The White Sox came home to die last week. No one was prepared to admit it when they opened their last home stand against the Detroit Tigers, but everyone felt it, from the upper deck down to the dugout. The Sox were businesslike but somber during batting practice, especially compared to the younger, playful, Central Division-leading Tigers. And as the Sox dropped two of three to the Tigers and then lost 9-0 and 11-6 to the Seattle Mariners to open the final home series of the season, their fate never seemed tragic, the mood in the park never despondent. For the most part, Sox fans passed from denial to acceptance, skipping anger. Even when starter Mark Buehrle was removed from the first game with the Tigers having surrendered four runs and ten hits in six-plus innings, he received polite applause.

The same was true last Saturday, when Buehrle pitched much worse, getting scored on in the first inning for his seventh straight start and going on to give up seven runs to Seattle in five innings. The Sox were down 7-2 by then, and when they went tamely in the bottom of the inning to make the game official only moments before an extended rain delay, it seemed a bookend with the rain-soaked season opener in April that began the year with such optimism–a 10-4 win over the Cleveland Indians. In between, the Sox underachieved. When statistics crunchers like Baseball Prospectus execute their “Pythagorean theorems” on this year’s Sox, they’ll no doubt determine that the team should have won more games given the runs it scored and runs it allowed.

Baseball’s chemistry is much more intangible than basketball’s or even football’s. All reports suggested the Sox got along well in the clubhouse, and I certainly believe what most baseball touts expressed all season, that this team was even more talented than the one that won it all last year. They scored more runs and fielded better–usually a strong indicator of whether a baseball team has kept focus. Yet the Sox reached their high-water mark of 56-29, 27 games over .500, on July 6, just days before the All-Star break, and in the second half of the season when the Sox hit they didn’t pitch and when they pitched they didn’t hit, and when the starting pitching and the hitting came together the relief pitching collapsed–which was to be expected, after the relievers had worked so hard picking up the starters early on. But the fans remained remarkably tolerant–aside from their booing a noticeably ailing Bobby Jenks, the team’s most reliable player for most of the season, when he blew a save at home in early September as the Sox faded from contention. Rather, the Sox’ decline seemed to foster an appreciation for what a wonderful miracle last season had been, when everything came together to give the city its first baseball championship in 88 years.

It should be pointed out that Sox fans came to love this team not just as a second act for last year’s champions, with so many of the same players returning, but on its own terms. And they loved their team in spite of its faults, not because of them (for that, try Wrigley Field). This season’s images made almost as strong an impression as last year’s. There’s Jim Thome, with his characteristic way of flexing his lead foot when he’s really clobbered one, suggesting a baseball slugger as drawn by Robert “Keep On Truckin'” Crumb. There’s Brian Anderson, playing the sweetest center field I’ve ever seen, and Tadahito Iguchi’s crablike way of scuttling side to side for grounders at second base. There’s Jenks trotting in from the bullpen to the strains of P.O.D.’s “Boom,” and A.J. Pierzynski standing cocksure at first base following a run-scoring single as Captain Stubby and the Buccaneers’ “Let’s Go Go Go White Sox” rings out of the PA system. There’s Ross Gload coming off the bench to hit a game-winning grand slam in Baltimore against the Orioles, and Thome bashing a homer for the Sox’ lone hit of the game in a 1-0 win for Freddy Garcia over the Saint Louis Cardinals’ Anthony Reyes. Those images endure longer and stronger than the defeats: Cubs catcher Michael Barrett hitting a game-tying triple over Rob Mackowiak in center on a ball Anderson might have caught (and Barrett punching Pierzynski the day before); the Minnesota Twins winning a late-August game in the 11th inning after the Sox had chased Johan Santana and Jermaine Dye had hit a game-tying homer off Joe Nathan in the ninth.

Pitching was the Sox’ weak point this season: they allowed almost a run more a game than they had last year. Manager Ozzie Guillen again managed by gut and intuition in a way that earned comparisons with old-school types like Casey Stengel, but it should be pointed out that Stengel’s intuition extended to his pitching staff and year after year he cobbled together rotations around stars like Whitey Ford. Guillen stuck with his rotation through thick and thin, and the 90 or so games the Sox will wind up winning this year won’t be quite enough to put them in the playoffs. The Sox have a number of lean, promising minor leaguers like Ryan Sweeney and Josh Fields coming up, and Guillen and general manager Kenny Williams need to make decisions about who deserves a job; but what Guillen needs to do more is put some hunger into the pitching staff by being as ruthless with personnel moves there as he is with his lineup. A wide-open spring-training competition among this year’s starting five and Brandon McCarthy and even knuckleballer Charlie Haeger might extend “Ozzie ball” to the entire team.

Haeger figured prominently in the Sox’ comeback win last Saturday. When play resumed after the rain he stymied the Mariners with a knuckler that fluttered through the heavy air, and the Sox scored four in the sixth and five in the eighth to win going away. Sunday’s game was even better. It was played under a broken sky with abundant sun, and the Sox pounded Seattle rookie Ryan Feierabend on homers by Anderson, Joe Crede, and Paul Konerko, who’d add another homer after Juan Uribe chimed in with a seventh-inning grand slam. At both weekend games fans broke into spontaneous cheers of “Let’s go, White Sox!” On Sunday, the scoreboard announced that the Tigers were trouncing the Kansas City Royals to remove the Sox from contention for the Central Division title and the Twins were beating the Orioles to all but eliminate them in the wild-card race (the Twins clinched that the next day), but the mood at White Sox Park was powerfully mellow. Most of the 37,518 ticket holders were actually in their seats–despite the Bears on TV–pushing the Sox’ season attendance to a team-record 2,957,414, and after the final out the players milled in front of the dugout to soak up the cheers and doff their caps in response. A skeptic might suggest this season was one long victory lap, but I think it was more than that. It was a season of respect and appreciation, a lovefest. Winning changes everything, it seems, even losing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): AP photo/Jeff Roberson.