When the Cubs’ three-game series against the Marlins in Florida was washed out by Hurricane Frances in early September, the Cubs found themselves in the eye of the storm. Though they led the National League wild-card race at the time, they’d been playing sputtering baseball. With a chance to put Houston out of its misery–the Cubs’ most feared rival going into the year had suffered through an erratic, injury-riddled campaign–they’d lost three straight at Wrigley Field to let the Astros back in the playoff hunt. Then they’d won two of three against the woeful Expos in Montreal, and that’s when Frances sat them down for four days. Would they return to the playoff race refocused or flat? The only thing clear when play resumed a week ago Monday with a series against the Expos at Wrigley was the September slant to the sun and the tinges of color in the ivy. The days were dwindling down to a precious few, and the Cubs’ season teetered on the brink. The pressure, reminiscent of last year’s playoffs, was both delicious and dreadful.

The first few games after the break brought mixed results. The seemingly rejuvenated Cubs crushed the Expos in the first game 9-1, and all signs pointed to the playoffs and who knew what beyond. Yet the Cubs fell behind in the second game, and even though they rallied to tie it and had every chance to win, they lost in 12 innings, 7-6. Greg Maddux was set to go in the rubber game against former Cubs farmhand Scott Downs, a soft-tossing left-hander recovering from years of arm injuries, but an ill wind howled in off the lake, leveling the pitching, and Sammy Sosa misplayed a fly ball early, leading to a Montreal double and a 1-0 lead. That remained the score until the top of the eighth, when the Cubs collapsed. A two-run error by Derrek Lee, a wild throw by catcher Paul Bako on a bad pitchout by Maddux that let a run score, and a two-run homer by Terrmel Sledge on reliever Mike Remlinger’s fastball over the center of the plate all helped make the final score 6-0. The Cubs suddenly trailed both the Astros and the San Francisco Giants in the wild-card race.

Two of the three postponed games in Florida were rescheduled as a doubleheader on September 20, the Cubs’ last open date of the season. So last Thursday turned out to be their final day off, and the Cubs must have spent it with ears burning, for the fans had booed them mercilessly at the end of the previous night (those weren’t Alooos but boos when Moises Alou got doubled off second on a routine fly ball), and the newspapers and sports-talk radio were all full of comment about what an awful team they were with the fundamentals–a big reason for their 14-24 record in one-run games.

But the Cubs received a gift: the third of the unplayed games in Florida was turned into a Cubs home game when the Marlins came to town last weekend, the Friday contest becoming a doubleheader. A sweep would put the Cubs back in the wild-card lead and deal a crushing blow to the Marlins, who were chasing that slot in hopes of keeping the world championship they’d won after beating the Cubs in last year’s playoffs (as if anyone needed to be reminded of how that happened). The Cubs had Kerry Wood and Mark Prior lined up.

As Ernie Banks might have said, it was a beautiful day to play two. The sun shone down and the wind wafted from right to left, favoring right-handed batters. And with Wood on the mound, the Cubs played their worst game of the season. Spelling Alou, Tom Goodwin singled in the first, only to be picked off by catcher Paul Lo Duca on the next pitch–merely the latest in the team’s long line of base-running mistakes. Nomar Garciaparra lined the following pitch off the center-field wall for a double that would have scored Goodwin, but Garciaparra was stranded when Lee grounded out. Wood gave up a hit to pitcher Carl Pavano to lead off the third, and then Ramon Martinez, spelling Aramis Ramirez at third, committed two straight throwing errors on back-to-back bunts to load the bases with no outs. Wood coaxed Lo Duca to ground into a force-out at the plate, but then the Marlins’ brilliant Miguel Cabrera, who’s 21 and looks (and hits) like a fresh-faced Tony Perez, mashed a hanging slider into left field for a 2-0 lead.

Martinez was booed coming to the plate in the third and booed more after he popped to third. Sosa was booed when he ended the fourth by striking out on three pitches. Wood kept the game close until the sixth, when back-to-back doubles leading off the inning put the Marlins up 3-0. Two outs and a walk later, Lo Duca lofted a high fly to short right center, and it dropped between Sosa and Corey Patterson, each deferring to the other. Sosa slapped the ground with his mitt in frustration as two runs scored, and then Lo Duca scored when Cabrera hit another slider into center. Reliever Jon Leicester gave up an RBI double to Pavano, of all people, in the seventh, and that ended the scoring at 7-0 as Pavano, with his teeter-totter-shouldered delivery, kept the Cubs down. Sosa was booed as the epitome of this year’s Cubs when he struck out to end the game. Talk about no joy in Mudville.

It seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, and somehow, in defiance of all Chicago tradition, things didn’t. Working in his new less overpowering but more efficient mode, Prior mowed down the Marlins in the nightcap. The scheduling crunch caused by the hurricane had forced the Marlins to call up minor-league phenom Logan Kensing. He gave up a run in the second when a Mark Grudzielanek double led to a sacrifice fly, and his second time through the Cubs lineup it caught up with him. Patterson singled in the third and stole second. Neifi Perez, filling in for Garciaparra, singled to put runners at the corners and stole second as Alou worked the count full. Looking fastball, as he always does, Alou got one high and tight and parked it on Waveland Avenue. Ramirez followed in kind and it was 5-0. Prior and the Cubs coasted to an 11-2 victory.

“Guess what,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker pointed out Saturday. “We’re still in first.” Indeed, the Cubs’ split, combined with losses by the Astros and Giants, had moved them percentage points back into the lead in the wild-card race. Which only made Saturday’s game–an effusive pitching matchup between Florida’s high-kicking Dontrelle Willis and the Cubs’ hard-slinging Carlos Zambrano–even more important. Again the Cubs gift-wrapped a run in the first inning. Luis Castillo dumped a single in front of the plate and went to second when Zambrano threw the ball away. Castillo went to third on a grounder and with two outs scored an unearned run on a passed ball by catcher Michael Barrett. Zambrano gave up a leadoff double to Lowell in the second, and Lowell scored on a broken-bat single by Alex Gonzalez, who fought off a high Zambrano fastball. The Cubs were down 2-0, and Willis, while scuffling, showed no signs of surrendering the lead, getting inning-ending double plays in the third and the sixth.

In the seventh, however, the Cubs’ luck changed abruptly. No sooner had Zambrano been lifted for a pinch hitter than Patterson singled, stole second, and came home on a two-out hit by Alou off fearsome Florida setup man Guillermo Mota. Mota got out of the inning but put himself back in trouble in the eighth, giving up two hits and then hitting Grudzielanek to load the bases. He fanned Barrett and was replaced by left-handed Matt Perisho to face pinch hitter Todd Walker. Walker smashed the ball off Perisho’s glove for a game-tying infield hit. Patterson popped to first, putting this game against Derrek Lee’s 2003 teammates on Lee’s shoulders. Guessing fastball, he swung at and missed a low 3-1 slider that would have walked in the lead run. But he laced the next pitch into the left-center gap for a three-run double. LaTroy Hawkins came on and struck out the side on nine pitches to seal the 5-2 victory, with the fans on their feet and howling at the end. Suddenly, all was forgiven.

The Giants would win later that night to stay even with the Cubs, but the center-field scoreboard showed that the Astros had already fallen to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates. Lee, talking with reporters in the interview room afterward, echoed Baker when he admitted he was an unrepentant scoreboard watcher. “That’s what’s fun about it,” he said. “That’s what it’s about.”

Scoreboards throughout the park would have no good tale to tell the following day. The Cubs, in effect, had to give back Friday’s pitching mismatch: with Matt Clement suffering from a tender back, they threw spot starter Glendon Rusch against the Marlins’ A.J. Burnett, freshly returned from elbow surgery and looking fully recovered. Alou gave away a run with a horrible throw to the plate in the second, and Rusch–just as Kensing had–weakened the second time through the order, going down 5-0 before he left the game. With Burnett throwing aspirin tablets, the Cubs went meekly, 11-1.

At this point the Cubs remained ahead of last season’s won-lost pace and in the thick of the wild-card race, but they lagged far behind in public sentiment. It was common to hear people say how unlikable this team was, and even after Saturday’s win I overheard a couple of beat reporters talk about how this was the dumbest team they’d ever seen. They were prone to fielding miscues and baserunning boners, to hits surrendered to pitchers on 0-2 counts, and it was telling that the Cubs were 15th, next to last in the NL, in walks–always an indication of how patient and thoughtful a ball club might be.

Even so, they remain immensely talented, and winning changes everything. This year’s Cubs have turned off many fans because they, like almost no other team that’s occupied the Friendly Confines, have maintained a proud, standoffish carriage, as if the fans’ love meant nothing to them. I kind of like that quality, which gives no quarter and takes none–even if I wish the Cubs would take a pitch now and then–and it could still pay dividends. Burned by their own shortcomings and toughened by criticism, they could yet get hot and make a run into the playoffs, where anything can happen and where steely determination masks many flaws–as the Marlins themselves proved last season. Yet where last year’s Cubs inspired fans to hope beyond reason, this year’s Cubs have spawned doubters. Is this a team of embittered professionals or spoiled whiners? The Cubs themselves will decide how they’re remembered.

Acknowledging the heightened pressure Saturday, Lee said it was something the players put on themselves. “Once you get between the lines,” he said, “that’s the most relaxing place.” And that’s where the Cubs can be found every day until the end of the season, and twice in Florida on September 20.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen Green.