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It seemed a normal September day, the sort when summer passes almost immeasurably into fall over the course of a few hours in the early evening. High clouds covered the sky, casting a curtain over the renewed air traffic above, as the players marched out at Comiskey Park two Tuesdays ago to stretch and jog, take batting practice, and generally shake the dust from the national pastime after a seven-day disruption of the schedule. By the time I got on the field, at 5:30 PM, having cleared a brisk but comprehensive check of my bag at the entrance, Harold Baines was in the cage; and for all the criticism he's been subjected to, and in spite of his woeful performance at the plate this season--a .133 batting average in 31 games, without a single homer and only six runs batted in--I found it comforting to see him there. It was as though little had changed since he broke in with the White Sox 21 years ago.

The one thing that seemed different was the PA system, whose volume had been turned down a bit from the usual pregame din. Yet soon I began to notice the odd and sometimes genuinely bizarre musical choices somebody was making: first Madonna's "Don't Tell Me," in which confidence in the power of love is expressed with ironic self-doubt; then Neil Diamond's "America," immediately followed by Elvis Costello's version of "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?" The Diamond song was particularly jarring, as it was played again and again during the night. Not to endorse its presence on the banned-song list put out by radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications the same week, but jeez--"They're coming to America..."?

As the gates opened and the early arriving fans poured in--people seemed to have decided that if they were going to get a shot of normalcy by going out to the ball game, they'd get the maximum dose--the omnipresence of U.S. flags made itself felt as another difference. Flag patterns were common on shirts, sweaters, and caps, as bandannas and sometimes on pants; people waved full-size flags or posters brandishing flag images; and as the first 20,000 fans were handed miniature flags on a stick, these poked from chest pockets and through the open backs of caps, above the backs of shirts at the nape, and even from the back pockets of jeans (be careful sitting down). Amid all that red, white, and blue, two people caught my eye: a father standing at the railing next to the screen behind home plate and the toddler he held high against his chest. The father wore a modern black Sox cap with script lettering, the son one of those 1917 white Sox caps, and both looked out on the field with dazed, vacant expressions.

Joe Torre, manager of the New York Yankees, sat in the visiting dugout. Torre almost always looks like a sad dog, and on this night this dour impression was exaggerated by the bags under his eyes. The horde of reporters around him was even larger than usual. "I think we can do some good by playing the game," he said. "I think we want to get the first game over with. That's all we want to do." Then he brightened for a moment. He recalled going out for dinner with his coaches the previous night, and Don Zimmer suddenly telling an old baseball story, and all of them realizing, some 90 minutes of story swapping later, that for a short time they'd forgotten about the situation back home in New York City. Torre smiled, and then mused, "It's our job, and it's our duty--more so than our job right now--to represent the people of New York."

That responsibility was keenly felt not just by the players but by the fans. It seemed as if every transplanted New Yorker in Chicago was in the stands. They wore Yankee caps and player jerseys, and when Chuck Knoblauch led off the game with a single about half the crowd of 22,785 cheered. This was after the pregame ceremony, when the poignant continued to be juxtaposed with the sentimental and the ridiculous. Chicago police officers and firefighters, representing their New York City counterparts, marched out to cheers and chants of "U-S-A!" and when they lined up along the base paths between first and third and the Yankees and Sox completed the ring by standing on the foul lines, they created a strong image of baseball's place in the social fabric. Yet everything stopped for the delivery of the baseballs by a corporate sponsor. Phyllis Arnold gave stirring renditions of the national anthem and "God Bless America," but then things got muddled, and there seemed to be not one but two moments of silence. Ray Charles's recording of "America the Beautiful" prompted more chants of "U-S-A!" but the Sox took the field to the strains of Lee Greenwood's more jingoistic "God Bless the U.S.A." Kate Smith's "God Bless America" was revived for the seventh-inning stretch, but elsewhere Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." was misappropriated as a patriotic anthem, as it had been during Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign. The pregame fireworks likewise seemed out of place. Yet during one of the quieter moments, a fan in the left-field bleachers called out, "We love you, New York!"--a previously unthinkable sentiment for a Sox fan, who tends to hate the Yankees almost as much as he or she hates the Cubs. Behind home plate, one fan occasionally held up an ominous poster: "The Yanks Are Coming."

They certainly were. When the schedule was interrupted the Sox had been on a hot streak, reaching their high-water mark of four games over .500, but the Yanks struck at once. They pounced on Mark Buehrle for two runs in the first inning, helped by a Tino Martinez RBI grounder that squirted under the mitt of Sox first baseman Paul Konerko and a potential inning-ending double play spoiled by Ray Durham's slow turn at second and low throw to Konerko, who couldn't scoop up the ball as the second run scored.

Buehrle's a lefty with a distinctive motion. He kicks his right leg up, then out and forward, striding like someone feeling for that first basement stair in the dark. After the first inning he settled down. But he gave up another run in the fifth and was knocked out in the seventh, when the Yanks batted around and scored six runs. That made the score a skunking 9-0, as New York starter Orlando Hernandez showed he was back in postseason form after suffering toe and elbow injuries earlier in the year. It's no wonder Hernandez occasionally breaks down, considering the contortions he goes through in his delivery. He kicks his left knee chest high while bringing his hands low, and on every pitch he seems a man suffering the spasms of a particularly acute case of jock itch. But slinging the ball overhand and sidearm, spinning it in and out and down, and changing speeds with no noticeable alteration in his delivery, he stymied the Sox, allowing them only two hits in seven innings. The Sox tapped the New York bull pen for two runs in the eighth and another in the ninth, and the final was 11-3.

"Once the game started, it was baseball," Sox manager Jerry Manuel said afterward. Sometimes--when the Sox were rallying and organist Nancy Faust was trying to rouse the crowd with "Mexican Hat Dance"--it seemed like old times. When the first-base umpire called a bounding Durham hit down the first-base line foul, coach Gary Pettis was so incensed he got thrown out of the game, and the stink Durham proceeded to raise after striking out got him tossed too. "You suck! You suck!" chanted the fans, a chorus that somehow seemed much more comforting than the lockstep patriotism of "U-S-A!" if only for being more natural.

Despite the game-time temperature of 68 degrees, a damp, chilly breeze soon began to blow in from Lake Michigan, and by the bottom of the sixth it was carrying in rain clouds. The drizzle increased to rain, though play went on, and most fans in the lower deck climbed the steps to the walkway in back. But a few stayed in the rain as if they expected it to wash away their anger and obligation. Afterward, Manuel denied his team was flat, though admitting the lapses that cost the Sox badly in the first inning, and he went on to deny the game any larger significance. Truth be told, he seemed as dazed as anybody.

Outside, rain continued to fall, just as it would fall on the Bears and their 100-yard-long flag at Soldier Field when they resumed play Sunday--though the Bears would prevail with a victory over the Minnesota Vikings. The Comiskey scoreboard carried the distressing news--distressing to me at least--that in their first game back, in Cincinnati, the Cubs had blown a two-run lead in the ninth to lose 6-5. The Cubs would suffer through a down-up-down week when they could least afford it, losing two of three to the Astros last weekend to leave them eight games out and three and a half behind Saint Louis in the wild card race.

Where the Sox were concerned, given their also-ran status this season, bidding them adieu that Tuesday was like saying good-bye to a statue. I left the stadium and walked back to the CTA station in the rain.

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