The White Sox returned to town for their home opener last Friday looking very much the snakebit team they’ve been since they were swept by Seattle in the 2000 playoffs–since the 1919 Black Sox scandal, truth be told. Though picked to contend with the Minnesota Twins for the American League Central title this year after obtaining starter Bartolo Colon and bullpen closer Billy Koch during the off-season, the Sox opened by losing three in a row to the lightly regarded Royals in Kansas City–each game more aggravating than the one before. The vaunted Sox offense was shut out in the opener, a 3-0 defeat hung on ace Mark Buehrle. Colon pitched almost equally well in his Sox debut in the next game, but after the Sox tied the game at three, reliever Rick White gave up a two-run homer to take the 5-4 loss. The Sox led the series finale 6-5 in the eighth inning, but a parade of relievers couldn’t hold it, including Koch, who came on with two out and the Sox still in the lead and never did get the third out. The Royals sent 14 batters to the plate in the frame, and the Sox went tamely in the ninth for a 12-6 defeat. K.C. had scored all 12 of its runs with two out, and the Sox had committed four errors and a couple of other boneheaded plays on defense. And while the Sox were losing three to the Royals, the Twins beat the Detroit Tigers three straight. So the season was three games old and the Sox were three games out of first.

When early forecasts of a sunny, 70-degree day progressively darkened during the week into a cold, dreary, rain-swept afternoon, the weather seemed entirely appropriate. The gloom and chill matched the mood of Sox fans across the city. On WSCR, hypochondriac midday host Dan Bernstein was in full depression, complaining of SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome–an acronym one caller redefined as “Sox are rotten syndrome.” If the Sox had been listening to the Score in the clubhouse they probably wouldn’t have come out to play the game.

Yet an hour before the scheduled first pitch it was upbeat rap music that surged through the clubhouse, as players talked to reporters or played cards. A new sign advised: “This is where the ‘Business’ of Baseball stops and the ‘Playing’ of Baseball BEGINS.” The Sox were anything but hiding away in the doghouse with their tails between their legs. When rain delayed the game and I hunkered down with the Sox media notes, one detail caught my eye: the 1983 “Winnin’ Ugly” division champions also began the season 0-3. True enough, the opening sweep came at the hands of the Texas Rangers, a legitimate contender that year, but the ’83 Sox went on to finish first by 20 games. There was hope.

But there was no reason to hope the game would be played. The rain started as a drizzle, but the skies darkened in midafternoon and then it came down in sheets. The wind turned off the lake and the temperature dropped to 37, tying the record opening-day low set in 1974. Miserable fans huddled on the concourse, though a few ornery souls held their seats under umbrellas and ponchos. Yet at 4 PM, about an hour after the scheduled first pitch, TV play-by-play man Ken Harrelson reported that a window to start the game would open at 4:30, and lo and behold, the weather obliged right on schedule. Two poster-bearing protesters offended by the off-season name change of what will be referred to here as White Sox Park were among the first to take advantage. They moved to the front row of the left-field bleachers and waved signs, one reading, “Comiskey Park by any other name is still Comiskey Park,” the other playing the patriot card with “God Bless America + Comiskey Park.”

Most fans stayed on the concourse, shifting their feet to stay warm, even after the game began. There’d been 40,395 tickets sold, but many of those fans never made the trip and many more decided to head for home or a bar TV; the lower deck seats were never more than half full and the population in the upper deck was sparse. Sox starter Esteban Loaiza, a Mexican native, walked out to the bullpen for warm-ups with a towel wrapped around his head like a heavy winter scarf and with what looked like a cup of hot coffee in his hands–complete with cardboard insulator. Even so, the Sox went through with the annual opening-day introductions, and when a few members of the Tigers’ starting lineup realized how long this was going to take they ran back to the clubhouse and put on warm-up jackets. Colon was greeted with big cheers, while manager Jerry Manuel, generally blamed for the team’s uninspired opening, got a lukewarm response complete with a few boos. Frank Thomas, the mercurial star, received cheers–a good sign.

The game finally began about two hours late–“Let’s hurry up and get in at least five innings and then get out of the cold,” everyone seemed to say–and Loaiza got two quick outs before the pace slowed. He walked Bobby Higginson, and Dmitri Young worked the count full with several foul balls. When Loaiza finally got Young swinging, Miguel Olivo, the Sox’ rookie catcher, responded as if it were the last out of the game, pumping his fist as he dashed to the dugout. The Sox immediately put up a run as if they’d drawn it up on the chalkboard. Leadoff man D’Angelo Jimenez made an out, but Jose Valentin doubled and then Thomas drilled the ball deep to right. Higginson stabbed it at the top of the wall, but Valentin tagged and advanced to third. He came home when Magglio Ordonez’s grounder trickled through the middle.

The second was more explosive. After Loaiza worked a three-up, three-down top half, Carlos Lee led off for the Sox with a single to left and third baseman Joe Crede, last year’s phenom, pounded the next pitch on a line just over the center-field fence. Then Aaron Rowand singled, Olivo looked bad striking out, and when Manuel called a hit-and-run, Jimenez slapped the ball into the gap between right and center and Rowand scored easily. (The Sox had gone the three games in Kansas City without even attempting a stolen base.) Detroit knuckleballer Steve Sparks replaced starter Nate Cornejo and kept Jimenez from scoring, but the Sox led 4-0.

The lead was critical. It allowed Loaiza, who joined the Sox over the winter after a mediocre year with the Toronto Blue Jays, to work fast and throw strikes. The Sox seemed obliging too, going quickly and in order in the third and with one hit in the fourth. Loaiza was just two outs away from an official game when he gave up a fifth-inning double to Carlos Pena–the Tigers’ first hit of the game–and a homer to Eric Munson.

The Sox and their fans share a fragile psyche, and this outburst seemed to send shivers beyond mere cold through the crowd. Things didn’t get any better as Loaiza staggered through the sixth. He walked the leadoff man, but Olivo erased him trying to steal. (Olivo, by the way, was having an impressive afternoon, displaying a quick release on his throw to second and following his strikeout in the second with a double to center in the fourth.) The Tigers’ Omar Infante followed with a single–one could almost sense new Detroit manager Alan Trammell smacking himself in the head for sending the previous runner–and Higginson hit a crisp grounder down the first-base line. Paul Konerko, playing close to the line to hold Infante, stabbed the ball, turned and threw to Valentin at second, and got back to the bag to take the return throw for a nifty 3-6-3 double play. As if revived by this shift in momentum, the Sox scored an insurance run in the bottom half on a single by Crede and a double by Rowand to move ahead 5-2.

Rain never did fall again during the game, but as the evening chill came on, the puffs of breath from the pitchers and hitters could be seen throughout the park. Loaiza walked two with two out in the seventh, and was removed to the cheers of the crowd, with Gary Glover coming on to get the final out. The annual opening-day fistfight broke out in the center field bleachers, but it distracted few of the remaining fans. Miserable as they were, they delighted in the game.

After Glover worked a brisk eighth inning, the ever-apprehensive Sox fans didn’t react well when Manuel called on Koch to pitch the ninth. Thanks to his miserable performance in Kansas City, more than a few fans booed when he was announced. But displaying a closer’s indomitable stoicism, advertised in his case by a shaven head and soul-patch beard, Koch ignored the greeting and went right at the heart of the Tigers’ order. He got Higginson looking for a strikeout. Then he got Young waving at a third strike. Unfortunately, the stadium radar gun was suffering from opening-day glitches and didn’t register the speed of Koch’s pitches, for the high-kicking right-hander had been firing bullets in the bullpen and now looked equally sharp in the game. Fans were on their feet as Koch got two strikes on Dean Palmer, who then popped up in foul territory behind third base. Crede got under the ball, but trying to navigate the rolled-up tarp along the wall he missed it. The official scorer ruled no play, but it had been a catchable ball for the final out of the game, and one could feel the reaction of Sox fans: “Oh no, here it comes.” On the next pitch Koch got Palmer swinging at a biting curveball–game over.

I like the Sox, although they’re by no means a complete team. If Jimenez gets on base at all they’re going to score a ton of runs, because the rest of the lineup is rock solid through seven, where Crede hits. Rowand is a stopgap until Joe Borchard is ready, but I like Olivo a lot, and admire the confidence Manuel has shown in giving him so many early-season starts, splitting time with Sandy Alomar Jr. On Sunday Olivo walked with two out and the bases loaded to break an eighth-inning tie–he was clapping his hands as he trotted to first–and the gates opened on what suddenly turned into a 10-2 rout. The Sox’ only weak spot is their unproven starting pitching behind Buehrle and Colon, but Buehrle hurled a three-hit shutout to claim an easy 7-0 win Saturday, and Josh Stewart pitched well in his major-league debut Sunday to set up the Sox for their late rally. Best of all, while the Sox swept the Tigers the Twins lost three in a row to the Jays to fall back into a tie with the Sox. So come in off the ledges, Sox fans. Save that act for the end of the season. Dare I say, if then?