Strolling around Wrigley Field an hour before Wednesday night's Pirates-Cubs game, you got the sense something was amiss.
Outwardly, it looked like business as usual.
Fans were drinking wine on the patio of the boutique hotel across the street, drinking and dining at the new upscale restaurants and bars and playing bags in the small park named after a global insurance brokerage.
The neighborhood has come a long way from the days of Yum Yum Donuts, the greasy spoon west of the park that once served as the only non-McDonald's food option before games. Progress has forever altered the essence of the area, giving it the look and feel of River North while making the ballpark seem like an afterthought.
Once you get inside, it's the same old Wrigley, albeit with video boards, a bad sound system and premium seating for fans with supersized wallets. The important stuff remains the same: the ivy-covered walls, the vintage center-field scoreboard and the green, green grass.
So what's wrong with this picture? What's missing?
Cubs fans used to anxiously await the day the team would clinch a postseason spot, counting down the magic number and looking ahead to get tickets for the big day. But the success of the last four years has changed priorities. Now the clincher is a given — the Cubs sewed up at least a wild-card berth when the Cardinals lost to the Brewers — and the focus is on the start of the postseason, not getting there.
After two dull days at Wrigley, the ballpark finally awoke in the third inning of Wednesday's 7-6, 10-inning win over the Pirates. The crowd got on its feet for Kyle Schwarber with the bases loaded and two out. Schwarber coaxed a walk to give the Cubs a 4-1 lead, and they put it on cruise control until the shaky bullpen coughed it up, allowing four runs in the eighth and ninth innings.
Albert Almora Jr.'s game-winning single in the 10th saved the day, and the Cubs survived what would have been a nightmarish loss that might have rivaled Willie Stargell's homer off Phil Regan during the 1969 collapse.
Maybe it's Cubs Fatigue, but the number of empty seats at Wrigley the last couple of days, particularly in the exclusive section between the dugouts that includes admission to the 1914 Club, suggests the bloom is off the rose. Attendance remains relatively high — 32,874 on Wednesday — but rows of seats remain empty, a scene unthinkable only a few years ago for such an important game.
For weeks we've known the Cubs could clinch the division during this homestand, but the games have been far from sellouts. Watching the Cubs clinch in person apparently is ho-hum now that it's expected every year.
Oh, how the times have changed.
This year's team could be a reason for the malaise. The lack of consistent hitting is mind-boggling because we've seen them all hit before. The Cubs came into Wednesday's game with the best record in the National League, but few are confident they're as good as the record indicates.
When the lead was sliced to a half-game Tuesday, another dull affair with no Cubs offense whatsoever, the idea they might have to settle for a wild-card game was nauseating to some.
"A half-game lead?" Daniel Murphy said after Tuesday's loss. "I think a lot of other clubs would sign up for this. I know I would've six weeks ago wearing a different uniform. It's about the lens you look at it through."
The lens we're looking through is the one crafted by the golden era in which we're living. The Cubs have spoiled us all, making it look easy the last four years. It's not, of course. Even the most talented teams can flop, as the Cubs did in 2004 and the vaunted Nationals did this year.
"I'm fine with high expectations," manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday. "I'm fine with the word 'pressure' because it normally means there's something good attached."
There have been plenty of great moments in 2018, including the David Bote Game, Jason Heyward's walk-off grand slam, and the miracle comeback against the Braves in a cold April rain.
The players are likable, and it has been an interesting race with the Brewers from start to finish.
If this season took place in any year before 2016, it would be considered a classic, much like 1984, the "Boys of Zimmer" in '89 or the "In Dusty We Trusty" journey of 2003. Javier Baez's performance alone makes this a year to savor.
Instead of wondering why the Cubs aren't dominant, maybe it's time to appreciate the fact they're still standing in spite of all their faults.
If you want to relive 2016, pop in a DVD.
This season is all about survival, and that's all that really matters in October.