But predictions were pointless this September: On Sunday, baseball's unlikeliest season concluded its regular schedule with a man hitting his 70th home run. After Cubs castoff Maddux euthanized the Mets in Atlanta, only Chicago and San Francisco were left fighting for the dubious honor of playing the Braves in the Division Series. The Cubs promptly went out and soiled the bed, losing 4-3 in 11 innings. While trudging up the tunnel to the clubhouse, they learned that the Giants had just lost 9-8, even though they'd led 7-0.
Funny: A 162-game schedule that began with hydraulic problems over Florida ended six months later with the Cubs still up in the air.
"This is a very, very emotional time for me," Grace said. "I think of Cubs fans who've been suffering for a long time. You almost have to be from Chicago or a member of this organization to understand, but Chicago is a Cubs town."
After Sunday's game Grace was asked if this was a fitting end to the oddest season on record, and he pointed out: "It's not over. We have one more day to put on the hard hats, pick up the lunch pail and punch in."
Fitting imagery, for Chicago is a swirl-cone of blue collars and baseball, of Sandburg (Carl) and Sandberg (Ryno). What had all his ex-teammates told him when they ended up in other big league burgs? There's no better place to play, Gracie. On Sunday, Grace—adopted Chicagoan, self-described "long-suffering Cubs fan"—thought of all the ivy and Bleacher Bums and happy Harry Caray mojo at the corner of Clark and Addison, and he couldn't help but smile.
"I can't wait," he said. "Tomorrow is probably the biggest game for me in 11 years." With that, he left to board one more flight, into one more sleepless night.
He wept, of course. When Grace caught the final out of Chicago's 5-3 win on Monday night, he fell to his knees on the first base line, weeping. The last time the Cubs clinched anything at Wrigley Field had been 1938, and Grace was now a Vesuvius of emotion. One inning earlier, when his teammate of nine years, Shawon Dunston—cruelly shipped out of Chicago just last summer—arrived on first base with a pinch-hit single for San Francisco, Grace told him, "Whatever happens, I want you to know—I love you, buddy."
Now we know: The Giants never really stood a chance. From the ceremonial first pitch, thrown by a tall, thin recluse in a Sosa replica jersey—Michael Jordan is a Cubs fan, and he played for the White Sox—Wrigley Field was delirious. "They're starving for a winner," Grace had said of these fans, but on Monday night, they looked not so much hungry as (ahem) thirsty.
Why not? They were sozzled by the second inning, when the helium-filled head of Harry Caray slowly rose from the leftfield bleachers like a friendly ghost from the grave. "I saw it," Grace said of the 40-foot balloon. "I saw everything tonight. I'm sorry Harry wasn't here. I'm sorry about Shawon. I'm sorry about Jack Brickhouse."
Tears and beers commingled all night. When Gary Gaetti—two words: Gary Gaetti!—broke a scoreless tie with a two-run homer in the fifth inning, the game was held up while the bleachers belched forth all manner of garbage, much as one might at an exorcism.