If the White Sox' recent troubles served any purpose, it was to make their fans admit to each other how much this year's team meant to them. As delightfully unexpected as their early success was--the White Sox had the best record in baseball for most of the season--the fans seemed almost blase about it. But that's the south-side manner--or, more accurately, the Sox-fan manner--and it's often misinterpreted.
An article earlier this month in Slate by a self-loathing Sox fan declared, "The team's futility has no romance, glamour, or meaning." Ridiculous: Sox fans are simply adept at masking their feelings. Cubs fans act like they've got a monopoly on curses, but the Sox dwell under a deservedly cursed cloud, the Black Sox scandal, and it's a burden their fans bear not with self-flagellating histrionics but with stoicism. But as the Sox' bright season, the playoffs a foregone conclusion, tumbled into a seven-game losing streak, doubting Sox fans I know clutched at one another in ways that defied the stereotypes. Late-night phone calls were placed and anguished e-mails exchanged, some of them rehashing or second-guessing the games' events in the most minute detail. Sox fans met in bars to insist they weren't worried, only to hurriedly order another round. When the Sox emerged from that troubled spell, I believe their fans emerged more committed--more accursedly devoted, if it comes to that--than before.
The Sox knew their August stretch of 15 straight games with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Minnesota Twins--including home-and-home series with the Yanks and Twins--would be a critical test. After losing the opening game of that sequence in Yankee Stadium, they twice beat the Yankeees 2-1; Aaron Rowand particularly distinguished himself with his smooth, gliding play in center field. Yet when the Sox traveled on to Fenway Park, Mark Buehrle couldn't hold a four-run lead as the Sox lost to Boston 9-8, and the next night Jon Garland got clobbered in a 7-4 defeat. When rain washed out the Sox' 5-2 fourth-inning lead in the Sunday finale, the Fates seemed to be conspiring against them.
If Sox fans weren't worried yet as the team returned home, that would soon change. The Sox were just plain outplayed in the opener of a three-game series with the Twins, losing 4-2. The next night I took my teenage daughter and her best friend, a Cubs fan, to Sox Park, wanting them to see the excitement swirling around the south side, but the Sox were listless--the loss of leadoff man Scott Podsednik to a groin injury was clearly hurting--and so, strangely enough, was the crowd. When the Sox took a 4-3 lead it didn't seem deserved, and the game-tying homer that bullpen closer Dustin Hermanson gave up to Michael Cuddyer in the ninth felt almost expected. The Sox couldn't push a run across, and the game dragged on--while we drove home listening on the radio and then watched on TV--until pitcher Jon Adkins was pounded in the 16th and the Sox lost 9-4. The next night Buehrle got smacked around while the Twins' Johan Santana took a no-hitter into the seventh and coasted to a 5-1 win. The Sox had been swept and had now lost five straight.
That's when the fans tried to put the team on their shoulders. A raucous sold-out crowd of 39,496 turned out on a Friday night determined to cheer an end to the Sox' skid as they met the hated Yankees. But the Sox again could muster no offense, and Mike Mussina outdueled Garland 3-1. Saturday's matinee was worse--the Sox were shut out. Their lead was down to eight and a half games over the Cleveland Indians, they'd conceded the best record in baseball to the Saint Louis Cardinals, comparisons with the cursed '69 Cubs had replaced the clinching magic number in the newspapers, and erratic Jose Contreras was going against fearsome Randy Johnson in the series finale.
Contreras looked impressive warming up in the bullpen, but in the third his wild pickoff throw helped the Yankees move ahead 1-0. Johnson, meanwhile, had been mowing down the Sox when Tadahito Iguchi came to the plate with one out in the bottom of the fourth. Iguchi's swing is a sort of modified version of the one-legged flamingo stance of Japanese home-run king Sadaharu Oh. A right-handed hitter, Iguchi keeps a firm right side, weight on his back foot, then draws up his left foot before striding into the pitch. This allows him to wait on the delivery while giving him surprising power to right field, which is exactly where he hit a high Johnson slider--into the seats. Rowand followed, stiff-necked, elbows out, and hit another slider into the same area. Paul Konerko came up, fell behind 0-2, and then smacked a Johnson curve into the left-field seats for the third straight homer. A rattled Johnson gave up two more hits in the inning and then another homer to the unlikely Chris Widger. The fans were elated, the losing streak was over, and all was right with the world.
"I was coming from the grocery store and turned on my radio just in time to catch the magic inning," a mutual friend, Steve, e-mailed my Sox pal Kate. "Unbelievable! Called my son at his college in Michigan to tell him about it."
I thought the Sox would run off a streak if they managed to beat Santana the following night in Minnesota, and though they didn't they played so well and crisply--Minnesota's Shannon Stewart and the Sox' Jermaine Dye both made running catches crashing into the outfield wall--the cloud lifted anyway. Santana hurled a shutout; Freddy Garcia lost a no-hitter, a shutout, and the game in the eighth inning when he left a curve out over the plate and Jacque Jones hit it so hard over the center-field fence his bat seemed to recoil at the end of his swing.
The Sox ran off four straight wins after that, and as e-mails circulated I found myself reveling in details. Such as bench player Geoff Blum pulling his feet in as he slid to elude a swipe tag at third base in the tenth inning (he then scored the winning run); and flame-throwing rookie Bobby Jenks nailing down that victory by fanning the last two Twins batters on curveballs; and Orlando Hernandez outpitching teenage phenom Felix Hernandez in Seattle with the help of two homers by golden-boy rookie Brian Anderson; and Iguchi winning the game with a 12th-inning homer after the bullpen had blown the lead.
Not even Garcia's loss on Sunday could put a damper on things. By that time Sox fans were back to being unflappable, and I recalled an incident toward the end of that skid-snapping game with the Yanks. Among the joyous fans in the left-field corner, where I was sitting, was a guy wearing a Red Sox cap who started giving grief to some Yankees fans seated nearby. They jawed back and forth as if the White Sox were beneath contempt, as if they didn't exist. The funny thing was, the Chicago fans didn't seem to mind. It was as if the skid had returned the White Sox to the role of underdogs and let their fans be what they're comfortable being: secure in their insecurities and hopeful that one year--maybe this year--things will change.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Otto Greule Jr.--Getty Images.