Like many another White Sox fan, I circled September 20 on my wallet schedule back in March. The day would bring the Minnesota Twins to Comiskey Park for the first of six games against the Sox over the last ten days of the regular season. The young and hungry Twins had led the American League Central Division for much of last summer before surrendering to the Cleveland Indians. With the Indians rebuilding this year (that much was clear even before they wrote the season off with a rash of trades that dealt high-priced talent for prospects), the final Sox-Twins games figured to determine the division championship–unless, of course, the Sox had it wrapped up by then.

The season didn’t pan out that way. The young Sox pitchers blew up–sometimes on their own, sometimes sabotaged by the team’s weak defense–and the powerful offense could never get in sync with the erratic pitching. The Sox sometimes won by big margins, but they tended to lose the tight games. Off to a good start, the Sox were a season-high seven games above .500 on May 1 and in first place. As late as May 26 they were still tied for first–the Indians’ early success turned out to be a mirage and the Twins were slow to get going. But then the Sox lost seven in a row and 11 of 13 games. After that free fall they slid through June and July and into August, bottoming out with a six-game skid that left them 58-68 on August 20. By that time, Ray Durham, Kenny Lofton, and Bob Howry were all gone for prospects.

And then the Sox went 21-9 going into this week, but the charge only aggravated a Sox fan’s frustrations. It was driven by talent they had all along.

The catalyst was rookie third baseman Joe Crede. It wasn’t so much his arrival on July 30, called up from Triple-A Charlotte as general manager Ken Williams joined Cleveland in waving the white flag by trading Lofton and Durham. It was when Crede started hitting. It’s worth noting that his first big-league homer tied a game in the ninth inning, his second was a game-winner, and starting on August 21, when his average sat at .214, he went on a tear, raising his average to .287 by the start of this week with 10 homers and 30 runs batted in.

Listed at 6-foot-2 and under 200 pounds, his jersey worn loosely tucked, Crede is a tall, thin third baseman reminiscent of Scott Rolen of the Saint Louis Cardinals. At the plate, however, he looks more like Matt Williams, the old San Francisco Giants slugger now with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He has a slightly open stance, weight back on his right leg, and seems to lock his head down with a dip of the chin as the pitcher delivers. Crede is a more than capable fielder with a penchant for easing up on his throws whenever possible; he might toss the ball across the field on the run to get a catcher going down the line, then drill it over after a backhanded stop down the third-base line. He was named the best defensive third baseman in Triple-A last year and again this year–this after being named his league’s most valuable player at the Class-A level in 1998 and at Double-A Birmingham in 2000. He was an all-star at Charlotte last year, hitting .276 with 17 homers and 65 RBIs in abbreviated duty, as he served a couple of brief tours with the Sox. Yet the front office decided this spring to send him back down.

Because manager Jerry Manuel hadn’t given Crede much playing time last September, the Sox weren’t sure he was ready for the majors despite a good spring training. Williams’s decision to leave him in the minors was no doubt motivated by the multiyear contract he’d given shortstop Royce Clayton: since Jose Valentin can play both third and short, the choice came down to Crede or Clayton. A general manager is measured by his ability to discern and deploy talent, and to pick Clayton over Crede–even a raw Crede–was so wrongheaded it was indefensible. It was even worse than Williams’s trade of Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, and Sean Lowe to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Todd Ritchie. That trade ran counter to the youth movement inaugurated by Williams’s predecessor, Ron Schueler, in giving up talented young arms, but at least Williams could argue the Sox were getting back a sure thing in a veteran starter. Wells and Fogg have gone on to pitch well and win 12 games each for the woeful Pirates, while Ritchie’s produced a 5-15 record and an earned run average of over six a game. In hindsight, those two decisions–Clayton over Crede and the trade with the Pirates–cost the Sox any chance of competing this season.

Wasted were an excellent campaign by Mark Buehrle, who solidified his position as the team’s ace at the tender age of 23, and yet another splendid season by Magglio Ordoñez, who quietly established himself as the team’s certified superstar while Frank Thomas suffered through another subpar season. At the beginning of the year Buehrle set himself a goal of 20 wins, and he was on track until he went into a bit of a slump in August, just as the rest of the team was getting hot. He opened the team’s final home stand September 17 with 17 wins and just three starts left in the season. But he was in prime form, allowing only a solo home run to the Kansas City Royals’ all-star first baseman, Mike Sweeney, in the fourth. The Sox got that run back when patient catcher Mark Johnson walked with the bases loaded in the bottom of the inning, and took the lead the following frame as the suddenly resurgent Thomas walked, somehow stole second, and scored on a hit by Jeff Liefer. Thomas and Ordoñez put the game away with back-to-back blasts in the seventh–just the way it was supposed to be.

The Sox won the following night to get back to .500 for the first time in almost three months, but lost the last game of the series a night later. That defeat looked inconsequential next to the ninth-inning incident in which two cretins attacked Kansas City first-base coach Tom Gamboa, a former coach with the Cubs. It was as if the Furies that pursued the Sox all year had suddenly manifested themselves as a tattooed loser and his skinhead son. The assault darkened even further the atmosphere around a team that, for all its improvement, was still lucky to draw 10,000 fans a game in the waning days of the season.

The gloom carried over into Friday’s long-awaited if anticlimactic series opener against the Twins. Rain fell most of the day and washed out batting practice, and though the clouds cleared enough to allow the game, it was almost as if the baseball gods were forcing the Sox to suffer to the very end. Dan Wright, whose 12-12 record and 5.42 ERA going into the game typified the state of the team’s pitching this season, gave up a solo home run to Corey Koskie on a first-pitch fastball with two out in the second. In the third, the skies opened again with a downpour that chased the 16,128 fans to the shelter of the concourse–the upper deck having already been shuttered for the season–and prompted a 20-minute delay. Valentin tied the game with a solo homer in the fourth off the Twins’ 15-game winner, Rick Reed, and after hurting a knee slipping on the slick pitcher’s mound, Reed joined the other Minnesota stars resting up for the playoffs on the bench. The rest of the game was all Sox.

They loaded the bases in the fifth, and newly acquired infielder D’Angelo Jimenez lined a shot off reliever Juan Rincon’s knee. Rincon chased the ball down but threw badly to first base, allowing two runs to score. The Twins came into the game with the best defense in the league but it failed them again in the sixth, when Ordoñez singled and Koskie threw away Paul Konerko’s grounder to third, allowing both to advance an extra base. Lee drove home Ordoñez with an infield single, and Crede sliced a shot that pounded off an advertisement on the right-field fence and straight to the fielder. Konerko scored but Crede was held to a 365-foot single. (He rounded first base on the run and stopped himself by falling to his knees and bouncing back to his feet, like a dancer in some 50s movie musical.) A sacrifice fly scored Lee, who would go on to cap a four-run seventh with a three-run homer. The Sox put a 0-1-2-3-4 straight on the board from the third through the seventh and coasted home with a 10-2 win. Wright worked efficiently through eight innings on the way to his 13th victory.

Jon Rauch, the 6-11 phenom who pitched his way back to the minors early in the season but righted himself in Charlotte, pitched five good innings the following night. Ordoñez staked him to a lead with a two-run homer in the first, and Rauch never relinquished it. Ordoñez added another homer, giving him 35 on the season with 127 RBIs, both career highs, and his three hits raised his average to .320. Lee’s grand slam in the seventh capped the Sox scoring as they won 14-4.

Buehrle came back the following night for another must-win game in his bid for 20, and Thomas gave him the lead with a homer in the bottom of the first. Buehrle cruised to an 8-2 victory, his 19th win, and a sweep of the division-champion Twins–the most unsatisfactory sweep any Sox fan can remember. It should have meant something, but all it meant was that the also-ran Sox, playing for pride, had beaten up on a team resting half its starters for the postseason. It should have been the Sox advancing to the playoffs, and at this point I’d say there should be little debate about which team’s better. But the mismanagement and waffling ways of the Sox sank them early on.

That was a bad moon rising between the clouds as I walked to the 35th Street el station after Friday’s game. Despite the influx of quiet, proficient Sox players–Ordoñez and Buehrle and Konerko and now Crede–I had little faith that the bad vibes would be dispersed any time soon, not with Ken Williams looking for his mojo. Pity poor Tom Gamboa, the unfortunate victim of misplaced Comiskey Park rage. The Furies got the wrong guy.