The last Monday of baseball’s regular season produced a beautiful night at Wrigley Field. A breeze drifted from right to left field as the crowd slowly sifted into the park for the series opener with the Cincinnati Reds. Corey Patterson led off the Cubs’ half of the first inning with a walk, triggering a two-run rally when Moises Alou singled and Nomar Garciaparra came through with a two-out double. The crowd, which had arrived with some trepidation to welcome the Cubs home from a productive but ill-fated road trip, was soon raucous and confident. Pitcher Carlos Zambrano gave up a run in the fourth on a double by Austin Kearns, but when the Cubs scored five in the bottom half with the help of back-to-back homers by Patterson and Derrek Lee, Zambrano clamped down on the lead like a snapping turtle, retiring the Reds in order in the fifth and sixth. When he was pulled by manager Dusty Baker in the seventh–more to preserve his arm for the next outing than to preserve the lead–Zambrano looked miffed, but he received a standing ovation in the stands and tipped his hat to the crowd before signaling with a finger pointed to God as he entered the dugout. The Cubs’ bullpen staggered a bit in the eighth but still coasted to a 12-5 victory. The win let the Cubs pull a game ahead of the San Francisco Giants in the wild-card race and remain a game and a half ahead of the Houston Astros. In the final innings, with the left-field bleacher bums yelling, “Right field sucks!” and the right-field fans responding in kind, all seemed right with the world.

The Cubs wouldn’t win another game until they were eliminated from playoff contention. Over the next five days their entire organization collapsed, not just on the field of play but in the locker room and the executive offices and the broadcast booth. By Saturday’s nationally televised “Game of the Week,” Fox analyst Tim McCarver was calling it “one of the worst weeks in this franchise’s history.” Considering the Cubs’ haunted past, that was saying something.

But let’s be honest: the Cubs’ downfall of 2004 was nothing next to 1969, 1984, or of course 2003. All season, but especially later on, one kept hearing fans and radio hosts talking about whether a flop this season would be worse than those years; if anything, that talk was proof it wouldn’t be. In ’69, ’84, and ’03, Cubs fans came to believe that this team was different, that this was the one that would break whatever curse hovered over the franchise. This year fans knew early on that, for all its talent, this team was too fundamentally unsound to go very far. So when the collapse came, as cataclysmic as it was–five straight losses the last week of the season and seven in eight games going back to the weekend before–it was almost humane in its speed and efficiency.

There had been intimations: humiliating losses to the Saint Louis Cardinals in mid-July and to the Astros in late August. Both of those games saw the Cubs overheat in pressure-packed situations at Wrigley Field. But the team seemed to right itself on its final road trip, the longest of the season, which began September 16. In Cincinnati the Cubs won three of four. Then they made a quick stop in Florida to split a hurricane-delayed doubleheader with the Marlins and proceeded on to Pittsburgh to sweep three games from the Pirates (Zambrano’s 1-0 win in the middle game was particularly stirring). At Shea Stadium, no doubt filled with thoughts of 1969, they won the opener of a three-game set 2-1 in ten innings.

Then, however, came the first terrible tremor. Mark Prior, looking like his old self, pitched gallantly into the eighth inning without allowing a run. Todd Walker homered with Garciaparra on to give Prior a 2-0 lead, and Prior himself later singled and came around to score on a bases-loaded walk in the eighth to make it 3-0. Ryan Dempster came on to relieve him and end the eighth, then for some reason was left in to start the ninth. Dempster committed the cardinal sin of walking not one man but two with a three-run lead, and although closer LaTroy Hawkins got within a single strike of ending the game, he surrendered a homer to minor-league phenom Victor Diaz to tie the score.

With the Cubs away from Wrigley and seemingly coasting back home against weak competition, this came for me in the middle of a family apple-picking outing. All the way up to Michigan we listened to WGN’s Pat Hughes and Dave Otto (spelling the ailing Ron Santo) as they gleefully described Prior’s pitching. The orchard had thoughtfully provided a TV in the barn where the apples are weighed. Thinking I was simply observing the final outs, I saw Diaz’s homer. (With shades of Al Weis in ’69, it was only his second in the big leagues.) I trudged out to the orchard, lay down, and put my arm across my eyes, leaving the Cubs to their own devices. They squandered a few opportunities on the way to losing 4-3 in 12 innings. The next day Kerry Wood came out wild, walked the leadoff man, and eventually allowed three runs in the first inning–two of them forced in with the bases loaded on a hit batter and another walk–before settling down. It was all the Mets would need, as the Cubs fell short 3-2.

The thing was, the Cubs returned home from their 8-4 road trip still leading the Giants by a half game and the Astros by a game and a half in the wild-card race. After Zambrano’s aforementioned victory against the Reds, the Cubs seemed back on track. Yet Greg Maddux of all people got clobbered the next night, giving up six runs in five innings with the wind blowing in as the Cubs lost 8-3. Fans later described the awful quiet that set in, reminiscent of the moments after the Steve Bartman debacle of last year’s National League Championship Series.

Fate sometimes has nothing to do with curses but is simply the inexorable accumulation of flaws. The following afternoon, again with the wind blowing in, spot starter Glendon Rusch pitched a heroic game. He gave up a homer early on to Adam Dunn but then hit a homer himself in the third. With the bases loaded in the middle innings, Sammy Sosa came to the plate. He fouled off a low outside slider that would have walked in a run, then took a vicious cut at a low outside fastball. He did a tentative hop, leaving the batter’s box as the ball went up and up, but the wind knocked it down, and Dunn made a leaping catch about six inches short of the basket in right field to end the inning.

The Cubs loaded the bases again in the seventh, this time with no outs, but only managed a run when an Alou sacrifice fly was followed by an Aramis Ramirez double play. Still, that made for a 2-1 lead, and Hawkins came on again to save it in the ninth. He got two quick outs, then allowed a triple down the right-field line to D’Angelo Jimenez. Regardless, he needed just one more out with Kearns at the plate. He snuck a fastball in under the bat for strike one, threw another for strike two. Then, with an 0-2 count, a small crowd gathering around my office TV, and me muttering the mantra, “Slider off the plate, slider off the plate,” catcher Michael Barrett called for another fastball. Hawkins threw it high on the inside part of the plate, and Kearns pounded it into the ivy on the left-field wall to tie the score.

The Cubs had their chances in extra innings, loading the bases in the 11th, but failed to convert. Kearns hit a two-run homer off reliever Jon Leicester in the 12th, and Santo, returned to the radio booth, gave out a sigh that seemed to encapsulate all human suffering and squandered opportunities. The Cubs pushed a measly run across in the bottom half, but that was it. They lost, 4-3. Later that night Houston–the Astros, whom the Cubs could have put to rest by quashing them at home in late August–moved into the wild-card lead by a half game.

Under different circumstances, Prior’s start in the series finale Thursday might have gone down in Chicago sports lore. He pitched a tremendous game, one of the best of his career: he struck out 16 in nine innings, allowing one walk and three hits, and made only one mistake. After Sosa staked him to a 1-0 lead with a solo shot in the sixth, Prior left a curve out over the plate to Kearns (that name again) in the seventh. Kearns smashed a hooking line drive that rattled off the screen of the left-field foul pole–an instant quicker on the trigger and it would have swerved foul–for a game-tying homer. In the ninth, Prior allowed a runner to reach third base with two out, and the next batter chopped a grounder up the middle. Walker ran it down behind second base and threw off balance to first, where Lee scooped it out of the dirt just in time to get the batter and end the inning. The usually stoic Prior responded with intensity, thanking everyone on their way back to the dugout. Yet the Cubs failed to score in the bottom half, and they lost again when the Reds scored in the 12th.

The Braves came to town for the last three games of the season. Having been eliminated by the Cubs in last year’s first-round divisional playoff series, they were eager to keep the Cubs out of the playoffs entirely. On Friday, Wood gave up two in the second, two more in the fourth, and another in the fifth to fall behind, 5-1. The Cubs made things look a little better by scoring three in the bottom of the ninth, but a 5-4 loss was still a loss, and it pushed them to the brink of elimination. They could have at least forced the Astros to do the work for themselves that Saturday night. Instead, even after claiming a 6-2 lead, they helped the Braves get back in the game in the sixth with two gift runs when utility man Jose Macias, spelling Patterson in center field, lost a fly ball in the sun. (Baker would later call it “a nightmare week,” saying “Whatever you do doesn’t work.”) Yanked by Baker, a disgusted Zambrano didn’t tip his hat to the crowd but tossed it into the stands behind the Cubs’ dugout. Kyle Farnsworth and Mike Remlinger combined to blow the lead, and the Braves went on to win 8-6, eliminating the Cubs from postseason play.

So it was that the Cubs’ season finale came down–as it so often has in the past–to a meaningless game. The vast majority of spectators were in a mellow, golden mood: the Stockholm-syndrome set. They cheered as the Cubs pounded the Braves’ Paul Byrd with five runs in the first, then added two more in both the fourth and fifth. With the wind blowing out, Maddux pitched just well enough to claim the win, his 16th of the season, tying him with Zambrano for team lead (and giving both more wins than Prior and Wood combined). Playing in place of Sosa, promising slugger Jason Dubois lumbered out to right field to start the game. He tripled in the first and added a tape-measure homer to the deepest reaches of the shrubbery in center field in the fourth.

A resentful Sosa, out of the lineup on the last day of the season, had skipped out early; the Cubs later docked him his day’s pay of $87,000 and change. Meanwhile, the Sunday papers were rife with reports that TV play-by-play man Chip Caray was about to leave to return to work with his father, Skip, for the Braves, while color analyst Steve Stone was left hanging following a blistering–but by all accounts accurate–attack on Baker and the team after Thursday’s surrender. Stone, it should be noted, received the biggest ovation of the day, during the seventh-inning stretch.

The Cubs were cheered as much as ever with the final outs, given credit for their 89 wins–which, a week after their previous victory, nevertheless pushed them past last year’s total. Garciaparra, no doubt campaigning for a free-agent deal, responded by emerging from the dugout afterward to toss his batting gloves to the crowd. Yet none of this masked the feeling that there seemed to be a schism between players and fans. The fans expected this team to win–rightfully so, as Stone pointed out–in spite of the health problems suffered early on by Prior and Wood and in spite of the lack of a decent leadoff man (a shortcoming even this column was capable of pointing out last winter). Likewise, for all general manager Jim Hendry’s maneuvering, no one mentioned that final weekend how the Cubs sure could have used Juan Cruz (whose record this season was 6-2, with a 2.75 earned run average) instead of Andy Pratt, a flop after being obtained for Cruz from the Braves during spring training. Yet even that misstep was negligible compared with the fiasco in the broadcast booth. Stone did nothing but tell the truth all season–tell it in the face of Baker mollycoddling his players. Yet he was rewarded with complaints phoned to the press box from the players in the middle of the game, reportedly with threats from players on the team’s charter flights, and with player demands that he and Caray be removed from those flights. Behavior like that would once have been called “bush league”; this year, it demanded the question whether millionaires know the meaning of the phrase.

If the Cubs remove Stone–unlikely but possible, depending on where the power struggle comes down at the Tribune Company before November 4, its deadline to pick up his contract option–it would widen the rift between players and fans. It’s hard to argue with the results of Baker’s tactics–siding with his players, fostering an us-against-them mentality–until you consider this season. This team should have won the wild card and would have won the wild card if it hadn’t been for the players’ inability to take a walk and Baker’s tendency to cater to their dunderheaded lack of common sense.

Somehow, the end of the Cubs 2004 season ran together with what has become my annual reading of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke’s great novel of love and loss (beginning with an entry dated September 11). Rilke writes at length about what great weight it puts upon one to be loved: the obligation to love, or at least do good deeds, in return. He writes, in the end, about the prodigal son as an illustration of that phenomenon, about how he ran away from love and adulation in order to elude those obligations, only to find them as problematic as ever upon his return. I see the Cubs in much the same dilemma: they seem to need to escape the undying loyalty of Cubs fans in order to attain whatever it is they need to achieve a world championship. Yet as the players drove out of their parking lot after their last game of the season, they were confronted by cheering crowds as large as ever. That image reminded me of the last lines of Rilke’s novel, concerning the prodigal son and his yearning for a transcendent acceptance by God: “How could they know who he was? He was now terribly difficult to love, and he felt that only One would be capable of it. But He was not yet willing.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel–Getty Images.