This year’s All-Star game commanded more than the usual interest in Chicago and more than the usual dread. The White Sox, who entered the break with the best record in baseball at 57-29, placed four players on the American League roster, including pitchers Jon Garland and Mark Buehrle. Buehrle got the start, but there was little to be gained from this honor and much that could be lost. Back in 1983, at the 50th anniversary All-Star game at the old Comiskey Park, Atlee Hammaker of the San Francisco Giants was shelled for seven runs in less than an inning. A noticeable drop in confidence was followed by arm woes, and Hammaker never recovered. That was the fate I feared for the White Sox pitchers.

Yet Buehrle was his usual efficient self as he pitched a scoreless first two innings, and when Garland came on in the sixth to protect a 5-0 lead he got two quick outs. Then he walked two, and he got that deer-in-the-headlights look familiar from years past. But pitching coach Dave Wallace came out to the mound and said something that made Garland smile, and he immediately got the third out. So in the end the game couldn’t have gone better for the Sox. The American League beat the National League 7-5 to nail down the home-field advantage in the World Series, and Buehrle was the winning pitcher. He and Garland both got big-game experience they’ll be glad they have when the Sox make the playoffs in October.

Something magical is going on with the Sox this season. At some point, and I think it was when Frank Thomas returned from an injury and shouldered his way back into the new “small ball” lineup, I got hooked on this team for the way they played the game–for their emphasis on pitching, defense, and speed, and for the scrappy determination instilled by manager Ozzie Guillen–and was ready to follow wherever they led. The allegiance of some fans, the diehards, is never in doubt, but in Chicago most others have to make a conscious decision to give their hearts to a team. It’s a decision that becomes harder the farther back one’s personal history goes–to the Cubs in 2003, 1984, or 1969, or the Sox in 2000, 1993, or 1983.

I watched the All-Star game at Crew, the new gay sports bar on Broadway next to the Green Mill. My friend Neil and I picked it because we were looking for a place to watch the game that would have better than average bar food and fewer than average high-fiving yahoos. Crew proved agreeable on every count–once we got past such menu items as the pulled-pork minis, the open-face meatball sandwich, the threesome grilled cheese, and of course, the double-fisted build-a-burger. As the game went on, I found myself studying the clientele to see who else was as caught up in the Sox as I was. There were definitely more AL fans than NL fans in the bar as the game began, and a few clapped for every Buehrle out and especially at the end of his two innings. But there were no shouts for the Sox, and few seemed to share my extra concern for Garland or my relief when he escaped untouched. Pennant fever had yet to inflame the crew at Crew.

Truth be told, I saw the same lack of intensity at White Sox Park just before the break, when the Sox were swept in a three-game series by the Oakland Athletics. On Saturday I was seated high in the upper deck down the third base line, and at first it seemed a boisterous crowd, with a pair of louts just below standing at one point to chant “Oakland fans are gay!” Yet as the Sox fell behind on their way to a 10-1 loss, the fans seemed content to wait for the postgame fireworks. The two louts were joined at some point by a buddy who wrapped his arms around them, prompting a couple of us to consider chanting “Fans who think Oakland fans are gay are gay!” Maybe we should have–just to stir things up.

In any case, last Friday I decided to test the intensity of Sox fans’ passion at a pulse point. I journeyed down to Bridgeport and watched the Sox game in Cleveland on the TV at Puffer’s. Behind Jose Contreras the night before, the Sox had beaten the Indians 1-0 in the opening game of the second half of the season, and they were in the process of scoring four in the first inning as I came in the door. But the crowd of regulars–everyone seemed to know everyone else–was less than excited about the game. In fact, as Freddy Garcia settled in and started earning the victory, there was more interest in the video golf game.

Yet it was a nice neighborhood crowd, and there was no doubting its allegiance. One woman wore a T-shirt that said SOUTH SIDE IRISH on the front and CUBS SUCK on the back. Around eight o’clock a big crew-cut guy in a sleeveless Dos Equis T-shirt came in and took a place at the corner along with two of his buddies, one of them wearing a Roberto Clemente jersey and matching hat. The Cubs were playing the Pirates that day, so there was an implicit Cubs-suck message in that attire. Another guy had on a jersey from Eminem’s “Anger Management Tour.” If there was little doubt about their sexual orientation, even as they draped their arms around one another, there was none about their Sox aficion. The beefy guy cheered every Sox run, and at the last out he shouted, “That’s the end of the game! How ’bout dem White Sox!”

Still, it seemed that even in Bridgeport there are just pockets of passion. After Buehrle triumphed Saturday (the bullpen leaked a little but preserved a 7-5 victory), I decided to do one more field test and compare the Cubs and Sox head-to-head on Sunday afternoon. I was looking for a nonaligned place on the north side that would offer both games. Of course, back to Crew.

Both games were indeed showing throughout the place, including on two side-by-side wide-screen TVs above the bar, but it was the Cubs’ call with Len Kasper and Bob Brenly that was piped over the sound system. That’s why patrons clapped and cheered for Carlos Zambrano’s pickoff and for each Cubs run but not for Scott Podsednik’s bunt single or for Garland’s scoreless frames. He pitched a 4-0 shutout that gave him his 14th win of the season and the Sox a four-game winning streak and a record of 61-29, the best in baseball.

Come to think of it, the crowd at Crew wasn’t even as demonstrative–in the way of guys hanging on one another–as the crowd at Puffer’s or the Oakland-fans-are-gay guys. Like most Chicagoans, even yet, they were playing it cool with the Sox. It’s easy to love the Cubs when they’re playing the part of lovable losers, more dangerous to invest yourself in the fortunes of a team with real potential. Much as I know what beckons from the future and has always come in the past–heartache–I’ve made a conscious decision. I’m in it for the duration. I love this year’s Sox, and I don’t care who knows it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/JOnathan Daniel/Getty Images.