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The day after baseball's regular season ended, a workout day for the White Sox on the eve of their playoff series with the Seattle Mariners, I took the el down to Comiskey Park. The streets below had an everyday calm about them--people going about their business on a Monday afternoon--while the skyline in the distance seemed aloof and apathetic. In short, there was a distinct lack of postseason atmosphere in the city (nowhere more so than at the Addison stop, where the ripped-out sod from Wrigley Field was already being piled outside the right-field wall). Even the newspapers were blase, their sports sections more excited about the Bears' unexpected upset of the Green Bay Packers the day before than about the Sox' impending playoffs. Of course it's easy to say, in hindsight, that the city was right to display such a show-me attitude: the team's shortcomings in pitching and defense would soon lead to a three-game Mariners sweep, preserving a postseason losing streak at home that began with game two of the 1959 World Series, and extending a citywide streak of postseason failure that now reaches back through six playoffs and eight World Series to the 1919 "Black Sox." Neither Chicago baseball team has beaten anybody in the postseason since the White Sox were world champions in 1917. For all the stunning ability the Sox displayed during the 2000 regular season, when they amassed the best record in the American League at 95-67, they were ultimately losers once again. And just as nobody reads Studs Lonigan anymore, no Chicago sports fan of the post-Michael Jordan era has any interest in revisiting the old stereotypes.

But Studs Lonigan remains a great, if flawed, book, and this year's Sox were a great, if flawed, bunch of players who rewarded anyone who cared about them. I was especially struck by one sensible call to WSCR--maybe the one sensible call of the week, amid all the knee-jerk criticism of Frank Thomas and the Sox management--from a woman who described herself as "daddy's girl." She said she was very proud of the way Thomas had pulled his head together after two off years and returned to his old form. But with the pressure on--and it happens to you, it happens to me, it happens to everyone, she said--he had fallen back into old habits. "Bad Frank," said the radio hosts, Dan Bernstein and Terry Boers. "Well, I'd say neurotic Frank," said the woman, and that was it in a nutshell. The Sox were captivating for the way they struggled with themselves this season--Thomas to regain his old form, the team to overcome its youth and inexperience, the players for a sense of self-worth. From their scrappy beanbrawl with the Detroit Tigers in April, to their back-to-back sweeps of the Indians and Yankees on the road in June, to the way they held it together as front-runners after the All-Star break, the Sox grew, all the while identifying with the underachievers' music hit, "Who Let the Dogs Out."

It was entirely appropriate that when pitching ace James Baldwin and number two starter Mike Sirotka came down with balky arms in the days before the playoffs, the duty of starting game one at Comiskey last week fell to Jim Parque. The aspiring columnist and regular media critic had benefited from prodigious run support in the early going, suffered through late-summer doldrums, and pulled his own self together and finally harnessed his control to become one of the team's few pitching mainstays in September. Early on I'd written that Parque might be the team's best option for a big-game start, his tough-guy demeanor on the mound masking the dainty, pointy-toed delivery and junk-ball repertoire. As the slit-eyed Parque walked cool, calm, and collected from the bull pen to the dugout before that first game, fans all down the left-field line cheered him and those seated behind the home dugout roared. Though most of the city might have been apathetic toward the Sox, the 45,290 who bought tickets for the first game--no-shows left only the dappled blue of occasional empty seats in the distant reaches of the upper deck--had a crazed playoff mind-set.

In an interview session with the media only the day before, Parque had dwelled on the idea of being clobbered, and in the early going he was mighty unsteady. He allowed the first three Seattle batters to reach base, hitting former Sox player Mike Cameron, who batted second, with a slider that skittered off his leg. Both Cameron and leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson scored. Seattle catcher Joe Oliver led off the second with a homer, and the first two Mariner batters reached base in the top of the third. Pitching coach Nardi Contreras made his third visit to the mound in three innings. Then things suddenly changed. Catcher Charles Johnson caught the Mariners' Alex Rodriguez leaning off second base, and fired down to nab him. John Olerud grounded the next pitch into an inning-ending double play, and Parque became untouchable. There was a notable shift in momentum. The Sox had already scored two in the bottom of the second on a walk to Paul Konerko, a triple to right by Chris Singleton, and a wild pitch by Freddy Garcia, who was even more unnerved than Parque. Ray Durham greeted Garcia in the bottom of the third with a leadoff homer to tie the game. Then Jose Valentin walked, and he scored on a triple slashed down the right-field line by Magglio Ordoñez to put the Sox in front.

Parque, who gets by on attitude even on his best days, grew more assertive and confident with every pitch. Seattle's Jay Buhner lofted a curve down the right-field line to open the fourth, and Ordoñez ran it down with a sliding grab into foul territory. Parque then got David Bell with a nasty biting curve on the inside corner for a called third strike. Oliver hit a pop fly to shallow center and Durham made a diving, back-to-the-infield grab. Parque is a study in determined nonchalance, turning his back on pop flies with two outs and walking toward the dugout; but this was one he watched all the way, and when the ball was in the glove he jumped up and down and pumped both his glove and his fist and then waited on the field to thank Durham, who'd popped up off the turf to do his own little dance of glee.

The catch, as it turned out, was the high point of the season.

The fans were loving it, to be sure. They burst into spontaneous chants of "Let's go, Sox!" and they sang "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" to Garcia when he was yanked in the bottom of the fourth. That was right before Valentin and Thomas both popped out to leave the bases loaded. Parque started mowing down Mariners, retiring ten straight batters before being lifted after six innings. But manager Jerry Manuel had decided before the series even began that he would hope for mere competence from his starters and rely on his bull pen to carry the games home, and he was not about to be swayed by Parque's sudden brilliance.

Was Parque tired after just 97 pitches? He didn't think so, and he asked Manuel to be left in. "I don't think he was," Johnson said after the game. "It was one of those manager's moves." In any case, Bobby Howry started the seventh by walking the leadoff man, who wound up scoring, as leadoff base runners usually do in the playoffs, to tie the game. From that point on, the rest of the Sox' season was three days of torture. Johnson was pulled for a pinch runner in the bottom of the ninth, and with Josh Paul behind the plate, closer Keith Foulke immediately got into trouble in the tenth, allowing a leadoff single to Cameron, who stole second after Seattle manager Lou Piniella brazenly walked out onto the field and told him to get moving. The rattled Foulke then threw a flat change-up to cleanup hitter Edgar Martinez, who pounded the ball over the left-field fence. Olerud followed with a homer to center on the next pitch for a final score of 7-4.

The Sox drew first blood the next afternoon on back-to-back doubles by Durham and Valentin. But that was all they would get in the first inning, and the gallant Sirotka, starting after all but struggling, gave two runs back in the Seattle second. Valentin manufactured another run in the third, bunting his way on, stealing second and advancing to third when the throw went astray, and scoring on a sacrifice fly by Carlos Lee. But Sirotka gave the lead away again in the fourth by surrendering a homer to Buhner. The Mariners squeezed an insurance run out of him in the fifth, as Henderson walked, went to second on a bunt by Cameron, stole third, and then came home on a grounder to third, as Herbert Perry passed up what looked like a play at the plate to take the sure out at first. The Mariners added more insurance in the ninth to take a 5-2 lead, and for the second straight day rookie Japanese import Kazuhiro Sasaki came on to shut the Sox down and earn the save. Sasaki has a fundamentally sound pitching motion that's reminiscent of Tom Seaver in the way his legs drive him low and strong down the mound. But he also has a split-fingered fastball unlike anything Seaver ever dreamed of, and he caught pinch hitter Harold Baines and Johnson looking at called third strikes and fanned Durham with a nasty splitter.

The Sox drew first blood again in last Friday's third game in Seattle. By this time they were mired in a teamwide hitting slump--the sort of slump that typically affects power-hitting teams in the postseason, when the pitching's tougher and the pressure's greater. Baines, coming off the bench to start as designated hitter, doubled in the second, went to third on a fly by Johnson, and scored on Perry's sacrifice fly. But it was the last run the Sox, who scored 978 times in 162 games during the regular season, would get this year.

Baldwin, who'd received several cortisone shots in his shoulder during the second half of the season, gamely took the mound for the Sox, and he looked great, hitting the corners with breaking pitches and mixing in the odd fastball. Unfortunately, the Fates weren't with him. Baldwin has an awesome and utterly inexplicable lifetime record pitching in domes, but this day the sun shone down on the rainy Pacific northwest, and the retractable roof above the new Safeco Field was opened. The sun was low on the horizon, and for most of the game the grandstand cast a shadow between the mound and home plate. It helped Baldwin but it hurt the Sox hitters.

The fine points of pitching and defense decided the game. In the fourth, with runners at the corners and two out, Durham couldn't backhand a potential inning-ending grounder up the middle by Stan Javier, and the Mariners tied the score at one as the apparent error was ruled a hit. That's where the score stayed, as the Sox, who got only three hits all day, could do nothing with Seattle starter Aaron Sele or hard-throwing lefty-righty relievers Arthur Rhodes and Jose Paniagua. Olerud led off the bottom of the ninth by lining the ball off the chest of Sox pitcher Kelly Wunsch. In pain, Wunsch scrambled for the ball, but he threw it away down the right-field line and Olerud went on to second. Henderson, who'd taken the day off to get another left-handed bat into the lineup against Baldwin, ran for Olerud as Foulke came in to pitch, and he coasted to third on a sacrifice bunt by Javier. Foulke walked Bell to set up a potential inning-ending double play, but Piniella sent up speedy left-handed Carlos Guillen to pinch-hit, and he did the obvious thing: he tried to bunt to a place where it would be impossible to get two. He did even better, bunting the ball where it was impossible to get to, past Thomas at first. Henderson came home to give the Mariners the sweep. That was the story of the series: the Mariners did the little but fundamental things right, as the Sox hitting went bad.

Throughout the series I was haunted by memories of the 1983 playoffs against the Baltimore Orioles. Just as in that series the Sox' big bopper, Greg Luzinski, fell into an ill-timed slump, here Thomas went 0 for 9. When he wasn't taking a walk he was lunging at bad pitches, dropping his back shoulder and popping the ball up. And just as, in 1983, Baines hit shots all over the field but right at people in getting only 2 hits in 16 at bats, here Ordoñez kept hitting shots while going 2 for 11, the most painful robbery coming in the seventh inning of the second game. With the Mariners up 4-2 but the Sox rallying, with runners at the corners and two out (Thomas, of course, had just popped out), Ordoñez slapped a liner up the middle. But pitcher Jose Mesa got a glove on it, giving Mark McLemore a chance to make a diving stop behind second. He quickly tossed to Rodriguez and the ump called Valentin out on the inning-ending force, though replays showed him safe.

There's no denying that the Sox came a long way this season. With Durham, the revitalized Thomas, and Ordoñez augmented by the maturing Lee and the veterans Valentin, Perry, and Johnson, they had a powerhouse lineup and just enough pitching to get by. While those last three veterans are unsigned for next year, the Sox figure to add young third baseman Joe Crede, who was impressive in a September stint with the Sox after being named most valuable player in the Class AA Southern League. Young hurlers Jon Garland and Kip Wells figure to progress, along with the massive power-pitching prospect Jon Rauch, who spent the second half of the season with the U.S. Olympic team after being named minor league player of the year by Baseball America magazine. The Sox could easily find themselves looking back at this year's playoff sweep the way the Bears wound up looking back at their 1984 shutout at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football Conference championship game--as the embarrassment that steeled their will for the championship season to follow. But the Sox had a better all-around team in 1993, when they lost in the playoffs to the Toronto Blue Jays, and the following year Jerry Reinsdorf chose a labor impasse over a possible World Series appearance. The team splintered shortly thereafter. Likewise, the Sox had a staff of talented young pitchers in 1983, but Rich Dotson and Britt Burns fell victim to health problems and LaMarr Hoyt was sent packing for Ozzie Guillen. If Sox fans know one thing, it's that next year's Sox will have to combat not just their opponents but themselves, and not only themselves but their history. That's enough to make anyone, fan or player, neurotic.

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