It was one of those rare games in which the entire season appears to rest in the balance. That it was the Cubs who were involved dictated that “the entire season” at stake did not mean the world championship or even just remaining alive, but instead meant simple respectability over the next six months and the very slightest possibility of contending for first place. Those are the terms we speak in when we refer to the Cubs’ fortunes. That this game took place on opening day, however, meant that the drama was high in spite of the inherent meaninglessness of the outcome. It was probably the most exciting opening-day victory the Cubs have earned since Willie Smith hit his pinch home run in the 11th inning against the same Philadelphia Phillies 20 years ago. If the game a week ago last Tuesday portends the same sort of roller-coaster season, we are all in for a fine summer.

It was the sort of game a baseball fan wants to explain, in detail, to the people who say they don’t like the sport because it’s boring. The terms “veteran ace,” “slugger,” “skipper,” and “kid reliever”–the fan’s lazy shorthand–really don’t do the job here. Yet those were the characters the drama was made from, and it was a very dramatic game. Almost everything the Cubs need to do if they are to have a respectable season was demonstrated in this home opener; all their “ifs” came up “whens” for one afternoon. Personalities were portrayed, both in the slightest and the grandest gestures. It was a terrific opening act.

Rick Sutcliffe, the veteran ace, made his fifth straight opening-day start for the Cubs, an event that was clearly in doubt over the winter as he faced competition on the team from Greg Maddux for the honor as well as the possibility of being traded. Sutcliffe is an old hand on a young team–a team that has gotten even younger as general manager Jim Frey has refashioned it to his own tastes–but he has responded to the departure of old friends and to his own advancing age by throwing himself back into the game with more intensity. He is as fit as he’s been with the Cubs, and his arm is reported to be as strong as it’s been since he hurt it favoring a hip injury in 1985. In this game he looked, for a while, to be the Sutcliffe of old–ignoring a rookie error in the second inning to work out of a bases-loaded jam–until he tired early, as one might expect in his first start of the season, and left the game in the sixth. It was enough work to earn the victory if the Cubs held their lead.

Sutcliffe, in fact, had helped the Cubs establish that lead in the third inning: in a daring call by manager Don Zimmer, Sutcliffe executed not a bunt but a textbook hit-and-run after the previous hitter, rookie catcher Joe Girardi, had slapped a single to center. Rookie center fielder Jerome Walton atoned for the aforementioned error with his first major-league hit, which also earned his first major-league RBI. The Phillies’ starter, Floyd Youmans–who was himself a promising youngster not so long ago, before going into the dry-out tank a couple of times–had the point thrust home as he had to give these baseball mementos to the Cubs’ dugout for safekeeping. The first ball, following Girardi’s hit, he tossed to the sideline on a couple of hops; the second, following Walton’s RBI single, he bounced roughly off the turf in the manner of Pete Rose punctuating the end of an inning. It was spite so blatant it was almost sympathetic, the sneer of a prematurely burned-out young executive who’s already watching fresh college graduates pass him up at the firm. Youmans, by the way, is facing his last chance to make it in the majors at the ripe old age of 24.

Andre Dawson, the team’s lone slugger, padded the Cubs’ lead with a two-run homer in the following inning. Once hit, there was never a doubt about this ball. It carried in a high arc against the sky and the massing clouds overhead and smacked into the fence behind the bleachers. For Dawson, who hit 49 home runs two years ago and a mere 24 last season, it was an almost necessary beginning.

Sutcliffe erred to the Phillies’ catcher, Darren Daulton, in the top half of the next inning, allowing a solo homer, then got the run back himself by singling and scoring on an RBI single by Ryne Sandberg, who conquered his usual poor April tradition with two hits that day. (He hit in typical April luck the other two times up, blistering shots right at the third baseman and the left fielder.) Essential to the rally was a bunt single by the rookie Walton, successfully testing the surgically repaired shoulder of third baseman Mike Schmidt with the ruthlessness of a veteran. The inning could have been better, but Youmans walked Dawson to get to Mark Grace–something the Cubs fear will happen too frequently this year. Grace did his best to discourage the practice by lining hard but right at the right fielder.

Sutcliffe departed in the sixth, and Zimmer gave back the run he had earned with his daring call in the third–twice over. Sutcliffe loaded the bases with two outs and faced his previous nemesis Daulton. Zimmer had Calvin Schiraldi and Steve Wilson warm in the bull pen. Schiraldi is the former Boston Red Sox reliever whom the Cubs tried as a starter last season. This year he returns to relief to serve as costopper in a righty-lefty combination with the newly acquired Mitch Williams. Wilson, a left-hander acquired with Williams, was put in the bull pen because Zimmer said he didn’t want to put undue pressure on him as a starter. What could possibly offer more pressure than making a debut before a large crowd in the home opener with the bases loaded and two out? In addition, if Zimmer plays the percentages and brings in Wilson to face the left-handed Daulton, a right-handed pinch-hitter comes up. In other words, there are no percentages to play. If Schiraldi comes in, a fresh pitcher well acquainted with this sort of situation faces a number-eight hitter who’s already had his moment of glory for the afternoon. Zimmer, however, brought in Wilson. Philadelphia countered with Ricky Jordan, one of its best prospects and a starter if not for a gimpy wrist, who promptly drove in two runs with a single. Zimmer then brought in Schiraldi to close the inning, but the Cubs’ lead was down to one.

The Cubs added an insurance run, but the Phillies’ Mike Schmidt–who at the age of 39 continues to hit in foreign Wrigley Field the way Krypton’s Kal-El hits on Earth–took it away with a home run, bringing on Mitch Williams with five outs to go. Williams is the Cubs’ single most controversial acquisition of the winter. The Cubs traded the popular and talented Rafael Palmeiro to get Williams, a prodigiously gifted thrower who has not yet developed into the dominating bull-pen stopper everyone feels he is capable of becoming. If Williams flops, Frey is good as gone within two years, but at this point this is a good trade, to my mind: Palmeiro is a slow runner and a barely adequate fielder who, the Rangers must now hope, has to develop power and a better batting eye (more walks) to become a great player. If the trade of Lee Smith is factored in, the Cubs have dealt a couple years of quality relief work and a promising left fielder for a lefty-righty bull-pen combination that could dominate for seven to ten years.

All this remains speculative, however. Yet even the greatest skeptic must admit that Williams looked and acted the part of a flaky left-handed stopper as he took the mound. In spite of the cold, he wore no long-sleeved sweatshirt under his jersey–just bare arms. And, of course, he rattled a wild warm-up pitch off the screen behind home plate, just as in all the legends. Returning to the game, Williams got the first man, then promptly walked the next. Noticeably nervous and hurried on the mound, he balked that man to second base and walked the next batter. The following hitter, blessedly, flew to left.

That little bit of tension was nothing compared to the ninth. The Cubs had a one-run lead and three outs in which to preserve it. The Phillies had put in their bull-pen ace, Steve Bedrosian, so if the Cubs lost their run advantage they probably would not regain it for at least another two or three innings. Williams–their prime new weapon and, perhaps, nothing less than the fate of the season–was on the mound. The first batter, our old friend Bob Dernier, dribbled one up the middle. Then he and Tommy Herr performed a fine hit-and-run except that Herr’s lofted single to left was too shallow to allow Dernier to get to third. This was important, as the next batter, Von Hayes, hit another bleeder, in the hole between third and short, that Shawon Dunston barely managed to keep out of left field, forcing Dernier to hold up at third and loading the bases.

Impending doom. Heart of the Phillies’ order coming up. Williams fell behind in the count to Schmidt, then struggled back and struck him out swinging on three-and-two; it was an excruciatingly triumphant at-bat. Williams did the same thing to Chris James, driving the fans crazy. We were apprehensively up on our feet now, but the last hitter was a left-hander–Williams’s meat, as he is fearsome enough without having the ball start its path heading for the batter and not the outside corner–and the Phillies had no pinch hitters. Williams saved a pitch this time, striking out Mark Ryal on two-and-two, and the Cubs had won.

Then, of course, came the next two days, in which we were reminded that this series was nothing more than the first installment of an 18-game battle for fifth place between these two teams. I’m picking the Cubs to win that battle, with the White Sox to wind up in the same fifth spot. The teams are not without hope, however. The reversals suffered by pitchers Mike Harkey and Jack McDowell may have ended whatever remote hopes our two teams had of competing this year, but they’ll be back before long–and certainly before next season.

My picks: New York Mets, San Diego Padres, Minnesota Twins, and nobody to win in the AL East, so make it the Cleveland Indians, with the Mets beating the Twins in the World Series.