The week the Cubs were in Houston for their most recent showdown with the Astros, I was on the Michigan shore in a beach house without a television. So I dutifully dialed the boom box to WGN AM each night, even after the Cubs dropped the first game of the series to fall into second place behind the Astros in the National League Central. Radio announcers Pat Hughes and Ron Santo–never ones to hide their emotions, Santo especially–sounded like members of a retreating army that night, but they got much livelier the next evening when the Cubs rallied to win 3-1 and reclaim first place, and they were even more elated the night after that when Cubs ace Jon Lieber took another 3-1 lead into the late innings. When the rest of my family headed out to the local ice cream parlor, I hitched a ride to the roadhouse up the highway to watch the end of the game, only to find the bar TV tuned to ESPN’s game of the week, which distinctly did not involve the Cubs. So I lit the cigar I had brought along and hoofed it back to the house, where I pointed the boom box out the window so I could smoke outside. Hughes and Santo were curiously matter-of-fact when Joe Girardi homered in the top of the ninth to make it 5-1, and they were as businesslike as Lieber himself in bringing the win home.

Yet with the chitterings and chatterings of various bugs and night birds all around, the atmosphere seemed to me as exciting as Wrigley Field when everyone’s standing in the ninth, and when the game was won I fetched a KC and the Sunshine Band compact disc I had brought along and put “Get Down Tonight” on the boom box. When the family came home, all charged up by ice cream, the kids started hopping around, and we all sang and danced late into the summer night, just as in the end of William Joyce’s Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures With the Family Lazardo.

Unfortunately, that night might have been the high point of the Cubs’ season, if not our vacation. Two nights later the Cubs got shut down by the unlikely Albie Lopez of the Arizona Diamondbacks while Kevin Tapani was clobbered. Hughes and Santo were reduced to filling time with comedy, Santo doing a delightfully ditsy Gracie Allen as they discussed the cast and characters of Leave It to Beaver. The next night they grew increasingly depressed during a loss to Randy Johnson, and in the finale Julian Tavarez blew an early lead and the Diamondbacks won going away, sweeping the series and dropping the Cubs two games behind the Astros, who had been beating up on the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Having left Houston in triumph only to fall behind in Arizona, the Cubs arrived home a week ago last Monday to begin the most critical stretch of their season. The schedule still favored them, as 25 of their final 40 games were to be played in the friendly confines. Yet 11 of those games would come on this home stand, the longest of the season, after which they’d have 14 games at home and 15 on the road. If the Cubs were to move back into first place, this had to be the time.

The home stand began with a doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers, the result of a rain-out earlier in the year, and the Cubs looked flat, having gotten back to town late the previous night. Yet they rallied from a 4-1 deficit to tie the first game, then loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth. Pinch-hitting Corey Patterson smoked the ball at Richie Sexson, who caught it at first base for the second out, but Delino DeShields’s fly ball to left, which looked routine, kept going and going and bounced waist-high off the ivy to score three runs. Tom “Flash” Gordon came on to save the win. In the nightcap, however, the Cubs–with the doubleheader stacking up their rotation and Kerry Wood on the disabled list with a sore shoulder–had to call on Carlos Zambrano to make his major-league debut. He and the Brewers’ Jamey Wright took no-hitters into the fourth, but when things went bad for Zambrano they went bad all at once. He gave up five runs in the fourth, the last three on a two-out homer by Milwaukee backup catcher Kevin Brown, and he couldn’t get an out in the fifth. Reliever Felix Heredia came in and poured kerosene on the fire, and with Milwaukee up 10-0 the game was as good as over. The next day the Cubs called on 20-year-old Juan Cruz to make his big-league debut as well, and he looked great, but he was outdueled by Ruben Quevedo, the prospect the Cubs recently gave up to get David Weathers. Tapani received some overdue offensive support in a big way on Wednesday, beating Milwaukee 16-3 as Sammy Sosa hit three homers for the second time this month, but on Thursday Tavarez couldn’t get out of the first inning. So the Cubs had opened the 11-game home stand by losing three of five to the also-ran Brewers.

Who should arrive in town last Friday but the arch-rival Saint Louis Cardinals? Having been given up for dead, the Cards had won 11 in a row to get back in the race and entered the series only a game behind the Cubs, who were now three behind the Astros. Jason Bere looked uncertain in the first inning, working too carefully as he walked J.D. Drew and grooving a fastball to Jim Edmonds for a two-run double. But the Cubs got the runs back in the bottom half, when Saint Louis ace Matt Morris hit two batters, both of whom came around to score, the second on a walk with the bases loaded. The Cubs added a run in the second on a Sosa sacrifice fly and went up 4-2 in the third when Eric Young stole second and came home on a bullet hit up the middle by Sosa. But the Cubs fell apart in the fifth, as Bere couldn’t get a man out. A sinking liner got by a diving Sosa; Bill Mueller–suffering from a stiff right arm after being hit by Morris–threw away a sacrifice bunt; and Bere flopped diving for a checked-swing grounder. By the time the inning was over, five runs were in. Fred McGriff helped the Cards add another run by fumbling an easy toss to first in the eighth. Though the Cubs rallied to make it 10-8 in the end, their loss dropped them into a tie with the Cards for second, both teams four games behind the Astros and now trailing the San Francisco Giants for the wild-card spot.

All season long, and especially in August, the Cubs have looked to Sosa and Lieber when things are darkest. Lieber came through again Saturday for his third victory of the month and 17th of the season. And on Sunday Sosa hit his 50th homer of the season and 15th of the month and McGriff followed with a triple and scored, staking Cruz to a 3-0 first-inning lead. With help from the bull pen and Sosa’s 51st homer, he cruised to his first big-league win. Three games behind the Astros and now two games ahead of the Cards, the Cubs were still in the thick of it.

Which reminded me of a curious incident their first night home. When Milwaukee went up 10-0 after five innings, I left–and I wasn’t alone. Fans were lined up for CTA buses like political refugees trying to get into an embassy. I squeezed onto my bus only because an older couple stepped aside at the last moment to wait for a seat on the next one. The bus was packed but the fans were surprisingly cheery, and a bunch of half-drunk guys noticed they were in the presence of a celebrity–Alexandria Rios-Bennefield, who’d sung the national anthem before the first game. The guys were sober enough to make the connection and drunk enough to ask her to sing it again. They started chanting, “Alex! Alex!” catching her by surprise, though her mother seemed to get a kick out of it. Finally she stood and started to sing, bashfully at first, but then louder and with more confidence as the back of the bus started to hush and listen. The little girl had a big voice, and by the last few lines some of the fans had begun to sing along, cheering when she finished as if they were ready for a third game that night. I’ve always preferred “America the Beautiful” as a gesture of baseball patriotism, but this time “The Star-Spangled Banner” seemed entirely appropriate. Never before had I heard it project such a sense of the embattled endurance of a people–the spirit that had inspired the song to begin with. And so the Cubs and their fans soldiered on into September and the closing days of the campaign.