For at least one night–at most, one week–the Cubs’ season was as it was supposed to be, full of hopes rewarded and dreams fulfilled. The night was May 22, when pitching phenom Mark Prior went up against the Pittsburgh Pirates in front of 40,138 anxious fans at Wrigley Field. The Pirates, whom Prior would face in his first two games, were an inspired choice of opponent: last in the National League in batting average and walks, they wouldn’t be much of a threat to hurt him at the plate or make him work too hard throwing strikes. Otherwise, Prior was in an unenviable position. He was being called on by a desperate team that had won only 2 of its previous 12 games and dropped to 15-28 on the year. The previous evening the Cubs had been slaughtered by the Pirates 12-1 in the first game of a twi-night doubleheader before squeezing out a 4-3 victory in the nightcap. Now here was Prior, making his big-league debut before a rabid standing-room-only crowd, with an even higher level of excitement in the crammed press box. Prior was the Cubs’ most ballyhooed pitching prospect since Kerry Wood; but Wood arrived early in the blessed season of 1998, with the Cubs already on their way to an unexpected playoff appearance, and he debuted in Montreal, away from the hometown spotlight. The opposition and the night’s cold weather aside, almost every detail of Prior’s first start added to the pressure on him.

But he weathered the pressure. “His mental toughness is exceptional,” said manager Don Baylor after the game. From Prior’s first step outside the dugout to warm up to the last question he answered in the interview room, everything he did made a strong, favorable impression. It did seem that night that he might reverse the team’s fortunes all by himself.

Tall and thin, with an erect posture, long back, sturdy legs outfitted in high stockings with no stirrups, and a cap tugged low on his forehead, Prior has the classic look of a star pitcher. That was the presence he projected stepping onto the field to the cheers of attentive fans in the stands. He started warming up by throwing flat-footed near the bull pen, moving back a step with each throw to bull pen catcher Benny Cadahia until he was tossing him the ball from short left field. Then he worked his way back to the bull pen, where he made a few phantom pitches holding a towel in his right hand to drag on the arm. Only then did he warm up normally, throwing first from behind the mound and then taking the hill. It’s an unconventional regimen all his own, developed no doubt with the help of former major-league pitching coach Tom House, who has worked with Prior extensively, and it instantly asserted his independence and ability to think outside baseball’s norms. The end result of his idiosyncrasy is a textbook pitching motion.

Prior holds his glove over his heart, his right arm hanging loose by his side, then sidles left to rock into his delivery. He kicks his left leg high and tight, knee close to the chest, then strides down the mound like a man stepping over a dog in a doorway. His arm follows the body smoothly and he doesn’t seem to be throwing hard. His mechanics are much better than Wood’s. Wood tended to throw across his body early on, which helped lead to his arm problems. Wood’s arm speed gives his fastball its erratic movement; Prior’s easy delivery makes his pitches sneaky fast–not that he needs to be all that sneaky with a fastball in the mid-90s, just a few miles an hour slower than Wood’s.

To thunderous applause, Prior trotted onto the field with the rest of the starting lineup to begin the game, and if his first pitch to Chad Hermansen was a ball, his next two were strikes, the second a lovely curve. Yet Hermansen worked the count full before slapping the next pitch into center field for a single. “There goes the no-hitter,” said one press box wag, and you could sense the disappointment in the crowd. Some phenom! Yet after the next batter sacrificed Hermansen to second, Prior got the dangerous Brian Giles–easily the Pirates’ best hitter–with a perfect fastball on the outside corner, and cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez with a curve thrown in the same spot.

The Cubs promptly gave Prior a two-run lead, as Dave Williams, Pittsburgh’s crafty young left-hander, on this occasion wasn’t crafty enough. Joe Girardi singled with one out, went to second on a wild pitch, and–after Sammy Sosa was intentionally walked–came home on a double by Fred McGriff, waking from a sleepy first six weeks of the season. Sosa followed Girardi home on a sacrifice fly by Moises Alou, who also was showing signs of life. Yet Prior almost immediately endangered the lead, walking the leadoff man in the second inning and hitting the next batter. He nearly worked out of it, but after a ground-ball double play, light-hitting Pokey Reese smacked an 0-1 fastball into right field to drive in the base runner from third. Prior struck out Williams to end the inning.

After that, Prior was a thing to behold. In the third he allowed a harmless single to Giles while striking out the side against the top of the Pittsburgh order, getting both Hermansen and Jack Wilson on curves. Sosa padded the lead with a solo homer in the bottom of the inning, Corey Patterson helped out with a splendid running catch against Reese leading off the fifth, and the Cubs tacked on a pair of runs in their fifth on an RBI single by Alou and a sacrifice fly by Bill Mueller. Prior gave up a leadoff homer to Giles in the sixth but responded by dialing up his fastball to fan Ramirez and Rob Mackowiak, and fans in the left-field bleachers held up signboards reading “MARK KKKKKKKKKK” for his ten strikeouts. The crowd booed when Baylor pinch-hit for Prior in the bottom of the sixth, but he left with a 5-2 lead, seemingly destined for his first big-league win.

But in the seventh reliever Pat Mahomes committed the cardinal sin of walking the leadoff man, and he came around to score. In the eighth Jeff Fassero gave up a leadoff single that led to another run when closer Antonio Alfonseca allowed a hit and a walk before ending the inning. It was 5-4, and there was an almost tangible sense of dread in the stands. But pesky Augie Ojeda drew a one-out walk in the bottom of the eighth and scored when pinch hitter Darren Lewis pulled a curve down the left-field line for a double. Lewis scored on a hit by Girardi and the crowd sighed with relief. Alfonseca worked a perfect ninth for a 7-4 victory.

Prior was the picture of composure afterward. Having been doused by Wood with a beverage he declined to name–one suspects beer, but then again he could have paid homage to the founders of Rotisserie League baseball by making it Yoo-Hoo–he looked as if he’d stepped out of one of those pictures of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford after a World Series win in the 50s. “I don’t think I’ll realize the magnitude of the game until the off-season,” he said, “but obviously it was something special.” He said he’d been concentrating so much on the task at hand that he didn’t even feel the crowd until he’d left the game and could sit in the dugout soaking it all in. He added that he would immediately start preparing for his next start, which is why it wouldn’t be until the end of the year that he’d be able to put the game in perspective.

Yet to others the game seemed to have instantly clarified the Cubs’ picture. With Prior joining a rotation that already included Wood, ace Jon Lieber, the increasingly impressive Matt Clement, and either Juan Cruz or Jason Bere; with McGriff and Alou starting to hit; and with Patterson and rookie Bobby Hill getting comfortable in the majors, the Cubs suddenly looked like a team that could put together a long winning streak. Indeed, they beat the Bucs the next night with Hill hitting his first big-league homer, went to Houston and beat bull pen ace Billy Wagner in extra innings, and made it five in a row with Wood’s complete-game victory. The Cubs were 19-28, back within nine games of .500. But the next day Baylor pulled Bere with a 5-0 lead and the bull pen couldn’t hold it, losing 7-5. Prior tried to get the Cubs back on track in Pittsburgh the following night, but this time he was outdueled by Williams. The Cubs squandered game-tying homers by Patterson and Hill as Alfonseca lost it in the tenth. Clement pitched a shutout the next day, but Lieber got roughed up and lost before Wood won his team-high sixth of the season. Back home last Friday against the Astros, Bere pitched decently but got beat 4-1. By this time Alou was in his funk again, and the woeful Todd Hundley had returned from an injury to show no visible signs of improvement at bat or behind the plate.

The rotation came around to Prior again last Saturday. It was his first exposure to the not-so-pitcher-friendly confines of Wrigley when the weather’s warm and the wind is blowing out. Unfortunately, on this afternoon he had no feel for his curve and no control over his other off-speed pitches. While he struck out Houston’s Jeff Bagwell looking in the first on a beautiful fastball, the red-hot Richard Hidalgo sat dead red on a 1-2 count in the second and hammered the ball into the left-field bleachers. (A shirtless fan grabbed it and heaved it back into the infield as if trying to get Hidalgo rounding second.) Lance Berkman did the same in the third, undoing Prior’s only heroics of the day, a two-out two-run double–his first hit in the majors–off fellow phenom Roy Oswalt in the bottom of the second. By the fourth inning the whole Houston lineup was sitting on Prior’s fastball and he didn’t finish the frame, giving up five runs as the Cubs went on to lose 7-3. Oswalt was much more impressive with his fastball and curve and deceptive motion, which suggests a right-handed Ron Guidry. There’s a kick with a softly pointed toe, then a burst into a whirlwind, with Oswalt slinging a hard-breaking overhead curve while Guidry threw a wide-bending three-quarters slider. The loss sent the Cubs into this week at 21-33, on a pace to finish the season 63-99, and with only the Milwaukee Brewers behind them in the NL Central Division. Though Clement won Sunday with a fine performance, things looked dire.

Young pitchers will break your heart–as Jerry Manuel is also finding out with the White Sox–but nothing like the way underperforming veterans such as Alou, Hundley, Mueller, and Delino DeShields will. The Cubs appear to be putting together a championship nucleus that’s strong up the middle with Patterson, Hill, and the young starting staff, and I can imagine that group one day compiling their own beer-soaked World Series photos. But future fantasies offer little consolation for the frustrations here and now of a season that began with such hope and went swirling all too quickly down the drain.