On a rare day when the Bears, Cubs, and White Sox all played at home, the best team of the bunch drew the smallest crowd. The Bears are, well, the Bears, and the Cubs are never so lovable as when they're losing. But to commit oneself to the Sox and their home finale last Sunday was to defiantly believe in them--in spite of what sense and both ancient and recent history suggested.
The Sox had begun this season's home schedule in sunshine and triumph. They ended it in rain. The Bears, of course, played through the midday rain, as did the Cubs at Wrigley; but the south side, appropriately, lay under the darkest clouds and the start of the game was delayed. The 30,000 fans had nothing much to think about for 69 minutes but how since August 1 the Sox had allowed a 15-game lead to dwindle to a game and a half.
The Sox came home in full retreat September 19 to start a three-game series against the Cleveland Indians. Archrivals of the Sox in seasons past, the Indians had reestablished themselves in that role by climbing to within three and a half games of the Sox in the AL Central. It wasn't a simple matter of the Sox choking. A young, talented team just feeling its potential, the Indians were genuinely dangerous. In batting practice their players all seemed young and wiry; they cranked line drives into the outfield if not into the bleachers, and started a lineup of batters who'd all reached double-digit home runs.
In the series opener, Freddy Garcia allowed the Indians to trickle out to a 4-0 lead, but in the fifth inning Joe Crede, beginning the home stand of his career, drove in Aaron Rowand for the first Sox run, and Paul Konerko tied the game later that inning with a two-run double. Carl Everett, mired in a terrible slump, put the Sox up in the seventh by launching a shot into the right-field seats, but in the eighth Damaso Marte committed the cardinal sin of walking a batter with a one-run lead and then gave up a double. Just when the new bullpen closer, Bobby Jenks, seemed about to work out of trouble, he grooved a fastball to Aaron Boone for a go-ahead two-run single. The Sox went tamely after that and their lead was down to two and a half games.
The Sox won the biggest, best game of the year the following night. Crede again gave them their first runs with a game-tying two-run homer, and the Sox went ahead 6-5 in the seventh. But Jenks again couldn't hold the lead. Rowand, usually reliable, misjudged a fly hit straight to him and it sailed over his head for a double that put a man on third. To avoid a big inning, Sox manager Ozzie Guillen elected to play the infield back, and he wound up looking prescient: the Indians tied the score on a grounder, but Crede came up in the bottom of the ninth and hit a sayonara, a walk-off homer, into the left-field seats.
Crede was the MVP in his league twice as he made his way up through the minors, but he'd never lived up to his promise at the major-league level--not until this month. As he worked his way through a series of looks--from the original baby face to sideburns and wraparound shades, then back to the baby face, with a Maynard G. Krebs chin beard recently added--he established himself as the best-fielding third baseman in baseball, despite a bulging disc in his back. And with the Sox in dire straits, he assumed MVP stature.
Victory in the must-win game of the series allowed the Sox the luxury of being able to afford to lose the finale. They fell 8-0 to the Indians' hard-throwing Scott Elarton, who coaxed them into 12 pop-ups. The next night the Twins came to town, and though slender rookie Brandon McCarthy, staked to a 1-0 lead by--yes, again--a Crede homer, outdueled ace Johan Santana for six innings, he allowed a game-tying blast to Sox-killer Jacque Jones, and after that the Sox went limp. They left the bases loaded in the ninth as Jermaine Dye and Jose Uribe both popped out, and were put out of their misery in the eleventh when the Twins scored three runs off--yes, again--Jenks. The Tribe beat up on the Kansas City Royals, and the lead was down to a game and a half.
But that's where the Sox made a stand. Dye atoned with a three-run homer in the first inning the following night, and the big Cuban Jose Contreras--the Sox' most reliable starter by default--made those runs stand up for a 3-1 victory. The next night Garcia again squandered a one-run lead he'd been given by, yes, Crede, but then the Sox scored six and he wound up with an 8-1 win. The back-to-back victories constituted the Sox' first win streak of any sort since they'd won seven straight the first week of September.
But the Indians kept winning too, keeping the lead at a game and a half. That's why Sox fans were so anxious Sunday, though the rain seemed to force them to sit back and chill out. As the grounds crew finally readied the field, "Rain Delay Theatre" played the Bears game and then the Indians-Royals game on the scoreboard TV. Believe it or not, Sox fans were more interested in the Indians than the Bears. They clapped for each Cleveland out and cheered when the Royals scored a go-ahead run in the seventh.
Just before the Sox game began, the scoreboard was turned over to a highlight reel of the team's splendid year. Weighted, of course, with early-season delights, it began with Mark Buehrle's opening-day shutout of these same Indians in an hour and 51 minutes on a glorious early April afternoon. Then Buehrle took the mound as if determined to return to that April form. He mowed down the Twins his first time through their order, and Crede once again gave his pitcher a lead--this time with a two-out RBI single in the second that ameliorated the news on the scoreboard that Cleveland had tied the game in Kansas City. The Sox added three runs in the third as Rowand tripled and Paul Konerko homered, and Buehrle coasted to a 4-1 win in a brisk hour and 53 minutes. He pitched like a pilot making up in the air the time he'd lost on the ground. Crede got the last out with his trademark play--charging a slow roller.
Best of all, along about the third inning, a kid in an old Magglio Ordonez jersey who was seated just in front of me in the grandstand jumped to his feet and pointed at the scoreboard.
The Royals had scored in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Indians. The stands broke into cheers.
By going on to win their own game, the Sox were able to leave town with the best record in the AL and a two-and-a-half-game lead. They were headed to Detroit for a four-game series before the three-game showdown that ends the season this weekend in Cleveland.
The fans at Sox Park Sunday were the true faithful, the ones who'd given their hearts to the team fully expecting to have them broken. Under skies that threatened more rain, everyone headed to their cars, buses, and el trains with the feeling that they'd stolen another blissful day. As jovial as they'd been after that glorious opening-day victory, Sox fans could count 93 more wins since then, and the playoffs at last seemed imminent. Could these days of bliss last until the World Series? And beyond?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ron Veesly--MLB Photos via Getty Images.