For Chicago baseball fans, September is usually a month of calm and good cheer rivaled only by March and April for optimism. By the last month of most seasons both our teams have been all but eliminated from the pennant races, yet the grieving is over, acceptance has come, and with it an influx of prospects to spark our hopes for next year. This year, however, has seen an exceedingly harsh September. The Cubs were in the race for the expanded “wild-card” playoff spot into the last week, and the White Sox regained some respectability with a second half that was merely solid, but fans on both sides of town remained unresponsive. Most of the season we denied that last year’s strike had really altered the game, but by September it was undebatable: the game has been changed, irretrievably. With still no basic contract in place, the coming off-season packs more reasons for dread than for optimism, as the war between owners and players moves from the nuclear tactics of strike and lockout to the even more brutal hand-to-hand combat of cutting star players loose en masse and forcing them to negotiate new deals within the sport’s new realities, as the owners pass on their economic hardships. This year’s off-season should be far more chaotic than even last year’s was, and so there was good reason for fans to resist the normal September glibness that ends most baseball campaigns.

We made our dutiful trips out to both ballparks this month, but our mood was epitomized by the squirrels we saw foraging in a graveyard as we walked down Clark Street to Wrigley Field last Sunday. For one thing, the Cubs, harboring hope against hope of passing two teams (the Houston Astros and either the Colorado Rockies or the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were battling it out for first in the West Division) in order to qualify for the playoffs, had left their star hitting prospects in the minors at season’s end and were going with the same old lineup. The bull pen had been filled out with the likes of Terry Adams and Dave Swartzbaugh, but otherwise there were no pitching phenoms of note, either.

The Pittsburgh Pirates were the day’s opponents, and they are now a team utterly bereft of stars. In addition, Sunday’s starter was Jaime Navarro, and while he has proved to be the Cubs’ most consistent winner this season, he is also the pitcher we have seen most often, and it was something of a disappointment to find him there again waiting for us. Still, he pitched well, aside from a homer and a later two-out RBI single, both by Jeff King, and he kept the Cubs close. That wasn’t easy, as the Cubs seemed determined to muff every scoring chance; they left runners at second or third in four of the first six innings. They did push a run across in the fifth, but then things were quiet until the ninth, when Luis Gonzalez singled off Pittsburgh closer Dan Miceli and stole second with two out. Catcher Scott Servais slapped a single to right to score him and tie the game. The Cubs’ left-handed reliever Larry Casian got two quick outs in the top of the tenth before being lifted for the hyper-superstitious righty Turk Wendell, who struck out the last man and then did an even more balletic leap than usual across the foul line to celebrate. Brian McRae homered in the bottom of the inning to end the game and give Wendell the victory for his one-third of an inning’s work.

Nice game, and certainly more rewarding than watching the Bears last Sunday–as if there were ever any doubt about baseball being more enjoyable than football–but it left us strangely cold, and it wasn’t just the 60-degree weather. The Cubs have turned themselves around this season, they have rehabilitated the pitching staff, and management–from president Andy MacPhail to general manager Ed Lynch to field manager Jim Riggleman–is as solid and secure as it has ever been in team history. Yet the Cubs remain prone to the uncertainties of the sport. Unless a new collective-bargaining agreement grants players time for the strike–not likely, even if there is an agreement–the Cubs will retain the rights to Sammy Sosa, who had an awesome year. He stole two bases Sunday, giving him his second 30-30 season for homers and steals. Yet if Sosa commands $5 million (minimum) or $6 million (quite likely) at the arbitration table, what does the team then do with certain free agents Randy Myers, Mark Grace, and Shawon Dunston? The Cubs, like many teams, face the situation of being only a player or two away from serious contention, and just at this point the board is about to be scrambled.

The White Sox are more than a player or two away, right now, yet they actually have played fairly well since the All-Star break, putting together a record of 36-35–64-73 overall, going into the final week. But that has done little to improve either the team’s fortunes or the mood around Comiskey Park. The Cleveland Indians came to Comiskey a week ago with the best record in baseball, and they whipped the Sox twice before throwing them a victory in the third and final game of the series. That face-saving win pulled the Sox back within 31 games of the Indians in the American League’s Central Division.

We caught the middle game of the series because it featured the young pitcher Luis Andujar; if there is anything that can encourage a team having an awful year, it’s a promising debut by a young pitcher in September, as anyone who remembers Jack McDowell going 3-0 at the end of the 1987 season can testify. Andujar won his first two games with the Sox this month, but unlike McDowell he did not win a third. Andujar appears to have good stuff, but not McDowell stuff. He is a tall, thin pitcher with a Chuck Berry mustache, and he has a live arm that sort of tarries behind his body and then comes cracking forward with a whiplash motion. His best pitch, however, actually seems to be his change-up, which he appears to hold deep in his hand like a palm ball, and which comes fluttering up to the plate daring a batter to swing from the heels.

Young change-up pitchers can take a while to develop–just ask the Cubs’ Frank Castillo–and Andujar made some mistakes that cost him the game. He got into trouble in the first inning, and he would have gotten out of it if first-base umpire Durwood Merrill hadn’t blown the call on an inning-ending double play, with Andujar covering at first. That allowed a run to score, and the next batter, Jim Thome, worked the count full, fouled off a few fastballs, and finally lanced one into right field to score a second run. After that Andujar pitched quite well, staying ahead of most hitters so he could throw that change-up with impunity, until the Indians’ Albert Belle sat on the change on the first pitch of the seventh inning and, swinging from his heels, hit it 436 feet, one-hopping it onto the concourse behind the left-field bleachers. Andujar finished up after seven innings trailing 3-0, and then Belle came up guessing fastball against reliever Scott Radinsky to open the eighth inning, and he hit it out–this time in center field.

The eighth inning in general was a disaster, as rain fell, the Tribe padded its lead, and manager Terry Bevington kept making pitching changes–three pitchers in all, earning one out apiece and allowing four runs on six hits to put the game out of reach. It was an inning that recapitulated the Sox’ season. Belle homered (and he would homer a third time leading off the ninth, to consolidate his status as a most valuable player candidate–though in a rare show of humility he declined to answer the numerous Cleveland fans’ chants for a curtain call). Every move Bevington made went awry, thus confirming his status as a lame-duck manager. And in the bottom of the frame Frank Thomas homered, to once again confirm his status as the greatest hitter ever to play in Chicago.

Thomas entered the week with 38 home runs (tied for third in the American League), 107 RBI (fifth), 130 walks (first), 100 runs scored (eighth), and a .313 batting average (11th). That meant that unless he went 0-for-the-last-week-of-the-season, he would become the first player in history to hit .300 with 20 homers, 100 RBI, 100 runs scored, and 100 walks in five straight seasons. Those figures are beyond Ruthian; only Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig have reached those levels in four straight seasons, though Gehrig did it twice (his 92 walks in 1933 broke up what would have been a string of nine), which at least gives Thomas something to shoot for. Thomas did this in spite of the team’s poor finish, in the first season of a $7 million-a-year contract (when players normally get full of themselves and begin to tail off, or so sports columnists would have us believe), and in a year when he caught a previously unthinkable amount of flak from both writers and fans. When we think of this season, we will think of Thomas reaching across the plate for one of those low, slow, outside breaking balls he saw so much of this year and of him hitting the pitch into the left- or center-field seats, something we saw him do several times–once on a pitch that left David Wells, then of the Detroit Tigers, just shaking his head in disbelief.

Not even Thomas was immune to criticism in this, the most ill-tempered of all baseball seasons, but he did make the sport worth watching–whenever and wherever he played. At 27, he should be just beginning the prime years of a power hitter’s career. That is something a Chicago baseball fan can find solace in.