In his final at bat of the final game of spring training, Mark Grace fouled off a pitch and broke his right big toe. In the Chicago Cubs' first series of the season, at Florida, Grace was hit so hard by a fastball that his right arm was mummified, from forearm to shoulder, on the plane home. An hour and 15 minutes into the flight the captain announced that "hydraulic problems" would force a return to Miami International, whose unsettling three-letter airport designation is MIA. "Hydraulic problems?" asked Grace, a white-knuckle flyer even in the best of times. "Isn't that, like, the landing gear and wing flaps?" In short, the first baseman—a self-described "train wreck" now awaiting a plane wreck—could scarcely believe his good fortune.
The season was only three days old, but—Grace's personal woes notwithstanding—things were already looking up for the 2-1 Cubs even as the Cubs were looking down on the Everglades. For a team that opened 1997 with a 0-14 record, '98 was, comparatively speaking, shaping up as a dream season. "The one thing about being a Cub is, you can't help but be an optimist," Grace explained. "Every Cub fan is an optimist. Even the media that cover this team are optimistic, which is rare. So, when everyone around you says, 'This is our year, this is our year'—when you hear that day in and day out, year after year—you start to figure after a while, god, they've got to be right one century or another."
Who would have guessed that the century in question might be the 20th? In the penultimate year of the millennium, the Chicago Cubs, who last won the World Series in 1908, around the time the zipper was invented, were poised all summer to return to the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade, and for most of the season, only a fool or a Mets fan would have bet against them.
For theirs has been a year full of Biblical portents: Rightfielder Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs, rookie righthander Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in a single game, and beloved broadcasters Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse both went to their eternal rewards, from where they are widely believed to have puppeteered the team to habitual come-from-behind victories in September. The season was composed of nothing less than a series of grace notes, to judge by these Grace notes—the first baseman's perspective on 1998, compiled from interviews throughout the season.
"I'm not married," Grace, who is 34, reflected in April. "I don't have children. I've got a mom and a dad and a brother and a girlfriend, but my teammates are the guys I spend the bulk of my time with, day after day for eight months a year. These guys are my family."
Indeed, the Cubs can quite plausibly be thought of as a nuclear family of 25 brothers and no sisters who express their affection for one another with unspeakable insults, as is the case in many large families consisting entirely of boys.
"This will be the team I remember for the rest of my career, and the rest of my life," Grace would say as the end of the season approached. "More so than '89. That team was led by Ryno and Andre"—Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson—"two Hall of Famers, but quiet guys. On this team, nothing is sacred: Moms, sisters, entire families are fair game."
So when Grace appeared in the Chicago clubhouse self-consciously sporting a new haircut, teammate Kevin Tapani asked with the feigned concern of a daytime talk-show host, "Did you have to pay for that?"
"I'm still paying for it," said Grace.
"His barber just didn't care," Tapani continued. "He just wanted to get it over with. He just wanted to get him out of there."