Through the first half of the season, the White Sox seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in jerking their fans around. Just when the Sox were encouraging hope and affection, they’d quash them with abysmal play; just when a fan was prepared to give up entirely, the Sox would run off an impressive stretch. The face of Sox fandom could have been epitomized by the frowning Silvio on The Sopranos quoting Michael Corleone: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

The Sox staggered into the All-Star break having squandered whatever momentum they’d built with four straight series wins, two apiece over the Cubs and the Twins. With a heavy media contingent in town for the All-Star Game, rumors were rife that manager Jerry Manuel was being preserved for decorum’s sake and would be fired the morning after the game. But like Rasputin, Manuel–by now sporting a scruffy goatee, suiting the comparison–somehow endured. He was there when the Sox welcomed the lowly Tigers to town last week, hoping to avenge the humiliating three-game sweep they’d suffered in Detroit. As if to display some godly anger at Manuel’s continued presence, the skies opened, threatening to wash out the first game. But Sox management cursed the heavens and waited, and the game eventually started after 10 PM, more than three hours late. At that point, starter Bartolo Colon was clearly not prepared to pitch. He got shelled, the Sox rallied but fell short, and the final out in their 10-9 loss was posted at about 1:30 in the morning.

That was it for the season, I decided. Yet from those soggy ashes the Sox somehow rose. They gave Mark Buehrle an early lead the following night, and he coasted to his fifth straight victory. The erratic Jon Garland pitched well Saturday as the Sox, hitless through six innings, rallied to win 6-2 with a sudden deluge of runs. Newfound ace Esteban Loaiza returned fully rested Sunday from his fine All-Star start, and the Sox clubbed the Tigers, 10-1. They weren’t dead yet, but they were still two games under .500 at 48-50, a half game behind the Twins and seven games behind the Kansas City Royals.

So I went out a week ago Monday determined to make the Sox show me once and for all whether they were worth my while. They were playing the Cleveland Indians, no longer the fearsome warriors and archrivals of a few years ago but a pesky team in the midst of rebuilding with lots of young talent.

Again I was struck during batting practice by what a formidable lineup the Sox present, especially now that it’s been joined by second baseman Roberto Alomar and center fielder Carl Everett. The Sox had a confident, almost predatory air about them around the cage. After Carlos Lee took his first turn and ran out to circle the bases, Magglio Ordonez hit a crisp hit-and-run liner that caught Lee by surprise just to the side of the screen protecting the first baseman and smacked him hard on the side of his shoe as he leaped to avoid it. The Sox around the cage hooted like pirates watching a man fall out of the rigging.

The Sox were outfitted on this night to match a dark, ornery mood, black jerseys atop their pin-striped white pants. The starting assignments favored neither team, as both were sending out their fifth starters, a pair of soft-tossing left-handers: Mike Porzio for the Sox and Brian Tallet for the Tribe. Tallet was chum for the sharks, the Sox being heavy with right-handed hitters. Tallet narrowly avoided disaster in the first. With two on, Lee was robbed on a screaming liner to deep left when Jody Gerut’s leaping catch ended the inning. In the second, Paul Konerko, fighting his way out of a slump and his average up to .213 (it was under .200 for most of the season), hit a fly deep to center but not deep enough. Baby-faced Joe Crede came up next and hit one in the exact same direction, only deeper; it dropped behind the center-field fence. Crede has been another disappointment this season, entering the game hitting only .231, but he has an interesting way of striking the ball, as if he were a golfer trying to hit the lower half with a wedge to create underspin and improve the carry. It’s a timing swing, prone to pop-ups, but when he hits the ball right it goes, and this was one of those times.

Porzio hit a man in the first but settled down, delivering the ball from a left arm that lags behind the body, then comes lashing over the top, and with two outs in the third they were just getting the scraps of paper ready in the press box to start up a no-hit pool when a Cleveland player with the unlikely name of Coco Crisp singled to right. Casey Blake followed with a double into the left-field corner, and Crisp came all the way home, beating a weak relay by shortstop Tony Graffanino (who got the start with Jose Valentin sitting against the lefty). Then Gerut drove in Blake with a single, and Milton Bradley–what names these Indians have!–drove in Gerut with another double to left, as Lee’s throw to the cutoff man missed Graffanino entirely. The Sox crowd–ever alert and quite large on this night, with 31,776 taking advantage of a half-price Monday–booed, and one couldn’t tell if they were booing Porzio or Lee’s bad throw, probably both. Porzio got the final out, but the Indians led 3-1.

The Sox came right back. Graffanino worked the count full for the second straight time and drew a walk. Kicking out his left toes to time his swing, Roberto Alomar slapped a single into the hole between first and second. Then, surprise of surprises, Graffanino and Alomar pulled off a double steal in front of Frank Thomas on a 2-1 curve–a beautiful call by Manuel. (And where has that been all season?) Thomas failed to capitalize, striking out, but Ordonez blooped a double down the right-field line. Graffanino scored of course, but Alomar had to hold at third after waiting to see if the ball would be caught. Lee fanned, swinging ugly at a wide fastball, and then Everett came up. Just as I was thinking that Everett’s choice of introduction music–Parliament’s “Flash Light”–made him a worthy addition to the team all by itself, he lashed an inside slider into left field to score Alomar and Ordonez and put the Sox back on top, 4-3.

The Sox wouldn’t score again that night, and their season seemed to teeter on whether they could hold on. Porzio worked five innings before giving way to the bullpen, and righty Rick White two more before Tom Gordon came in to start the eighth. Meanwhile, the Sox kept squandering opportunities. Ordonez walked but was thrown out stealing second to end the fifth. Graffanino and Alomar both walked in front of Thomas in the seventh, but he popped to short. Lee was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double in the eighth.

The bad thing about big crowds at White Sox Park is the wave. The fans started in the seventh inning in the right-field bleachers, and although Sox loyalists immediately tried to boo the wave into submission, it rose up and rolled raggedly around the stadium a few times in the manner of the last dregs of beer being swirled in the bottom of a bottle.

The first man Gordon faced, Blake, hit a breathtaking drive to center that fell just short of the fence, allowing Everett to catch it. One out later, Bradley singled, and then Ryan Ludwick hit a pop to right that Ordonez briefly misjudged. He came charging in, slid, and tried to make the catch down at his side, but the ball dropped. Bradley was running all the way from first base, but Ordonez got up, grabbed the ball, and made a pinpoint throw to the plate, where Sandy Alomar Jr. tagged Bradley out easily.

Left in to pitch the ninth, and with nobody warming up in the bullpen, Gordon promptly walked the leadoff man on four pitches. Yet he got the next batter on a split-fingered fastball, the one after that on a straight fastball, and the last man on a trickling grounder to Konerko at first, and the Sox had won their fourth straight. The great majority of the crowd had stayed to the end, either to do the wave or root the Sox on, and everyone cheered.

Suddenly there seemed to be a surly swagger to these Sox. I thought back to Lee trotting gamely around the bases during batting practice after Ordonez’s liner struck him and arriving back home with a bashful smile on his face, and it struck me that the Sox have a number of nice, quiet, skilled players–like Lee and Ordonez and Crede–but the Sox seem to rise and fall on the performance of their more recalcitrant stars. Thomas, the Big Hurt, epitomizes that attitude, and his resurgence has led the team’s. Alomar and Everett, both known for clubhouse conflicts, have only added to the effect. Then there’s Colon, the fatty who seemed unenthusiastic about being brought in from Montreal during the off-season, and Buehrle, who rejected the Sox’ multiyear offer last winter and is said to be looking to move back home at the end of the year to Saint Louis, which could use some pitching. That doesn’t even get us to the bullpen, where Gordon and Billy Koch and Damaso Marte each seems to think that he alone should be the closer. Yet somehow all these disparate elements began to mix and re-form in a way only found in baseball.

Nothing is better for such chemistry than winning. Colon returned to form and beat the Indians the following afternoon for a sweep of the two-game set and the Sox’ fifth straight win. They went to Toronto to play the Blue Jays, and trailing 6-4 in the ninth after Buehrle blew leads of 3-0 and 4-3, rallied for three runs to win 7-6. The inning included two stolen bases, by Roberto Alomar and Lee, and a game-tying, two-run, bases-loaded double by Ordonez. The game-winning run batted in went to Konerko, who was hit by a pitch with three on. If the next night wasn’t quite as thrilling, it was more sustained, with the Sox taking a 3-3 tie into extra innings and holding on to score two in the 13th on a leadoff double by Lee, a go-ahead single by Thomas, and an insurance-run double by Ordonez. I saw the end of that game–late into the night and delayed by a deluge so quick and unexpected that the SkyDome’s retractable roof couldn’t be closed fast enough–in my favorite north-side tavern, not a sports bar but a place known for its impeccable billiard tables. The pool players all stopped and cheered for Thomas and Ordonez’s hits, and it seemed that this winning surly thing was catching on across the city.

The Sox came home and beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays Friday for their eighth straight, a game marked by Thomas’s 400th career homer. That’s where the streak ended, last Saturday, but even that defeat was fun to watch for a while. Porzio left in the fourth trailing 4-0, with Tampa Bay starter Rob Bell perfect through three, but in the bottom of the inning Thomas slashed a double to left with two out and Ordonez scored him with a bloop to left. Sandy Alomar hit a three-run homer to get the Sox within one in the fifth, and Ordonez went on to tie the game with yet another two-out RBI. Unfortunately, White gave up four runs in the next frame, sending the Rays to a 10-6 victory. But there were fireworks to appease the almost 30,000 fans, and the Sox provided their own fireworks the following afternoon, including Thomas’s 401st homer and 25th of the season, administering a 9-1 pounding. After giving up a first-inning homer, Colon settled down and cruised to the win. The Sox were 54-51, within four games of the first-place Royals, a young team still wet behind the ears and not likely to stand up to the Sox’ experience and intimidating temperament–if the attitude can be sustained.

Manuel let Colon warm up in the ninth, then came out before the inning started and lifted him for Kelly Wunsch. Colon left the field looking miffed. Wunsch let a man reach base but pitched well, and he seemed to have the game sewn up with a double-play grounder. When Graffanino threw the relay into the stands behind first base, Wunsch laughed at him from the mound. It’s easy to enjoy the misfortunes of others when you’re winning surly.