The only reasonable explanation for why Michael Barrett punched A.J. Pierzynski last Saturday is that Barrett was acting as one possessed by the bitterly frustrated spirit of Cubs fans. The White Sox entered the city series the defending World Series champions, and after winning Friday’s first game had a record as good as any in baseball. Add to the envy felt by Cubs fans the spectacle of their own team off to another difficult start: A quarter of the way through the season, the Cubs were six games under .500 and eight and a half games behind the Saint Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. Kerry Wood had been a loser in his season debut the day before, Mark Prior was still out, and Derrek Lee was still facing a month of recovery time from the broken arm that’s crippled the Cubs’ offense.

After the Sox and Mark Buehrle embarrassed the Cubs and Greg Maddux 6-1 on Friday, none other than Pierzynski–a mixer who epitomized the Sox’ hard-nosed, savvy play in last fall’s playoffs–opened the scoring on Saturday by coming home on a sacrifice fly and bowling Barrett over in a rough but undeniably clean collision. Pierzynski slapped the plate emphatically and Barrett got up and socked him. From a Cubs fan’s perspective, it simply had to be done.

Yet the collision underlined the widening discrepancy between the two teams. Not only were the Sox better, as they proved on Friday and Saturday by winning going away and even on Sunday, when they all but handed their crosstown rivals a victory, but they had more character–something the Cubs have always had in abundance even when their teams were bad. The Sox appeared loose and confident as the series began, but there was no swagger; they were simply good and knew it.

They’d added Jim Thome, who grew up a Cubs fan in Peoria and wanted to join them a few years ago, only to be rebuffed and sign with Philadelphia. Thome came over from the Phillies in exchange for the popular Aaron Rowand and immediately endeared himself, taking the early American League lead in homers and runs batted in and adding to the Sox’ championship charisma. He pointed his bat at the pitcher in a way even more challenging than Paul Konerko’s similar gesture.

Meanwhile, the Cubs floundered. Embattled manager Dusty Baker did his best to keep the team loose–he was much more animated than usual around the batting cage before Friday’s series opener, hugging Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, smiling unguardedly, and at one point saying something that cracked up Jacque Jones–but the Cubs looked pale and limp next to the champs.

Nothing in the first two games altered that impression. The Cubs scored an unearned run in the first inning of the opener on a squib single, a two-base throwing error by Pierzynski (ending his AL record streak of over 900 chances without an error), and a sacrifice fly, but then Buehrle mowed the Cubs down, allowing only one other hit and at one point retiring 12 in a row. The Sox got the run back off Maddux in the bottom of the first, and in the third Maddux uncharacteristically walked both Scott Podsednik and Thome on four pitches and then allowed a two-run double to Konerko. Thome tacked on a solo homer in the fifth for the 6-1 final. Sox starter Freddy Garcia was as effective on Saturday as Buehrle had been on Friday, though he allowed a few more base runners. After the dust settled from the bench-clearing brouhaha between Barrett and Pierzynski in the second inning, Cubs starter Rich Hill walked the bases loaded for the second time and Tadahito Iguchi hit a grand slam. Iguchi later added a two-run shot to make the final 7-0.

The series was the latest sign of a pivotal shift in the fortunes of the city’s two baseball franchises. For one thing, the Sox, who have always faced divided audiences at home in the city series and antagonistic crowds at Wrigley Field, sold all their season tickets this year and played before a partisan crowd at Sox Park. Guillen commented on it after Friday’s game. Taking the CTA down from the north side on Sunday morning, I noticed that almost everyone in the el car wore some sort of Sox paraphernalia. (Someone got on with a shirt bearing the Cubs’ distinctive logo, but the “C” turned out to be the first letter in the slogan CRY BABIES SINCE BIRTH.) Could the Sox finally be challenging the Cubs’ domination of Chicago? Another convincing win on Sunday might have answered the question.

Yet the Cubs somehow salvaged the finale. The Sox wore vintage uniforms that harked back to their 1906 World Series victory over the Cubs, and a chill wind off the lake also invoked that series, when it snowed. Aramis Ramirez, tinkering with something that resembles Derrek Lee’s open, pointy-toed batting stance, hit two home runs off the Sox’ Jose Contreras. Konerko did the same off the Cubs’ fiery Carlos Zambrano, who took offense when Pierzynski homered between Konerko’s two shots and pumped his fist as he circled the bases. The umpires interceded to head off another possible donnybrook. The Sox led 4-2 when Juan Uribe threw away what looked like an inning-ending double play in the eighth–one of several miscues by the normally reliable Sox defense. Barrett, whom the crowd had booed vociferously at the start of the game while giving Pierzynski a standing ovation, came to the plate with the tying run at first. Hitless in his first three at bats, he tripled off reliever Neal Cotts on a liner just out of reach of the diving Rob Mackowiak in center field. Jacque Jones, the Sox’ old nemesis from the Minnesota Twins, followed with a homer to give the Cubs a two-run lead on the way to a 7-4 final.

Sox fans had lorded it over the few Cubs fans for most of the game, but after Barrett’s smash the two sides traded chants of “Let’s go White Sox” and “Let’s go Cubbies.” After the final out, Cubs fans crowed all the way down the ramps to the ground level and Sox fans pretty much let them, though not without some reminders every now and then of last year’s World Series victory. For the moment the Cubs had staved off utter embarrassment, but their Chicago hegemony seemed more precarious than ever. More than just the three games figure to be at stake when the teams meet again in Wrigley Field at the end of June.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.