoff baseball, the way the sport builds slowly toward a series of climaxes, and how the smallest details–misjudgments, mistakes, great plays, perfect pitches–combine to determine the final victor. Baseball aficionados champion the game as the best of all sports for this very quality, that so much is left to chance–to who’s up when, to a perfectly if accidentally placed hit–yet everything comes down to the performance of each individual. The same mixture of fate and self-determination is present in April baseball, but it’s refined in the playoffs, becoming headier and more intoxicating the deeper one goes toward the World Series. In the end, of course, it’s whether those intangibles result in winning or losing that defines a team–and its fans.

The upstart Florida Marlins came into the series a young, loose, effervescent club unburdened by history or expectations; they were fearless, even after falling behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, and populated with characters ranging from the revitalized veteran catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez to pesky center fielder Juan Pierre, who wore his cap askew with the sandlot insouciance of the Minnesota Twins’ Torii Hunter, as well as to familiar, fresh-faced Kane County Cougars alumni Luis Castillo (class of ’95), Josh Beckett (’00), and Miguel Cabrera (’01). This year’s Cubs, by contrast, were hyperaware of history; one of the encouraging things about them was the way everyone acknowledged it. Manager Dusty Baker’s mantra was that the players must respect the team’s ignominious past yet it had nothing to do with them. Meanwhile, Cubs management trotted out familiar symbols of past debacles–Ryne Sandberg of the 1984 squad and Fergie Jenkins from 1969 both threw out ceremonial first pitches in the NLCS–and Cubs theme songs were revived without dread: “Hey Hey, Holy Mackerel” (1969), “Go Cubs Go” and Van Halen’s “Jump” (1984), and even KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” (1998). These Cubs seemed to be the group steely and determined enough to confront and finally overcome the team’s past. They were five outs from the World Series. Yet suddenly they succumbed, becoming perhaps the single greatest expression of that legacy of losing. That’s what is most frustrating–the lovable losers seemed about to become victors. Yet they turned out to be Cubs after all, and there was something both reassuringly secure and bitterly disappointing in that.

The first game might have warned everyone what was to come, because in many ways it was the series in miniature. The Cubs pounded across four runs in the first inning when Beckett inexplicably left his curveball in the bullpen. Kenny Lofton walked. Mark Grudzielanek showed bunt, then hammered the ball over Pierre’s head for a triple, and Moises Alou hit a towering shot just inside the left-field foul pole that set off the first of several melees involving fans chasing balls on Waveland Avenue. Aramis Ramirez tripled on another Beckett fastball and scored on a double by Alex Gonzalez.

But handed a 4-0 lead, Carlos Zambrano became the first of the Cubs’ young pitchers to give way to the strain of working more than 200 innings this season. His velocity was in the mid-90s but his pitches had no movement, and he gave up five runs in the third when three of four straight batters homered. Rodriguez mashed a fastball to drive in his first three of what would become an NLCS record ten runs batted in, Cabrera homered on another fastball, and Juan Encarnacion whacked a changeup into the left-field bleachers. Cabrera scored again in the sixth, with the help of a Paul Bako passed ball, to make it 6-4, but the Cubs tied the game in the bottom half when Randall Simon doubled on a Beckett fastball and Gonzalez hit one into the right-field basket. When the Cubs squandered a leadoff double by Damian Miller in the seventh the momentum swung back to the Marlins, and helped along by Grudzie’s misplayed grounder they scored two runs in the ninth off Joe Borowski. With Florida closer Ugueth Urbina coming on, the game seemed over. But Lofton doubled to get Sosa to the plate with two out, and on a 1-2 count–mighty Casey territory–he smashed an Urbina slider into the darkness of Waveland. There was joy in Wrigleyville, and if the Cubs lost anyway when Mark Guthrie gave up a homer to Mike Lowell in the 11th, it promised to be a long, good series. The fans were quieted but unbowed. All through the park, one could hear the Marlins slapping hands near the pitcher’s mound, but one fan behind their dugout called out, “Celebrate now, boys! It’ll be the last time you do!”

Dusty Baker called the loss “disheartening” but quickly added, “We come back with our horses the next two games,” meaning Castor and Pollux aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. As I walked home from the bus stop that night, I saw a guy sitting on the front steps of his apartment building, his head literally in his hands.

“Cub fan?” I said.

He growled an affirmative.

“I was there,” I said. “I saw Dusty. He said we have our two horses going the next two games. They’ll go in games six and seven.”

He looked up. “Thanks, man,” he said.

See, everyone felt these Cubs were different. We believed.

What saps.

Yet Prior justified that optimism the following night. Displaying the grit that seemed to separate him from all other Cubs aces, he worked out of jams in the first and second innings, then cruised, as the Cubs gave him two runs in the first, three in the second–two of them on a gargantuan Sosa homer off the top of the camera shack deep in the center-field bleachers–and three more in the third. Fueled by chants of “Let’s go Prior!” clap, clap, clapclapclap, and tinkering, he later admitted, with his changeup to keep himself engaged, he coasted to a 12-3 victory. A full yellow moon was rising over the Sheffield Avenue apartment buildings that night, and as I walked home I looked up at it to see a V of honking geese heading south–like the Cubs for Florida.

Chicagoans took to the city’s bars en masse for the third game. My little group couldn’t find seats in one Ashland Avenue tavern, so we went up the street to a restaurant and watched on the bar TV there, dining all the while with a small but devoted group of fellow fans. It was another tense 11-inning affair that was won by the Cubs this time, an outcome that distracted from what could later be recognized as the first cracks in the team’s facade. Lofton led off the game with a single off the soft-tossing lefty Mark Redman, went to second on a Grudzie bunt, and scored on a Sosa single to give the Cubs the lead. Wood himself padded it with a sacrifice fly in the second that scored Eric Karros, but gave back a run in the bottom half and after that struggled to maintain the 2-1 lead. He totally lost his rhythm in the fifth with two out, walking the pitcher, giving up a hit to Pierre, and walking Castillo to load the bases, but pulled himself together to fan Rodriguez on three straight breaking pitches. He wasn’t so lucky in the seventh, getting himself in a jam and then giving up run-scoring singles to Castillo and Rodriguez on low, straight fastballs. Baker worked a bit of magic in the eighth, calling on Tom Goodwin and Simon to pinch-hit back-to-back at the bottom of the order. Goodwin tripled, and Simon followed by lashing a first-pitch fastball off Chad Fox into the right-field seats. Yet Borowski couldn’t nail down the save, and the game went into extra innings tied at four. There it stood until the 11th, when Lofton singled with one out, and Baker worked what would turn out to be his last trick of the year. He sent Doug Glanville up to pinch-hit and called a hit-and-run. Glanville slapped the ball directly through the spot in the infield vacated by the shortstop covering second, and the ball scooted past left fielder Jeff Conine all the way to the wall for a run-scoring triple. In a last bit of good fortune, Ramirez booted a game-ending grounder to third in the bottom half, only to find Castillo running from second straight toward him. Ramirez tagged him for the final out. The Cubs had won, 5-4, and led the series 2-1. Their horses had held on, if not entirely by themselves.

The chin-bearded Matt Clement faced former Cubs farmhand Dontrelle Willis–the player he was traded for last season–in the fourth game. Willis, of the ebullient demeanor epitomized by his leg kick, was nervous in the first inning, and it cost him. He gave up a leadoff hit to Lofton and walked Sosa and Alou before surrendering a grand slam to Ramirez on a low, inside fastball. At that moment, when the ball went up and we all waited to see if it would stay fair and the TV camera settled on an empty section of seats just right of the left-field foul pole, we all of us knew that this was it, this was the team that would go to the World Series and perhaps even win it against either a less-than-stellar New York Yankees team or a Boston Red Sox squad that was all hitting and no pitching. Staked to the big lead, Clement worked efficiently into the eighth and turned the game over to Kyle Farnsworth, who mopped up the 8-3 win. The Cubs were up 3-1 and needed only one more victory, with two games scheduled at home and “the horses” lined up–if need be.

Yet before they left Florida, the Cubs ran into a buzz saw in the form of a refocused Beckett. Loyal readers will recall I wrote about him three years ago (though they might remember that column better as the one about finding a yard to park my dog in before I could see him pitch), and this was the game where he delivered on all the promise he showed in Kane County. Mixing the mid-90s fastball and the biting curve he had even then with a wicked, drifting 90-mile-an-hour “changeup,” he mowed the Cubs down to claim a 4-0 two-hit shutout. Zambrano was gritty but weary in giving up two runs, and he got little support from relievers Dave Veres and Mike Remlinger. Even so, the Cubs were coming home, where Prior would no doubt settle things, thus setting Wood up for the first game of the World Series with Prior himself available for the second game.

Hours before game time, thick groups of fans made their way on foot to Wrigley Field–some to attend the game, some to watch in Wrigleyville bars, some just to stand on Waveland Avenue and wait for the grand celebration. Not even during the Bulls’ championship runs had I experienced anything quite like the anticipation of the crowd going into the sixth game. It was like the first two games of the 1984 NLCS against the San Diego Padres, only doubled or tripled, because the confidence was the same but this time the coup de grace would be administered here at Wrigley. Prior received a huge ovation in the pregame introductions and cheers all down the left-field grandstand as he made his way to the dugout after warming up in the bullpen. From the first pitch–a 94-mile-an-hour fastball–the crowd chanted, “Let’s go Cubs!” As in game two, Prior struggled early to gain mastery over his pitches–and the Marlins–but he worked out of a jam with runners at the corners in the first and after that limited the Marlins to a base runner an inning through the first five. Sosa, meanwhile, once again drove in Lofton for a go-ahead run in the first, deflecting a slider from the angular Carl Pavano down the right-field line. The crowd roared, and I wrote in my notebook what no doubt many were thinking: “My God, it’s here. It’s finally here.” An anxious calm settled over the fans in the middle innings, just as Prior found the touch on his curve, striking out Rodriguez and Cabrera in order with it while retiring eight straight batters.

Pavano maintained the 1-0 deficit into the sixth, when he allowed Sosa to reach third. Florida manager Jack McKeon called on Willis to relieve, but Willis threw a wild pitch to bring the run home. The Cubs pushed across another in the seventh, when Bako led off with a single, went to second on a Prior bunt–Prior received a standing ovation trotting back to the dugout–and scored on a two-out single by Grudzie off reliever Chad Fox.

“Let’s go Prior!” the fans chanted to start the eighth, and Mike Mordecai popped up to become the eighth straight hitter he’d retired.

“Every out–elation–CLOSER CLOSER,” I jotted.

Mordecai would be the last man Prior retired this year.

Pierre slapped a 2-2 fastball into left field for a double, and with that Prior seemed to have lost his out pitch. The count went full on Castillo, then he fouled two off, and on the eighth pitch of the at bat he sent a high pop down the left-field line. Most fans in the grandstand could see Alou in hot pursuit and with a possible play, but that was lost on Steven Bartman, sitting in the first row of seats and listening to headphones that no doubt muffled the crowd reaction. Just as Alou leaped to make the grab at the top of the wall, Bartman reached out, blocked the ball, and deflected it into the crowd.

He didn’t even make the catch.

Alou was irate, and a noticeably miffed Prior argued fan interference–to no avail. The chant of “Ass-hole! Ass-hole!” began in the right-field bleachers and soon circled the stadium, and by that time Bartman was shriveling in his seat as the realization no doubt came to him that his life would never be the same. It would never be the same because Prior threw a wild pitch with his next delivery, walking Castillo and sending Pierre to third. He got two strikes on Rodriguez but then left an 0-2 curve out over the plate, and Rodriguez lined it into left to score Pierre. Then, in the most critical play of the game, Cabrera grounded a first-pitch curve to short, where Gonzalez had made a mere ten errors all season. Yet he booted the ball trying to backhand it, and everyone was safe. Derrek Lee, hog-tied by Chicago pitching all series and 0-3 on the night, hit a first-pitch fastball into the left-field gap for a double, tying the game and chasing Prior. After he left the game, 39,577 fans went utterly silent as the Marlins pushed five more runs across the plate against Farnsworth and Remlinger. The Cubs went meekly in the last two innings, with Urbina not even breaking a sweat, leaving him ready to go again in game seven, when Beckett would be available out of the pen.

Baker was less than inspirational afterward. “History had nothing to do with this game–nothing,” he insisted, but admitted to being stunned by Gonzalez’s error, “because he doesn’t miss anything. And then after that we couldn’t stop the bleeding.”

McKeon, projecting a cranky cool that was part Charlie Weaver and part Robert Forster, declared that this was the Marlins’ modus operandi. “Give us an opening and we’ll come through,” he said. “We’re coming out here playing nice and loosey-goosey, and whatever happens tomorrow night happens. We’re not putting any pressure on ourselves.”

He’d leave that to the Cubs.

Walking home after the sixth game, again I heard the honk of geese overhead. They were crossing the sky not in a V formation but in a ragged line, unable to settle on a leader, heading dead west. It was like an omen out of Macbeth.

All through the second half of the season, Wood had followed Prior’s lead in pitching with steely determination. When Prior crumbled, Wood did too. Gripping his curve too tight and throwing it repeatedly in the dirt in front of the plate, he gave up a leadoff triple to Pierre on a fastball with no movement on it. An out and a walk later, he threw a low, inside, straight fastball to Cabrera on a 1-2 count, and Cabrera lined it into the left-field bleachers for a 3-0 Florida lead. Even then, the Cubs were able to torment their fans with a couple of final thrills. The bottom of the order tied the game off Redman with three runs in the second, two of them coming on a home run by Wood himself. That sent 39,574 fans jumping up and down, waving their hands over their heads–they looked like computer-generated animation in a video game–not to mention the thousands more packing Waveland. When Alou mashed a 1-0 fastball into the left-field bleachers with Sosa on in the third, putting the Cubs up 5-3, optimism surged through the crowd. We were going after all. But Wood went flat again in the fifth. He walked the leadoff man and Castillo one out later, and grooved a first-pitch curve to Rodriguez, who lined a double into left field for his tenth RBI of the series. Baker for some reason played the infield back, and Cabrera’s grounder to first scored Castillo with the tying run. Lee then lined a first-pitch fastball into right field to score Rodriguez and put the Marlins up 6-5.

In the bottom of the fifth McKeon did as I feared and called on Beckett. If he could get three shutout innings from Beckett and two more from Urbina, the Cubs would be toast. As it was, he got four good innings out of Beckett–with only a Troy O’Leary pinch solo homer to interrupt the 12 outs–and one from Urbina. And the homer became meaningless after the Marlins touched Wood and Farnsworth for an insurance run in the sixth and scored two more–all the action coming with two out–in the seventh. In the bottom of the eighth Sosa took a Beckett fastball on the outside corner for strike three, and when Alou followed with an inning-ending groundout the crowd again went utterly silent. When the Marlins won 9-6 and started celebrating on the field, their shouts and slaps could be heard throughout Wrigley Field. At first very few people left, and after a few moments a chant of “Cubbies! Cubbies!” broke out behind the Cubs’ dugout. But no player emerged to take a curtain call; no one acknowledged the applause. More than half an hour later, after Baker had briefly waved to the remaining fans while crossing the field going to and from the interview room, dozens of individuals still sat in their seats, as if stunned into paralysis.

Cubs fans: the largest documented mass outbreak of Stockholm Syndrome.

The prevailing mood, reinforced by the spin Baker tried to put on the defeat afterward, had it that this was a young team with a nucleus of Prior, Wood, and Zambrano that was taking its first steps toward a championship. I’m not so sure. Baker worked those three very hard this season, given the youth of Prior and Zambrano, and Wood’s previous elbow surgery. After the seventh game, I had a long talk with Baseball Prospectus writer Will Carroll, an expert on baseball health, who had already written that even if the heavy workload those three were put under this season didn’t harm them right away, it might have an adverse effect that shows up next year or in seasons soon to come. We agreed that we’d already seen such an effect: Wood and Zambrano were noticeably less effective in their last starts of the season, and even Prior saw his stuff go all at once in the sixth game. Baker rode his horses hard, and they gave out on him on the border of the promised land.

So we come to the matter of culpability. It is my strong belief that if Alou had been able to make that catch down the left-field line Prior would have ended the threat with minimal damage, carrying the Cubs into the World Series against the Yankees. If Steven Bartman obeyed instinct by trying to catch the ball, he prompted the Cubs to obey their seemingly innate compulsion to self-destruct.

That was what was most frustrating. This year’s Cubs promised a change, a transformation, a refusal to accept the status quo. When they returned to their old ways they taught a bitter lesson to those of us who’d resolved never to settle for such paltry pickings again. We were right to want and expect more, and we weren’t going back to being lovable losers.

Even so, a century from now, if the Cubs still haven’t won a World Series, every Chicago fan will know the name of Steven Bartman. In an instant he became the Fred Merkle, the Don Young, the black cat of baseball fans. I’m not glorying sadistically in that, simply stating a fact. Like the Cubs, he now must live with history and the consequences of his actions. Yet given the Cubs’ official response in support of him, and given the way the team trots out Sam Sianis and his billy goat on an annual basis, and given the acceptance of most Cubs fans, I think we can look forward to the day when Bartman is called upon to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs playoff game, as the team continues to confront its past in anticipation of the time when someone–Prior or Wood or Sosa or some player yet unborn–comes along with the ability and the determination to free us all from the dull acceptance of the way things supposedly are meant to be.