"I'm not going to make the mistake of looking back on my career and saying, 'I should have had more fun,' " said Grace, some time after Charlie the Tuna threw a haymaker at the Penn State Nittany Lion. "I remember my first year like it was yesterday. It's all gone by so fast. I've told some of my teammates, 'Make sure you enjoy this.' "
"Fun is overrated," said Riggleman, and if Scrooge had a bumper sticker, that would be its message. "What I think will really be fun for Mark is looking back after he's retired at some of his accomplishments with this team."
Grace knows the grimly serious business on which millions of Cubs fans pinned their hopes this season. "I've had all the individual accomplishments I can have," he says. "I've made All-Star teams, I've been Player of the Week and Player of the Month, I've got Gold Gloves, I had the playoffs. The only thing I haven't been around is a World Series. It's really the only thing I need. I don't want it, I need it. Of course I'll be disappointed if I don't get there. I'll be extremely disappointed."
Riggleman won't allow himself to entertain the thought for more than three seconds. "I hear about it all the time," he said in early September. "A lot of people want to talk about the parade, the celebration that this city would have if we...." He could not bring himself to say World Series. Instead he said, "If we went deep into the postseason...." Then Riggleman shook his head and waved the notion away as if it were a malaria-bearing mosquito.
Which it may well have been. Plagues were all that was missing from this season of cataclysm. Great records crumbled like stone tablets. A Streak worthy of Methuselah ended. This baseball summer was something out of Revelations, which would explain the success of the Chicago Cubs. "Aside from Sammy and McGwire," Grace said late in the season, "the biggest stories of the year had to be the Yankees, Kerry Wood and the Cubs possibly going to the playoffs. People want to give credit to Harry and Jack Brick-house." He smiled, shrugged and said, "I don't know."
What he does know is that a Cubs appearance in the World Series will be followed, swiftly, by the end of the world. To which Grace and a great many people in Chicago say, "Yeah, so?"
All our story needs now is a denouement, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "the final unraveling," a phrase the Cubs were prepared to take all too literally last week. On Sept. 23, the first day of autumn, when things begin to the, the Cubs blew a 7-0 lead in Milwaukee and lost 8-7 in the bottom of the ninth inning after leftfielder Brant Brown dropped a "routine" fly ball with two outs and the bases loaded. But then, "it's never easy," as Grace pointed out, pinching the polyester of his blue Cubs' road shirt. "Not in this uniform."
Even for a franchise as fortune-challenged as the Cubs, that epic loss was operatic. Harry Caray, meet hara-kiri. "If he wasn't already dead," Sosa said of the beloved announcer, "he'd the again."
So last Friday night the Cubs arrived in Houston tied with the Mets and one game ahead of the San Francisco Giants in the wild-card race, and that shadow hanging over the North Siders looked a lot like Alfred Hitchcock's silhouette. In the second inning a hideous black bird somehow entered the sealed sarcophagus of the Astrodome and began endlessly circling Brown's head in leftfield, its enormous wings flapping wildly in Brown's face. The game was delayed until the creature—a vulture? Poe's raven? an albatross, perhaps?—at last alighted atop the outfield fence. It stayed there, as if perched upon a bust of Athena, and stared malevolently at Brown. "I would say Brant is having a tough couple of days," Grace muttered to himself, having no one else to talk to at first base.
The sleep-deprived do that, talk to themselves. Grace hadn't slept for six consecutive hours in more than a month. After games he would return to his home or the team hotel and retrieve his messages. Most nights there would be one from Bill Murray, left immediately at the conclusion of the evening's game. Murray's messages were neither funny nor instructive, just an unburdening of one Cubs fan's enthusiasm. "Two words," went a recent voice mail. "Gary Gaetti!" Then the actor hung up.