It’s been so long since I’ve had an opportunity to write about that delicate, vulnerable moment when a fan gives his or her heart to a baseball team–three years since the White Sox’ last playoff appearance–I’ve almost forgotten how. But it seems that in spite of themselves, the Sox–forever playing hard to get and seemingly conflicted about their own impulses–have wrapped most of their fans around the team’s finger and made believers of them all.

Not that there isn’t still the odd crisis of confidence. The Sox went to Kansas City two weeks ago in hot pursuit of the first-place Royals and swept them to close within a game of the lead. For a great many fans, that series must be what sold them, and I myself was all but fully committed at the end of the final night. I’d been so preoccupied I’d forgotten the Sox were on, and had driven out to my usual Thursday-night meeting with mates without listening to the game on the way. Yet when I turned back to my locked car to drop off my specs a car pulled up alongside at a stoplight, and the driver, like a mystical messenger of the gods, had the Sox on.

“What’s the score?” I called.

“Five-three Sox!” he said with a smile.

So I hurried into the bar to watch the end of the game. The Sox were actually in the process of blowing that lead, and went into extra innings tied at five, but after a tense 10th they pounded three runs across the plate in the 11th and held on to win 8-6–reliever Scott Schoeneweis giving up a harmless home run in the bottom of the frame before finishing it out.

The Sox had totally outclassed the Royals in what amounted to the first series of the stretch run–they administered bludgeoning defeats in the first two games–but there was still cause for doubt. The Sox moved on to Seattle to play the Mariners, and if one allowed that the Royals were struggling and that, going back a month, even the Minnesota Twins and the Cubs had been struggling when the Sox faced them, this was the first top-flight team the Sox had played in six weeks. They’d come back from eight and a half games behind in mid-June mostly against patzers. But they clobbered the Mariners 12-1 in the opener while the Royals were losing, and suddenly they were tied for first.

The Sox had one last rebuff for their believers–that is, one hopes it was the last. They lost the next two games in Seattle and came home to Sox Park a week ago Monday to face the Royals, who were two games up again, having won two straight, and hoping to avenge the sweep in Kansas City. There was little comparison between the two teams in batting practice. The Sox’ fearsome bashers were smashing balls into the bleachers, especially Frank Thomas, who had picked up an aluminum bat somewhere and was crushing the ball with such consistent authority he sounded like John Henry hammering rail ties. Thomas and the others in his hitting group laughed heartily at the way the ball leaped off his bat, which he left behind at the cage like a forgotten toy. (Coach Harold Baines later picked up the aluminum bat and tossed it disdainfully away from the cage, as if to touch it tainted his fingers.) The Royals, by contrast, were largely slash hitters, though some quite capable, like center fielder Carlos Beltran and left fielder-first baseman Raul Ibanez, of the carpet seller’s name and the chin beard to match. Most impressive was rookie shortstop Angel Berroa. Whippet thin, with high, sunken cheeks, he looks like he belongs on a reggae album cover instead of a ball field, but he generated surprising power out of a wide stance with that classically sound Kansas City swing, head down on contact and full extension in the follow-through. The Royals’ effervescent new manager, Tony Pena, who is largely responsible for their turnaround from last year’s 100-game losers to this year’s contenders, was pitching batting practice to Berroa’s group, and when he got him to pop up a slider he chortled, “Ha! Ha! Ha!” at the top of his lungs. Berroa hit the next pitch into the Sox bullpen and called “Ha! Ha! Ha!” right back at him.

But for all their scrappy determination, the Royals just didn’t seem to match the Sox in attitude. As I walked through the Sox locker room to get to the field, an Eminem song on the clubhouse stereo boasted about fucking someone on the first date, and on the field the PA system played the unedited version of Liz Phair’s new “Why Can’t I?”–about how “we haven’t fucked yet” but it’s just a matter of time. Players and fans seemed to take little notice of the vulgarity, but it suggested what badass motherfuckers the Sox are right now, especially compared with a baby-faced bunch like the Royals.

The Sox sent Jon Garland to the mound, and at first he looked terrific. Throwing effortlessly in the low 90s out of that simple, pointed-toe delivery of his, he plunked leadoff man Aaron Guiel–a pointed message?–then mowed down the next seven batters before allowing his first hit as he worked three scoreless innings. Kansas City’s Runelvys Hernandez struggled–mostly with his own control. Throwing equally hard, but showing it–with a delivery that has him rearing back, dropping his trailing right shoulder, then lunging forward–he gave up a run apiece in the first two innings. Roberto Alomar, in the role of spark plug he was brought to Chicago to play, led off with a bunt single, moved up when Thomas was hit by a pitch–bringing a warning to both benches that would have later consequences–and came home on a two-out single by fellow newcomer Carl Everett. Hernandez lost his control entirely in the second, and pushed a run home with three straight walks after a two-out single by Miguel Olivo.

Garland is still only 23, and though he’s matured greatly this season, he has a tendency to go soft now and then. That happened in the fourth. Beltran coaxed a leadoff walk after fouling three pitches with two strikes, and Garland looked flustered. Two quick hits followed, and before it was over he’d given up the lead, 3-2. He returned to form in the fifth, however, and the Sox exploded in the bottom of the inning. Magglio Ordonez got things started with a one-out double, and a single by Everett put runners at the corners. Paul Konerko, still trying to fully recover from his first-half slump, popped to Ibanez, but Jose Valentin came through with a two-out, game-tying single to center. Then Joe Crede came up and hit what a golf aficionado would call a power fade, pulling his hands through on an inside fastball and hitting it just below center, so that the ball went up, carried by underspin and slicing slightly to the right, and dropped just beyond the fence in deep right center. The Sox were ahead, 6-3.

But then they dropped everything. When Garland gave up a leadoff single in the sixth, manager Jerry Manuel trotted to the mound and called on Schoeneweis to relieve, later offering the sound explanation that he was likely to handcuff the lefty lineup Pena had started against Garland. Unfortunately, Schoeneweis walked the first batter he faced and then gave up three straight hits. Matt Ginter came in and got the first out, but he hit Beltran with an inside fastball that got away, and thanks to the warning issued in the first inning, that meant an instant ejection for both him and Manuel. By the time the inning was over, the Royals had batted around and scored seven runs to take a 10-6 lead.

The Sox, to their credit, didn’t pack it in. Alomar got a run right back on pure hustle, singling to left, going from first to third on a tap in front of home plate, and scoring when first baseman Ken Harvey threw wildly to third trying to get him. Thomas added another with the 2,000th hit of his career, a gargantuan home run to left–if he’d hit the same shot with that aluminum bat it probably would have cleared the Dan Ryan Expressway–and Valentin crushed one to right in the seventh to pull the Sox within one at 10-9. But in the ninth, bullpen ace Tom Gordon, working his second inning–under Manuel’s instructions from the runway or the guidance of pitching coach Don Cooper?–gave out and surrendered three runs. The Sox went without incident in the bottom half.

The most disappointing thing was that the Sox had collapsed in front of 43,922 fans, a sellout, with the last 14,709 tickets sold for half price the day of the game. The place was rocking, and when Valentin smacked his game-tying single in the fifth the crowd roared like nothing I’d heard in years. But later, intense frustration set in and huge brawls broke out in the upper deck–first in the right-field corner, then, with security distracted, in the left-field corner. During that second melee, the PA system, trying to rev up a Sox rally, played LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.” I was thinking of an old R & B song, “It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate.”

Manuel was typically unflappable in his postgame media conference and sounded an unusually confident note. “We should win the next two ball games,” he said, with Esteban Loaiza and Bartolo Colon going to the mound. Thomas was predictably more dour in the clubhouse. Asked what his 2,000th hit meant, he said, “Nothing. We just fell another game behind Kansas City.” As I turned away to go, I noticed Manuel joshing with some of the clubhouse staff before he adjourned to his office. Was there something to his not-quite-stoic calm, his refusal to let a game get him too up or too down, that was good for the team?

Judging by results, there was. The Sox scored five runs in the second the next night, with the help of a two-run Thomas homer, and Damaso Marte weathered a couple of unearned runs in the ninth to hold on for a 5-4 victory, Loaiza’s 14th of the season. That came in front of another sellout crowd, with 38,973 buying their way in and another 9,000 getting in free as a reward for taking part in a blood drive. On Wednesday afternoon Colon was stupendous, hitting the leadoff man Guiel but settling down to hurl eight shutout innings before retiring with twinges in his lower back. Roberto Alomar and Carlos Lee had staked him to a lead with back-to-back solo homers in the third, and the Sox added a couple of insurance runs, the last when Crede went in hard at second base to break up an inning-ending double play in the eighth. The Sox needed the run, because Gordon gave up a three-run homer to Beltran before Marte got the final out, returning the Sox to within a game of first.

Kansas City bullpen ace Mike MacDougal blew a lead to the lowly Devil Rays in Tampa Bay the following night, while the Sox were taking the day off. The Royals lost again on Friday, as the Sox opened a three-game series against the mighty Oakland Athletics, one of the best teams in the league, with an impressive 3-2 victory in which Mark Buehrle outdueled former Thornwood High School star Mark Mulder, both going the distance. It was a beautifully played game, errorless and over in less than two hours, a welcome if tense change from the Sox’ usual mauling ways. And it put the Sox in first place all alone for the first time since early last season.

The stay on top didn’t last–not this time, anyway. The Sox lost Saturday, 7-2, after Garland gave up three unearned runs in the first, and the Royals finally solved the Rays. The loss ended a streak of 19 straight games in which the Sox had homered at home. But the Sox came back on Sunday afternoon with another impressive win. Loaiza and Oakland phenom Rich Harden, recently promoted to the majors and returning to Sox Park after pitching in the All-Star Futures Game last month, took a scoreless game into the fifth. With two out in the bottom of the inning, Alomar again got things going with a single, Lee tripled into the right-field corner, and Thomas picked him up with a sharp double down the left-field line. Konerko homered off lefty reliever John Halama in the sixth, and the Sox added two more in the eighth, one on an Everett homer. The 5-1 triumph was Loaiza’s 15th win of the season, and though the Royals also won to stay a half game in first, by then all Sox fans must have known in their hearts that–as with the breathless, speechless, eager, expectant Liz Phair–it was only a matter of time.