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It was Black Sunday for Chicago sports. The rain built up and came down and a cold wind came in behind it, signaling the end of summer. Consider that for the Cubs the rain was the brightest part of the day, putting off the inevitable.

Last Sunday began for me over at my buddy Boom-Boom's house, where I watched the Bears begin their season against the defending NFL champions, the Baltimore Ravens. The Bears opened as a team in flux, with a new general manager, Jerry Angelo, trying to tear down the team coach Dick Jauron had put together and rebuild it. The Bears weren't without hope. (What Chicago sports team is ever without hope? Just look at the Bulls, already looking ahead five years with their new recruits, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler.) The Bears appeared to have put together a solid defense anchored by Brian Urlacher and newly reinforced by massive defensive tackles Keith Traylor and Ted Washington. And with Shane Matthews at quarterback, they figured to deploy a conservative offense that would keep them in games and let them hope for the best. Matthews came out looking like a nerdy efficiency expert, the short sleeves of his T-shirt peeking out from under the sleeves of his jersey--all he lacked was a pocket protector--and he immediately led the Bears on a 14-play drive that ate up most of the first quarter. New offensive coordinator John Shoop had modified the west coast offense favored by the departed Gary Crowton to suit Matthews's meager talents, sort of like turning a souped-up dune buggy back into an old-style Volkswagen Beetle. Matthews threw short passes left and short passes right when he wasn't handing off to James Allen dashing up the middle. The Boomer himself called the change-of-pace end run that sent Allen inside the Baltimore five-yard line, promising a touchdown. But the drive stalled when Allen was twice stuffed at the goal line, and the Bears settled for a Paul Edinger field goal. They never would score that first touchdown of the season.

The Ravens' defense last year compared favorably to the Bears' of 1985, but Chicago and Matthews nickel-and-dimed them throughout the first half. It was an offense reminiscent of the left-right-center attack Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs used to upset the Bears in the playoffs in 1986, the year after they won the Super Bowl. A 15-play Bears drive on the Ravens in the second quarter went for naught when a personal foul call against guard Chris Villarrial forced Edinger to attempt a 43-yard field goal. He pulled the ball badly left. And just as the first half was about to end, backup safety Mike Green committed an inexcusable personal foul--he tackled a Baltimore receiver out of bounds, enabling the Ravens to kick a 37-yard field goal to tie the game instead of having to try a 52-yard prayer. The Bears had outplayed the champs in the first half but had nothing to show for it.

Matthews had one more drive left in him. He moved the Bears into Baltimore territory in the third quarter, and Edinger hit a hooking 45-yarder that stayed just inside the left goalpost. This 6-3 lead was the high point of the Bears' day. Their defense had kept quarterback Elvis Grbac and the Ravens' new high-powered offense in check, with Baltimore keeping the ball away from middle linebacker Urlacher but outside linebackers Rosevelt Colvin and Warrick Holdman having monster afternoons. Yet the Bears couldn't mount a consistent pass rush, and given time, Grbac began to hit receivers downfield. The passing opened alleys in the Bears' charging defensive line, and running back Terry Allen began cutting through gaping holes that hadn't been there before. Grbac ended an 87-yard drive with a soft toss to wide-open fullback Sam Gash in the flat, and the Ravens had the lead for good at 10-6.

By that time I'd left the Boomer's and returned home for the second half, the better to monitor the White Sox on cable--Boom-Boom is currently weaning his kids off the Cartoon Network--as well as the Cubs on broadcast TV. When I checked in with the Cubs they were already down 4-1 to the Atlanta Braves in the third inning, and though the Sox led the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in the sixth, they'd seen the Tribe twice cut into three-run leads, at 5-2 and 8-5. These games were critical for both teams. The Cubs had failed to take advantage of their last 11-game home stand, winning only six, but it looked like they were going to go four and two on the road. Then closer Tom Gordon gave up a game-winning three-run homer to the Marlins' Preston Wilson with two out and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth in Florida. Back at Wrigley last Friday, the Cubs needed to reclaim momentum right away, and they brought Kerry Wood off the disabled list to make his first start in a month. Pitching against the NL East-leading Braves and Greg Maddux, Wood looked great, and he took a 2-1 lead into the sixth inning thanks to Fred McGriff's wind-blown homer into the left-field bleachers after Maddux had worked around Sammy Sosa by walking him. But when Wood, who's being nursed back to health after suffering from tendinitis in his shoulder, let the leadoff man reach base in the sixth he was removed, and reliever David Weathers allowed the runner to come around and score. A couple innings later, Andruw Jones got enough of a Kyle Farnsworth fastball to pop it up to left field, and the wind blew this ball too into the bleachers, giving the Braves a 3-2 lead. They held on to win, and won the next day too, leaving the Cubs tied with the Saint Louis Cardinals for second place in the NL Central, five and a half games behind the Houston Astros, and trailing both the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the increasingly tight wild-card race. The Cubs needed a victory Sunday, and signaling their desperation, manager Don Baylor pinch-hit for starting pitcher Jason Bere in the bottom of the third after he'd fallen behind Atlanta 5-1.

The Sox, meanwhile, after a miserable first two months found themselves not all that worse off than the Cubs. They entered last Sunday's game in Cleveland seven games behind the Indians in the AL Central, with yet another game to play against them Monday night. The critical game of the Sox' season had actually come the week before, the Labor Day game completing a four-game series with the Tribe at Comiskey Park. If the Sox had won they'd have closed to within six and a half games of the first-place Indians. Sox starter Gary Glover gave up the first run of the game in the second inning when Magglio Ordonez lost a line drive in the lights, but the Sox pulled back ahead, 3-1. However, Glover gave up four runs in the sixth, the last three coming on a homer by the hot-hitting former Sox star Ellis Burks.

The Sox lost that game 6-3 and entered last weekend's four-game series in Cleveland eight games back. The Sox won Friday's opener, but on Saturday were dealt a crushing blow when Bobby Howry blew a two-run lead in the eighth, and bull-pen ace Keith Foulke lost the game in the ninth. The Sox needed to win the last two games of the series just to get back to six games out with three weeks to play.

The Sox still held their 8-7 lead when I went back to the Bears. The Ravens were marching for a score that would put them up by at least a touchdown, but Traylor and Phillip Daniels snuffed a fourth-down run at the Bears' 30. Moments later, the Bears converted a fourth down in their own territory on a Matthews sneak. But two Allen runs gained nothing, and on third and long, Baltimore's ferocious middle linebacker, Ray Lewis, knocked down a Matthews pass, forcing the Bears to punt. Meanwhile, Alan Embree, the Sox' newly acquired lefty reliever, was retiring the Indians in the bottom of the sixth. And back at Wrigley Field, the inning that opened with the pinch hitter for Bere now found Matt Stairs hitting a three-run homer off Kevin Millwood into the center-field shrubbery to cut the Braves' lead to 5-4. Back in Baltimore, the Bears gang-tackled Jermaine Lewis, who coughed up the ball, and the Bears' Jerry Azumah recovered. Unfortunately, the Ravens' defense had gotten wise to Shoop's game plan, and on third and long Ray Lewis picked off Matthews's over-the-middle pass at midfield and returned the ball into Bears territory. Disgusted, I turned back to Wrigley, where the Braves were roughing up reliever Julian Tavarez, scoring twice to make it 7-4. In Baltimore, on third and short, Grbac threw deep to Pat Johnson, who caught the ball on the Chicago one yard line. Holdman met Terry Allen six feet above the goal line to stop his leaping attempt to score, but on the next play Allen ran around end for a touchdown that put Baltimore up 17-6 with two and a half minutes to play.

The Cubs offered no relief--literally. Weak-hitting Rey Sanchez dribbled a Tavarez pitch through the hole between third base and shortstop to score two more runs and make it 9-4 Braves. The Boomer called to commiserate about the Bears, and when I told him what was going on with the Cubs he said "I feel sick" and hung up. In Cleveland, John Rocker came on in relief for the Indians, and immediately got into trouble from wildness. Out the window, I heard rain begin to fall. "Come on, rain," I said, knowing that if a mile east at Wrigley Field this rain ended the game before the end of the fifth it would wash out the Braves' lead. In Baltimore, facing fourth and long, Matthews threw another interception. Looking to the Sox for something better, I found two runners on and Rocker struggling with his control, only to see Royce Clayton picked off second, ending the inning. The rain reached Wrigley, delaying the game in the fourth. The Bears got called for roughing the kicker, allowing the Ravens to run out the clock on a 17-6 victory.

Now there was no one to watch but the Sox. It was as if they suddenly felt the eyes of Chicago upon them. Cleveland's Jim Thome led off the bottom of the eighth with a double. Kip Wells came on, and Thome went to third on a sacrifice bunt. With a full count, Wells threw a fastball to Travis Fryman, who hit a sinking liner to center field. Chris Singleton missed making a shoe-top catch and Thome trotted in to tie the score at eight. Both teams had the top of the order up in the ninth. After the Sox made two quick outs on hard-hit balls that were caught, Ordonez and Paul Konerko singled off Bob Wickman, who composed himself and fanned Jose Canseco. In the bottom of the ninth Foulke struck out Lofton but gave up a walk-off homer to light-hitting Omar Vizquel, only his second homer of the season.

The rain--the lone bright spot of the day for Chicago sports fans--stopped falling at Wrigley and the game dragged on. An eighth-inning Cubs rally ended when Stairs struck out and Roosevelt Brown's grounder up the middle was stabbed by Sanchez, whose blind backhanded toss to Marcus Giles at second triggered an inning-ending double play. Todd Hundley hit a ninth-inning homer but the Cubs lost 9-5.

The loss left the Cubs in third place in the NL Central, a game behind the Cards and six and a half behind the Astros, and fourth in the wild-card race, two games behind the Giants. The Sox fell nine games behind the Indians; their season was done, after a valiant midseason rally without benefit of Frank Thomas, Jim Parque, David Wells, or the departed James Baldwin. The Bears, meanwhile, looked about to begin a long and dreary season. Further ahead, only the even more bedraggled Bulls and Blackhawks beckoned. So it was that I went around the house closing the windows, thinking of the long, cold winter.

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