As September approached, the White Sox began to pull out of their doldrums. They left on a six-game road trip in late August right where they’d been at the All-Star break six weeks before–at 23 games above .500. But then they won west coast series against the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics, each a possible playoff opponent, finishing with back-to-back wins over the A’s. They came home and extended their winning streak to five games with a sweep of the Anaheim Angels, in the process climbing to a season-high 28 games over .500 and padding their lead over the second-place Cleveland Indians in the Central Division to eight and a half games, the largest it had been in two weeks. Even so, the Sox continued to be plagued by manic-depressive ups and downs. They lost the first two games of a four-game series with the Texas Rangers, both of them frustrating one-run affairs, and the Indians cut the lead to six and a half games. Then the Sox cleared the air with a typical homicidal-mania bludgeoning, walloping the Rangers 13-1. But the Indians won too, leaving the Sox with one more game against Texas at Comiskey Park before a three-game series in Cleveland that would surely determine whether the Indians made a race of it in the Central Division or instead scrambled for the wild-card spot.

Those two games, the last against the Rangers and the first in Cleveland, would prove to be the pivotal ones of the Sox’ season. The stakes were high. If the Sox were to win just 12 of their last 23 games, the Indians would have to go 21-5 to beat them. Yet mere math doesn’t console a Sox fan. If the Sox lost to Texas and the Indians beat the weak Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the AL’s most recent expansion team, the lead would be down to five and a half games, and if the Indians then swept the Sox in Cleveland, the lead would be two and a half with three full weeks to play. Even if the Indians won only two of three, they’d be within reach.

Here Sox fans themselves took a prominent role in the drama, and not a heroic one. They behaved like waffling pragmatists–sort of like the Vichy official that Claude Rains plays in Casablanca. Fact is, Sox fans were apathetic about their team. The Sox returned from the coast swing on September 1 expecting fans to finally come out in force and cheer them through the final month of the season. Instead, a paltry 16,377 showed up on a beautiful night on the opening Friday of Labor Day weekend. What, were they all at the Jazz Fest? Not hardly, Sox fans being typically more attracted to Nancy Faust playing the chicken dance than to David Murray wailing away on the saxophone. More likely they’d all headed up to Grand Beach, Michigan, for the weekend and were watching the game at Redamak’s. (Gains in TV ratings have outpaced those in attendance throughout the season.) Attendance rose to almost 30,000 over the weekend, and remained at that level for the opening game of the Texas series, thanks to the team’s dollar-a-ticket Family Night on Monday, but then dropped under 14,000 the following night. The Sox committed their 13-run murder in front of 15,000 fans, and only 18,000 showed up to see them off to Cleveland.

The Sox seemed to be operating within a hermetically sealed container as they took batting practice in an empty stadium the night of the final Texas game. Wispy clouds and a dream of a moon emerged out of the pale blue sky, which looked like a faded background diorama painted onto the walls of a long-forgotten zoo exhibit. The Sox seemed self-confident and self-contained, with Jose Valentin standing on the wheels at the back of the batting cage and cheering home runs hit into the empty bleachers by mimicking TV announcer Ken Harrelson’s signature “You can put it on the board–yes!” Also on the field was the “Get Up!” guy, the fellow who typically sits behind home plate and cajoles Sox fans into standing at critical moments. Officially enshrined as the club’s lead rooter, he wore a Sox jersey that said “Get Up!” and the number 00 on the back.

He had them up in the first inning when the team took the field, but starter Jim Parque immediately gave up a triple to leadoff man Luis Alicea, who scored on a double-play grounder. Parque gave up a monstrous homer to Ricky Ledee to lead off the second inning before settling in to retire the next 13 Texas batters, but the wheels fell off in the fifth. Four straight hits yielded two more Texas runs, and Parque was done for the day, his role in the postseason rotation in jeopardy, as Kip Wells had returned from the minors to pitch well in the previous night’s 13-1 drubbing.

The Sox were down 4-0 and had yet to get a base runner off Texas starter Kenny Rogers, who was fraying the inside corner of the plate with a biting slider and took a perfect game into the bottom of the fifth. The Sox finally got a run when Carlos Lee singled and Paul Konerko followed in kind–bringing to life the fans who did make it to the game–and Herbert Perry brought Lee home with a sacrifice fly. Sox manager Jerry Manuel replaced Parque with Lorenzo Barcelo, a big, broad-shouldered young pitcher who throws a heavy sinking fastball but tends to let up noticeably on his breaking stuff. Manuel later said he’d made the early pitching change to goose the team, almost like a basketball coach trying to spark his squad with a new combination, but what really got the Sox going was that Barcelo immediately gave up another run. It was now 5-1, and even the Sox’ erratic scoreboard was enough on the ball to inform everyone that the Indians were beating the Devil Rays. The way Rogers was pitching, things looked desperate.

Then Rogers suddenly lost it, walking Charles Johnson and hitting Ray Durham to open the sixth. Manuel, managing cautiously, signaled for Tony Graffanino to bunt, but fortunately he knocked two foul, and then given the green light slashed a single to left to load the bases. Frank Thomas came up with the fans–18,000 trying their able-bodied best to sound like 30,000–chanting, “MVP!” He smacked a sinker into the left-field gap to score three runs, giving himself a major-league-leading 133 runs batted in on the season, and chasing Rogers from the game. Then Magglio Ordoñez greeted reliever Jeff Zimmerman’s first pitch with a beautiful swing, dropping his bat on a low, inside fastball and flowing through it from the midsection as if he were flourishing a cape. The ball went up over left field and out, and the Sox had a 6-5 lead.

At about the same time, Tampa Bay went in front of the Indians 4-3. Barcelo stiffened, and he turned over the lead to bull-pen ace Keith Foulke in the eighth. Foulke worked out of a jam, and in the bottom of the inning Ordoñez homered off the Rangers’ Darwin Cubillan with another elegant swing and Lee hit the very next pitch into the left-field seats. The Sox were off again, batting around for the 33rd time this season and turning the game into what would be a 10-6 rout.

The final Cleveland score, 4-3 Tampa Bay, went up on the scoreboard, and fans started pointing and cheering and the Get Up! guy stood brandishing a poster with 18, the new magic number, on it. Then, amid chants of “We want Cleveland!” the game ended and the guy brought out a hastily constructed poster that said 17. The Sox’ lead was back at seven and a half games as they went to Cleveland.

There was still one test left, however. The Indians, who had already lost seven of ten to the Sox this season, were full of talk about how they were at last healthy and back at full strength for this critical series. They were backed by a sold-out crowd of 42,000 fans at Jacobs Field, giving the game a playoff atmosphere. Would the young Sox, who had been playing in a vacuum at home, be able to respond? Pitching ace James Baldwin fell behind right away, giving up a run in the first, but Konerko got it back in the second when he followed a Lee single with a homer to put the Sox up 2-1. Valentin homered in the third, and the Sox scored two more in the fourth to pull away to a 5-1 lead. There, however, they teetered. Baldwin, suffering from a tired arm and a sore shoulder that would later require a cortisone shot, gave up two runs in the fourth and couldn’t get out of the fifth. But rookie left-hander Mark Buehrle came on to get Jim Thome to ground into a double play for only the seventh time this season to preserve a 5-4 Sox lead, and the Sox went on to win not by clubbing the Indians into submission but with pitching and defense–gritty, playoff-ready baseball. With the bases loaded in the seventh, the menacing Thome scalded one down the first-base line. Konerko made a diving stab of the ball after it had passed his body, and jumped up in time to hold the runners. Bobby Howry worked out of the inning and through the eighth, and Foulke got through the ninth, helped by Valentin’s diving catch into the left-field stands for the first out. The Sox had stood up to the pressure, padding their lead to eight and a half games with only 21 games to play. For the first time this season even a skittish Sox fan had to admit they were home free. Though the Sox lost the next night, 9-3, clinching was just a matter of time. Sunday’s series finale was rained out, and the only halfway credible reason that the game might be made up at the end of the season is that it could affect the Indians’ chances of making the playoffs as a wild card.

After that final win against Texas, as the Sox’ players packed their bags for Cleveland, the mood in the locker room was cheery, confident, but not triumphant. They were already preparing themselves for the Indians–a sign of maturity for a young and still developing team. Still, the music playing was a bit jarring–Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” The kids can play, but they need a little work on the concept of a victory march.