As the White Sox awaited this weekend’s series with the Cubs, the two teams’ latest role reversal looked almost complete. The Sox, who figured to repeat as American League Central Division champs this season, entered the workweek in third, seven games under .500, a distant twelve games behind the second-place Cleveland Indians and an extra half game behind the Minnesota Twins. The Cubs, who figured to be also-rans–if improved also-rans–in the National League Central, entered the week in first; on the heels of a 12-game winning streak, they were two and a half games ahead of the Saint Louis Cardinals.

But something strange seems to happen when the Cubs and Sox get together for their annual home-and-home series. Two years ago the Sox first showed signs of the renaissance that would lead them into first in 2000, sweeping the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Manager Jerry Manuel, who’d underestimated the importance of the city series in his rookie season the year before, had his team prepped and ready, and they embarrassed the north-siders. The Cubs, who came into that series in the thick of the Central Division race, eight games above .500 and only two out of first, were sent reeling. The sweep signaled the end of the late bloom their veteran team had enjoyed in making the playoffs the year before, and yet another rebuilding project began. Last year the Sox won the first two games between the teams, asserting their dominance, and though the Cubs came back to split the six-game series, their fortunes were set. The Sox were on their way to the playoffs, the Cubs to the worst record in the National League. The question is, will another reversal of fortunes be confirmed this weekend? Will the Cubs continue their fine play and establish themselves as true 2001 contenders? Or will the Sox, playing to salvage a wasted season in their two three-games sets with the Cubs, again send them reeling?

Like many a Cubs fan, I’m still not sold on the legitimacy of this team. The Cubs built their strong early-season record by beating up on the Montreal Expos and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the two weakest clubs in the league. Likewise, their impressive 12-game winning streak, which ended Sunday when they ran into rookie pitching phenom Ben Sheets in Milwaukee, was amassed almost entirely against the Brewers–a team of free swingers that has proved susceptible to the Cubs’ pitchers–and the Cincinnati Reds, who have struggled all season with injuries to team leaders Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin. In short, the Cubs have yet to prove themselves against top competition in big games. The diminished White Sox don’t qualify as top competition, but the games against the Cubs figure to be their biggest contests of the year.

As I’ve written before, an odd thing about the exchange of fortunes between this year’s Cubs and Sox has been the weight of forces beyond their control–especially the enlarged strike zone. The easier strike has made the Cubs’ pitching staff a formidable bunch–suddenly, they’re among the league leaders in strikeouts–and pitching has combined with solid defense to keep them in most games. I’m a believer in these pitchers. One of last year’s mysteries was the way manager Don Baylor totally muddled the bull pen, having put together a fine one in his previous gig in Colorado; this year, aided by pitching coach Oscar Acosta, the relievers have again come to the fore. Jeff Fassero successfully filled in as stopper until Tom “Flash” Gordon joined the team, and Baylor has accomplished the ticklish move of making Gordon dominant without ruining Fassero. What’s more, he’s gotten the most out of youngsters Kyle Farnsworth, Courtney Duncan, and Felix Heredia, all of whom struggled with their confidence last year. The Cubs also retain one of the deepest five-man rotations in the league–from three to five, with Kevin Tapani, Julian Tavarez, and Jason Bere, they can claim to be as solid as almost anyone. These three, in fact, were the ones who really got the Cubs off to their fine start, because de facto ace Jon Lieber and still recovering ace-in-waiting Kerry Wood were struggling initially. That’s why the high point of that 12-game winning streak was Lieber and Wood’s back-to-back one-hit shutouts. Lieber will always be steady, occasionally turning in a game like that. If Wood can regularly pitch that way–be that dominating–he’ll make the same sort of difference to the Cubs that a healthy Frank Thomas makes to the Sox: he’ll give them a superstar to go with the talent. If Wood keeps pitching like that, the Cubs are legitimate playoff contenders, just as they were with him in 1998.

A promising sign is that the Cubs moved into first place and built their lead without awesome hitting. Sammy Sosa entered the week with 16 homers and 50 runs batted in, but he hadn’t had a stretch in which he carried the team for a week or two. Todd Hundley was hitting below .200 and due to get hot. I think the team’s key hitter in the early going has been the underappreciated Rondell White, who has played excellent left field while providing some power at a critical spot in the lineup, behind Sosa.

The rest of the Cubs lineup was filled with early-season overachievers. Ricky Gutierrez returned to the second spot in the order with a .281 batting average and startling .352 on-base percentage. Slugging first basemen Matt Stairs and Ron Coomer platooned capably and were augmented by Julio Zuleta, who saw more action after Coomer moved over to third following the injury to Bill Mueller. None of them figures to maintain his current performance levels. Eric Young has struggled with the high strike and will likely continue to struggle with it, and center field remains a hole even with Todd Dunwoody replacing Damon Buford alongside Gary Matthews Jr. Yet if Gutierrez’s new plate discipline holds up–he put up similar numbers last year under former hitting coach Baylor–and if Wood is fully back to form, and if, say, minor-league phenom Corey Patterson gives the Cubs a charge by taking over center field, this could be a very good team.

If almost everything has broken right for the Cubs this year, just the opposite has been true of the Sox. Thomas and pitcher Jim Parque both went down with season-ending injuries. The lineup that had been such a powerhouse only a year ago struggled mightily with the new strike zone. The offensive sputtering laid bare the team’s defensive deficiencies. And last but not least, “bad chemistry” beset the clubhouse so filled last year with attitude and togetherness.

Heavy blame has been laid on newcomers David Wells and Royce Clayton. I want to go on the record saying I liked–and still like–the deal bringing in Wells for Mike Sirotka. Wells has got his own sort of attitude, to be sure, but that’s part of what makes him a pitching ace, willing and eager to face the other team’s best. Wells did publicly chide Thomas before the severity of his injury became apparent, but Wells is not the cancer in the clubhouse that Albert Belle was. Clayton, however, is a different story. He was supposed to provide the team with better defense than Jose Valentin at shortstop, but his offense has been nonexistent. What’s more, while Valentin committed 36 errors last season, he also turned 117 double plays. He and second baseman Ray Durham worked marvelously together. Clayton and Durham have not: double plays are down this year, and not for lack of base runners.

That’s quantifiable; chemistry is not. Yet even TV announcer Ken Harrelson, an avowed homer, admitted to WSCR radio hosts Dan Bernstein and Terry Boers earlier this season that he sensed a difference in the club’s attitude from the moment they broke camp in spring training. And Manuel, a laid-back manager, was slow to respond to the team’s slow start. The club clearly could have used someone like Zuleta, who tried to end the Cubs’ mid-May eight-game losing streak and begin its twelve-game winning streak by performing a voodoo ceremony to awaken the bats–something that charmed even the grizzled veterans who largely make up that team. The only attitude-adjustment trick tried with the White Sox has been new general manager Kenny Williams’s threats to make wholesale changes. He began by firing hitting coach Von Joshua. Just a year ago Joshua was considered a great hitting coach, but the chopping style he teaches, so useful at hitting the low strike, appears to have locked the team’s best hitters into a technique that fails against the new higher strike. Joshua departed with still more criticism of the team’s chemistry.

That said, I still like the Sox, even if they don’t much like themselves. Many of their hitting woes have the look of being merely cyclical. Magglio Ordonez has been better of late, Carlos Lee has kept his average up, and Paul Konerko, who always has a rough May, entered June with a game-winning hit Sunday as the Sox rallied from a 6-0 deficit to win for the ninth time in tenth games. Durham has seen his on-base average mysteriously fall when he leads off innings, a stat with the appearance of a short-term problem. Undeniably, the pitching staff has been hurt by the loss of Parque, but Wells has been his usual self, James Baldwin has come back strong from arm surgery, and Mark Buehrle has shown flashes of brilliance. Kip Wells has been excellent since returning from the minors, and though left-handed specialist Kelly Wunsch has struggled, Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry have both been sharp in late relief.

In short, the Sox don’t look as bad or the Cubs as good as their records indicate. When the two teams come together they tend to bring out each other’s true qualities–whatever they be–as if trading back and forth the same limited quantity of Chicago baseball energy. They’re like Henry James’s spouses in The Sacred Fount. And while the Cubs might be distracted by Baylor’s decision to drop Bere from the rotation this week so that Lieber and Wood pitch against the Cardinals, the Sox have nothing to concentrate on but taking out their frustration on the Cubs. Another reversal in fortunes could be imminent.