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The regular season began and ended at Bill Veeck Stadium with a Bo Jackson home run. Once a Sox fan accepted the idea of a man with an artificial hip playing baseball at all--much less hitting home runs--there was something neat and tidy and almost foreordained about that, which is pretty much how the White Sox's first-place finish seemed when the season was over. The best team won; how many years was it supposed to take, anyway?

Sometimes, the most obvious events seem the most miraculous. Did the Sox need a most valuable player season out of Frank Thomas? They got it: 41 homers, 128 runs batted in, and a .317 batting average. Did they need a Cy Young season out of Jack McDowell? How about a 22-10 record? Did they need Alex Fernandez to fulfill his promise? How about 18-9? Did they need Roberto Hernandez to become the bull pen closer? How about 38 saves in 43 chances, and a 2.29 earned-run average? Did they need a couple of the young starters to develop? How about Wilson Alvarez and Jason Bere winning their last 14 starts combined (the most miraculous number of all, in my opinion).

Did they need Tim Raines to return to prime form? How about .306? And what about someone to turn the double play at second base? Joey Cora was there all along. What the Sox needed, they got; it was as simple as that. While nobody is expecting the World Series to end with a Bo Jackson homer, well, right now it wouldn't surprise anybody too much, either.

The Sox returned home to the Veeck--was it two weeks ago?-- after a profitable ten-game west coast road trip that gave them a choke hold on the American League West. The key game had come in Oakland on a Sunday afternoon, when Robin Ventura beat the Athletics with a ninth-inning homer off Dennis Eckersley. The second-place Texas Rangers, meanwhile, were blowing a big lead. As the Sox seemed about to drop a full game to the Rangers and instead padded their lead a game, it was a two-game swing in the standings and it gave them a three-and-a-half-game lead. The rest of the road trip went well except for a Thomas injury on a foul pop that same day in Oakland, when he banged his left elbow into the stands. The Sox returned home needing only to prevent the Rangers from sweeping a three-game series; if the Sox swept, they would clinch first place.

Nevertheless, the season seemed to teeter on the edge that Friday night. The Sox were sending their weakest starter, Tim Belcher, against the Rangers' best, Kevin Brown. Belcher was an essential part of the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers who upset the A's in five games in the World Series, with Belcher 3-0 in the postseason. But he blew his shoulder out in 1990 and has never been the same. The Sox acquired him in August for a couple of lesser phenoms, but he hadn't quite given them what they expected. By that night it had already been announced that Alvarez and Bere would be the third and fourth starters in the playoffs, with Belcher in the bull pen.

Belcher lost his out pitch--an overpowering fastball--when he hurt his shoulder, but he has never forgotten the technique of how to get a batter out. His has a textbook motion: a touch of the glove to the nape of the neck, a pointed-toe, bent-knee kick, and the arm lagging behind the stride and then flashing straight over the top. His fastball is still his best pitch, but he has to spot it, move it in and out, set it up with breaking stuff thrown for strikes.

That's what he did on this evening; even so, each out was laborious. Nine of the 27 batters he faced went to two strikes and fouled pitches off, including the Rangers' pesky right fielder Rob Ducey all three times up (nine pitches, six of them strikes, before flying out to left in the fourth). I know of no Sabremetrics source for comparing such a statistic, but it seemed abnormally high (what is meant by the lack of an out pitch). He was composed, though, and that was enough.

Because his counterpart Brown was anything but composed at the start. To begin the game he hit leadoff man Raines with a split-finger fastball that stuck in his hand. Then he walked Cora on four pitches. Thomas came up, and on a 2-0 count hit a grounder heavy with topspin down the third-base line. The Rangers' Dean Palmer speared it as it tried to skitter past him, but then threw off-balance over the first baseman's head, scoring Raines and sending Cora and Thomas to third and second. With the Rangers playing the infield back, Ventura grounded to second, scoring Cora and moving Thomas to third. And with the Rangers bringing the infield in and the count again 2-0, designated hitter George Bell reached out in front of the plate and smacked a big ol' "hit me" hanging curveball almost one-handed into the left-field bleachers. The Sox were up 4-0.

A lot has been made of how Sox fans have risen to the occasion with their team winning the division, but it should be pointed out that only about half of the 40,000-plus crowd that turned out for that brisk but beautiful night of baseball saw the Sox take this lead. The stands were not half filled at the 7:05 first pitch, and they did not really begin to fill until 7:45.

After that, Brown settled down and Belcher tried to hang on. He took a shutout into the seventh inning, when he gave up hits to the first two batters. Kirk McCaskill allowed both those inherited runners to score, but the Sox still took a 4-2 lead to the ninth, when Hernandez came in from the bull pen.

Hernandez, however, was not himself. He fanned the first batter, but then went to a full count and a pair of extra foul balls before getting the next man to ground out. The lack of an out pitch was the theme of the night. The next batter, with the crowd on its feet, slapped a single to center. Hernandez got ahead of Chris James, 1-2, but James then fouled off three pitches, one of them dropping only inches beyond Cora's outstretched glove down the first-base line. Then he picked out a fastball tailing in from the outside corner of the plate and lashed it into the right-field bleachers. The game was tied.

The White Sox won in the bottom of the ninth, however, in almost textbook fashion. Lance Johnson led off with a perfect drag-bunt single. Ron Karkovice sacrificed him to second. Ozzie Guillen pulled a grounder to the first baseman, advancing Johnson to third. With two outs, and Warren Newson pinch-hitting against right-handed Chris Carpenter (if the Rangers had gone to a left-hander, the Sox would have countered with any of several players off their righty-heavy bench, including Jackson, Ivan Calderon, and Steve Sax), he slapped a 2-0 pitch into left field to win the game.

For the Sox to encounter choking head-on and nevertheless win with such a fundamentally sound rally couldn't have made the team's spirits any higher. It was now just a matter of time.

I left the Sox to their own devices from then on but kept an ear cocked. Saturday's game was rained out, prompting a Sunday doubleheader. Late that morning, as I was returning to my car while on an errand, I heard squeals and cheers from an apartment window above. The car radio brought the cause: a Bo Jackson home run. That was nearly all Bere would need. The full-lipped, long-lashed, hard-throwing phenom--who looks sort of like a baseball version of Johnny Depp--blew the Rangers down and handed a 2-1 lead to the bull pen. Hernandez got the save this time to clinch a tie for first.

Yet Fernandez couldn't pull off the clinching sweep in the nightcap. He tired and surrendered a pair of runs in the eighth that broke a 1-1 tie. The Sox responded right away with a run to make it 3-2, and they had the winning run on in the bottom of the ninth, but Cora's dying, potentially game-winning pop fly was snagged by Texas center fielder Donald Harris to end the game. Harris responded as if the Rangers had clinched.

So it was left to Monday night and Alvarez against the Seattle Mariners, the team the '83 Sox had clinched against. Don't ask me why, but I had it in my head not just to experience the game but to have my hand on the pulse of the city. So much has been written and said about the reluctance of Chicago fans to support the Sox, and I myself had been so dismayed by the jaded late arrival of fans to the Veeck, that I wanted to experience the Sox in the real world, compare them to the stir created by the Bulls or even the Bears. I started with an acid test, in the bastion of Cubs' fandom at Murphy's Bleachers. The game was on--they were polite about that-- but the crowd was small and interest minimal. In addition, Murphy's didn't seem to be bringing the Sox hitters any luck, although Alvarez looked tough (he was almost unhittable after returning from a brief exile to the minors in August).

In the fourth, the Sox squandered a terrific opportunity. Ellis Burks led off with a hit, but was thrown out stealing on a hit-and-run when Seattle pitcher Dave Fleming came high and tight to Craig Grebeck. Grebeck, however, followed with a single, and seemed on the way to score when Thomas drilled one in the gap in left center. But the ball bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double and the umps halted Grebeck at third. The Mariners walked Bell intentionally to get to Jackson. The day before, he had quashed a rally in the eighth inning of the nightcap when he swung at the first pitch and hit a grounder back to the pitcher with men on. Now he again swung at the first pitch and hit a soft liner to the second baseman. Robin Ventura followed with an easy grounder to end the threat.

To change the luck and the mood, I moved, meeting some friends at the Chase Tavern, a bar on Racine that caters to a younger crowd. And the crowd was into it, more or less, but not with the intensity of a big Bulls or Bears game. In the sixth, Burks again led off with a single. Grebeck dribbled a bunt down the third-base line-- the Mariners' Mike Blowers watched it rolling, rolling--for a hit. Meat of the order coming up. But Thomas and Bell--both after lining shots foul down the third-base line--made measly outs, leaving it up to Jackson again. This time, he took a pitch--another, and another. On 3-0, he got the green light and swung. The replay, from the first-base camera, showed that he hit the ball almost straight up. Jackson himself said he thought it was a pop fly. Blowers actually went back on the ball before leaving it for Seattle left-fielder Brian Turang. But he too went back and back. He turned left at the wall and circled under the ball like a dog under a treed squirrel. But when it finally came down, with a trotting Jackson halfway to second base, it was in the bleachers. Jackson made a weird sort of half hop and picked up speed. Across Chicago, especially on the south side, cars must have made similar veers at the same moment. This was, really, enough drama for anyone. The Sox closed the game out, 4-2. I can't say the crowd in the bar was ecstatic; counting down the outs was sort of like counting down the minutes to New Year's--without the kissing at midnight.

When the game ended, and the Sox celebrated in the locker room on television--Ventura was wearing swimming goggles--it was simply time for another beer. I had to point out to my friends, "Hey, there's Bo, taking a victory lap around the field."

Just another miracle.

For both the team and the fans, there seems a sense of reserve. After the Sox blew it with the hitless blunders of '83, and the Cubs lost in excruciating '84 and again in '89, there seems a sense that only a pennant will do this time. That sense, in fact, typifies this Sox team: well-paid professionals all, with a get-it-done-and-get-out attitude.

But let's make the leap. Let's imagine McDowell and Greg Maddux going up against each other two or three times. It's the worst nightmare of Cubs general manager Larry Himes--the pitching ace he let get away going up against the team he helped build--but otherwise there shouldn't be a baseball fan in the world who wouldn't get excited. And if it takes more miracles for this to happen, so be it.

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