The mood was very different at White Sox Park last weekend. Saturday was clear and sunny but a chilly wind blew in off the lake, and few fans turned out for batting practice. The parking-lot attendants, food staff, and other stadium employees anticipated a large crowd, with the Sox playing a team hot on their heels and fireworks scheduled for after the game. But by that time, though the numbers said the playoffs were still possible, the Sox were all but out of contention. Having been swept by the first-place Twins in Minnesota earlier in the week, they were four games back with nine to play when Saturday’s game began, and they’d be playing the young and scrappy Kansas City Royals while the Twins had two series left against the woebegone Detroit Tigers–one of the worst teams in baseball history, in pursuit of the record 120 losses suffered by the 1962 New York Mets. So it was all but over, and everyone knew it.

I was playing host to my father-in-law, recovering from a bout of ill health and on his way from the summer climes of Tuscany to the summer climes of Australia, but gamely insisting on joining me for the Sox game, chill or no. After watching BP from the upper deck, we went for food and found a bright set of seats on the back concourse, where we soaked up the sun like a couple of end-of-summer spiders.

“This might be the last time we’re warm for a couple of hours,” he said.

“For several months,” I said, having seen the forecast for the week ahead. And while the Cubs and their followers held out hopes of warm memories to get them through the winter, Sox fans were coming to terms with the idea that their winter would bring only bitter hindsight. As a fan behind us said glumly later on, “A week ago they were in first place.” By then the Sox were down 7-1 to the Royals, and the Twins’ magic number was about to be reduced to four.

Twelve days before, things had looked much brighter. The Twins came to town on a Monday to start a four-game series tied for first with the Sox at 76-66. These teams had the two best records in baseball since the All-Star break, with the Twins, at 32-17, having played and won one more game than the Sox. There was a buzz around both squads as they prepared: the Twins’ Torii Hunter lashed at the ball in batting practice while the Sox’ Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko sat silently in the locker room, their game faces on. A crowd of 32,807 was relatively quick to arrive, with the lower bowl packed and the upper deck filling in nicely. The fans cheered starter Bartolo Colon in from the bullpen and pretty much carried him through the game.

Colon is not one of those ballplayers who arrive with uniform in pristine shape and soon get it dirty; he came out rumpled. With his shirt loosely tucked into his baggy pants and his cap worn back on his forehead, just forward enough to let his curly hair trickle out in back, he looked like a father who’d deigned to step away from the grill to throw a couple innings of Wiffle ball to the kids. He mowed the Twins down with dispatch in the first, and then the Sox snuck up on Minnesota starter Kyle Lohse and pounced. With one out, Carlos Lee doubled to left field on a curveball and Thomas drew a walk. Magglio Ordonez popped to first, but Carl Everett picked him up with a run-scoring single to right. After Konerko walked to load the bases, the gates burst open. Jose Valentin blooped a single to center, scoring two. Joe Crede answered a “Let’s go, Joe!” chant with a more authoritative single to center, and the last hitter in the order, Miguel Olivo, singled to left. Five runs scored, all with two out.

My old friend Frank Kroll used to call 5-0 “the most dangerous lead in baseball” only half jokingly, because any run the trailing team scores puts them on the board and within a grand slam of a tie–and Colon sowed such doubts by immediately walking the leadoff man in the second. He struck out Jacque Jones on a changeup, but Hunter scored a run by lashing a double to center and moving around on a hit by the hawk-nosed Corey Koskie and a groundout by A.J. Pierzynski, as the Sox played to avert a big inning. The Twins’ comeback had begun at 5-2.

From there, Colon tempted fate almost every inning but saved himself each time, like that dad teasing the kids at Wiffle ball. He allowed a single and a double with two out in the third, but stranded the runners when Jones hit a scalding liner that Valentin leaped to spear. Valentin ended a 31-game errorless streak by booting a grounder in the fifth, causing concern when Doug Mientkiewicz followed with a single, but atoned with a nice pickup to start an inning-ending double play. The Twins had another man on in the sixth when Konerko made a nice scoop and flip to the surprisingly agile Colon covering first for the third out.

In the seventh, however, Colon ran into serious difficulties. He gave up a leadoff single to the ninth-place hitter, Cristian Guzman, and a double to Shannon Stewart, as Guzman played it safe and held at third. Sox manager Jerry Manuel was slow to alert the bullpen, so Colon had to go it alone. The next hitter, Denny Hocking, smacked the ball right back up the middle, but Colon stabbed it as it passed him. He got two quick strikes on Mientkiewicz, and the crowd rose to its feet. Colon responded with a fastball clocked at 102 miles an hour, and Mientkiewicz could only hear it sizzle by for strike three. Colon got the third out on a pop to center field, and he coasted home from there, finishing the game with a double-play grounder fielded by Valentin.

“Every time he got in trouble he went up a notch,” Manuel said afterward, giving much of the credit to the fans. “They wanted him to finish the game, and he kind of fed off it.”

The Sox scored early the following night as well, in front of 27,623. With two on in the second, Crede hit one to deep center that Hunter–yes, Hunter, the brilliant center fielder who takes such pride in his homer-saving, above-the-wall catches–flinched at near the fence, allowing the ball to drop for a run-scoring double. Sandy Alomar Jr. drove in another with a sacrifice fly, and Tony Graffanino singled to score Crede. It was 3-0.

Sox starter Mark Buehrle staggered in the fourth, allowing the Twins to dribble a couple runs across the plate, but Ordonez got him an insurance run in the fifth by hammering a curve into the left-field seats. The Sox blew the game open in the seventh with a two-out rally ignited by a Roberto Alomar homer. Then Thomas doubled, Ordonez singled him in, and Lee homered to clear the bases, giving him 100 runs batted in on the season and the Sox an 8-2 lead.

Preserve it in your minds, Sox fans: that was the high point of the season.

Manuel called on the rehabilitated former Seattle Mariners reliever Jose Paniagua to mop up in the ninth, and he made a royal mess of things, giving up three hits and a walk against one out, and blithely flipping off the home-plate umpire when he was removed from the game. (He’d be gone from the team within hours.) Tom Gordon came on and gave up a hit and another walk before claiming the “save” in the 8-6 victory. The Sox were two games up and in command, but the shift in momentum was almost tangible, and the Twins came roaring back the next night with a 4-1 win behind Johan Santana, who hog-tied the Sox to beat Jon Garland. The Sox sent de facto ace Esteban Loaiza to the mound in the matinee finale, but after Thomas staked him to a 1-0 lead in the first he gave up four runs in the third, and the Sox went tamely, with only a Valentin homer in the ninth to make it 5-2. The Sox and Twins were back in a tie for first at 78-68, but the Sox were off to Boston to face the playoff-hungry Red Sox, while the Twins traveled to Cleveland to face the Indians, playing out the string at 64-83.

The Sox actually conducted themselves well at Fenway Park, losing the first but coming back to win two gritty games behind Colon–who threw fastball after fastball to Nomar Garciaparra before getting him to pop up and end a critical late rally–and Buehrle, who squandered a 2-0 lead but settled down to win going away. But the Twins were taking three of four from the Tribe, putting the Sox a half game down when they arrived in Minnesota a week ago last Tuesday.

Most Sox fans are probably grateful the team’s collapse came on the road; the distance eased the pain. Yet it stung badly enough, regardless. An ill and obviously struggling Loaiza, who had been throwing up before the game, went to the mound and got pounded in the opener, and that set the tone for the Sox. Garland then got beat 4-2 by Kenny Rogers–a pitcher the Sox declined several times to pick up over the last year–and Colon lost his rematch with Lohse 5-3 in the finale. The Sox were all but done, down three and a half games with ten to play, and facing a much more difficult schedule than the Twins, a determined team that didn’t figure to let their lead slip away after humiliating the Sox with five straight wins in head-to-head play when the games mattered most.

By the time the Sox came home to beat the Royals 8-5 last Friday, the sense of something valuable squandered was profound. The Sox, plainly put, were a better team than the Twins, with more thump in the lineup and better starting pitching. The Sox got 19 wins out of Loaiza, 40 homers out of a revitalized Thomas, and a breakout year from Carlos Lee, who entered the week with 30 homers, 105 RBIs, and a .293 batting average. General manager Kenny Williams pulled Roberto Alomar and Everett out of thin air in late-season trades. And most astounding of all, the usually ham-fisted Sox moved up to third in the league in fielding. Anyone who had known all that in March would have guessed they’d win their division running away. What happened?

The Sox dug themselves a hole early on, when Manuel, as usual, failed to alter his tactics to account for cold-weather baseball. He added Billy Koch to the list of closers whose confidence he’s threatened to ruin. (Keith Foulke, the man they traded to get Koch, returned to form with 40 saves in Oakland for the Athletics.) Konerko hit nothing the entire first half. The Sox roused themselves before the All-Star break–Manuel had nothing to do with it–in their home-and-home series with the Cubs and in a three-game sweep of the Twins, but then lost that momentum with a three-game sweep at the hands of the Tigers. They were one of the best teams in baseball in the second half, but the Twins, under firebrand manager Ron Gardenhire, were better–if only in wins and losses.

The Sox had sold more than 47,000 tickets for last Friday’s opener with the Royals, but only 32,812 showed up. The Sox won, but so did the Twins. So Saturday’s game became the season in miniature. Thomas homered in the first to give Loaiza a 1-0 lead and himself 100 RBIs. But Loaiza, going for his elusive 20th victory, again was lackluster. Only a lovely relay from Lee to Graffanino to Olivo at the plate to nail Joe Randa got him out of the second unharmed, and he wasn’t as lucky in the third, when the Royals scored three times. The Sox looked lifeless against Kansas City starter Brian Anderson, and Manuel didn’t try anything when they got runners on, even though the wind was blowing in. When the Royals got past Loaiza and into the Sox bullpen, they tacked on four more runs in the last three innings to run the score to 7-1. With each pitching change, Manuel was booed more.

Funny, but for all that it was an enjoyable evening. The angst was over for most Sox fans, who were already resigned to their fate, and those sitting around us in the upper deck displayed the caustic wit that has carried them through 86 summers now. When the grounds crew came out after the seventh inning, a guy behind me said, “They’re dragging the infield–for dead bodies.” People laughed between innings when the Kiss Cam produced a series of reluctant lovers who refused to smooch, and there was something symbolic in that as well, the Sox having promised so much and delivered so little. The frustration erupted in the vociferous boos at the final out. As my father-in-law and I left to beat the rush, during the symphonic medley building to the fireworks, we heard some notes that reminded us of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique. How appropriate that seemed. And how appropriate that we would turn our backs on the fireworks and drive away.