By Ted Cox

Bases loaded, nobody out in the top of the seventh, and the White Sox up 4-2 against the first-place Indians, whom they trail by two games in the American League Central Division. Hard-throwing, 24-year-old reliever Bill Simas is summoned from the bullpen to face Cleveland slugger Albert Belle, a notorious first-ball fastball hitter. So Simas starts him with a slider, a terrific pitch low on the outside corner for a strike. Then he slips a fastball past him. Then he throws a fastball on the outside corner, but the umpire gives Belle the automatic ball on 0-2. The fans by now are screaming, including a large contingent from Cleveland clanking cowbells in the upper deck to egg Belle on. Simas comes back with another 90-plus-mile-an-hour fastball and Belle waves right through. The cheering is the loudest moment of the season at Comiskey Park.

Then Simas gets two strikes on Jim Thome, and again the ump calls the automatic ball on 0-2, this one on a pitch that looks perfect on the outside corner. The irate Sox fans are even louder than before, but Simas comes back with another high fastball, Thome misses, and the crowd explodes. With all 33,136 fans standing in anticipation, most in support of Simas, he gets ahead of Eddie Murray, who had hit a tape-measure homer 442 feet into the Indians’ bullpen earlier in the evening to give Cleveland a 2-0 lead. On a 2-2 pitch, Simas throws a curve, and Murray dribbles it down the first-base line. Frank Thomas fields it as Simas races over to beat Murray to the bag and take the toss from Thomas to end the inning. The crowd roars as Simas crosses the field and then slaps mitts and hands with his teammates as he enters the dugout.

We crossed over from the Bulls and found ourselves embroiled in a pennant race. In June. Involving the White Sox.

Too unbelievable.

Simas came back in the eighth to strike out Manny Ramirez swinging and pinch hitter Jeromy Burnitz looking–both on fastballs–much to the Sox fans’ delight. Then pinch hitter Julio Franco was announced and booed mercilessly as a traitor. Leaving the Sox after the strike-aborted 1994 season to play in Japan, Franco signed with the Tribe earlier this year. Simas got him too, on a grounder to third–two innings, six batters, six outs, four strikeouts–and turned over the game to bullpen ace Roberto Hernandez. He retired the Indians in order in the ninth, sealing the victory that pulled the Sox within a game of first place.

That was two Friday nights ago, and one game was as close as the Sox would get to first that weekend. After winning an ugly 15-10 slugfest in the opening game of that four-game series and then 4-2 on Friday, the Sox had a chance to tie for first with another victory. But trailing 1-0 Saturday, the Indians tied the score in the ninth when Sox second baseman Ray Durham bobbled a potential game-ending double-play grounder, and went on to win in the tenth. The following day the Indians evened the series and reclaimed a three-game lead as starting pitcher Orel Hershiser shut down the Sox.

Last weekend the same teams met in Cleveland in another four-game series. The Sox again closed to within a game of first only to fall back, but this time took the first three games of the series. It was an altogether more satisfactory turn of events that left the Sox in second place–two games out but 13 games above .500 at 50-37–going into the All-Star break.

Seeing the Sox revitalized and fighting for first in a couple of remarkably heated series with the Indians–remarkably heated for late June and early July, and remarkably heated for a team that finished 32 games behind Cleveland only last season–was like meeting an old friend who has not merely changed but flourished since the last parting. The Sox were playing good, solid baseball with strong hitting, dependable pitching, and fundamental fielding, and the fans–for the first time since the strike–were responding as they should, with large crowds deeply involved in the game. Simas was the first thing that struck us on our arrival from basketball. In hoops, a team might bring in its best defender to stop a Michael Jordan, but that move won’t stop a player of Jordan’s caliber, not if he really wants to score. Yet here was Simas, who only a year ago was toiling away in the minors (he was thrown into the trade that saw Jim Abbott go to the California Angels), coming in that Friday night and blowing Belle away. He did it the next night too, this time challenging him with a first-pitch fastball Belle could only gawk at, then another, then a third that Belle lofted to Dave Martinez in right field as Simas preserved the 1-0 lead.

The Sox might have blown that game, but a certain retribution came in the opening game of the rematch series in Cleveland. Simas came in trying to protect a 5-2 lead, but after starting Belle with a splendid slider let a fastball drift out over the plate. Belle laced the ball into deep center field, and the Indians eventually tied the score at 5 on Simas. Yet the Sox came back to win in ten innings.

Simas was born and raised in California, but he has a country feel to him–rounded edges and an easy manner. Large and lumbering and with a bit of a potbelly, he has none of the sinewy, suntanned good looks one usually associates with the California athlete. If he’d grown a couple of inches taller he’d look more like a University of Alabama offensive tackle, and one can easily imagine him entering a game from the bull pen with his belly protruding from his jersey. After his first heroics against Belle and the Indians, he was sort of taken aback at the attention he received from reporters in the locker room. “I was pretty pumped up,” he said by way of explanation. “I really feed off the adrenaline.” He said the crowd that night was as loud as he’d ever heard it at Comiskey–and he being a young middle reliever not usually entrusted with the critical moments of a ball game, it was certainly the loudest crowd he’d ever experienced while pitching. To us, he seemed the very epitome of the Sox renaissance.

Yet the person most responsible for the team’s turnaround, we must admit, is manager Terry Bevington. We stand by our comment blaming Bevington and general manager Ron Schueler for the team’s early attendance woes. When Schueler brought Bevington back after last year’s woeful finish, he seemed to be offering fans more of the same. Yet Bevington has instilled in his players a renewed dedication to the fundamentals. The most telling statistics concern fielding. Last year the Sox committed 108 errors and finished next to last in the league in fielding. Midway through this season the Sox were on a pace to commit fewer than 100 errors and were fifth in the league in fielding, only three-thousandths of a point behind the leader. The difference almost certainly stems from Bevington’s intensive regimen in training camp and his tunnel-visioned focus on one day at a time.

Again, coming from the Bulls, one notices the most unlikely resemblances between Bevington and Phil Jackson. Bevington is a baseball primitive; Jackson is a basketball intellectual. Yet the effect they have on players is sort of similar. Jackson tries to free his players of distractions so they can concentrate on every moment of every game; Bevington simply insists his players concentrate. He does so with a mantra of baseball cliches. One game at a time, he said that Friday at home as the Sox closed in on first place, and when reporters pressed him–ever so gently–for something more, Bevington responded, “My feeling is you go out and play each day as if it’s the first and last game you’ll ever play. Big games, little games–to me it’s all the same. I don’t see what’s wrong with that approach. That’s all you can handle, anyway. You can only play one game.”

Still, it’s worth noting that Bevington made sure to have his four best pitchers lined up for both series with the Indians. And fans will note that the Sox have four dependable starters this year. Alex Fernandez is still not an ace-caliber pitcher–he lost last Sunday’s game, which could have put the Sox into a tie for first–but the loss left him with a more than respectable 8-5. Wilson Alvarez, who outdueled Jack McDowell at Comiskey only to watch the Sox lose the extra-inning game, came back to shut out the Indians 7-0 in Cleveland with the help of Hernandez, who mopped up in the ninth. That win gave Alvarez a 10-4 record. The bargain-basement free agent Kevin Tapani entered the All-Star break 8-5. Best of all, the ballyhooed phenom James Baldwin has finally established himself in the majors; he earned the win in the game where Simas slammed the door on Belle and the Indians and finished the first half of the season an impressive 7-1. The four starters were a combined 33-15 at the break, thanks in large part to a revitalized Hernandez (26 saves) and a bull pen bolstered by the likes of Simas, lefty Larry Thomas, and Matt Karchner, who has won seven games himself. Now, with or without a recovered Jason Bere, the Sox have the pitching to put up against almost anyone (except the Atlanta Braves, that is) come the playoffs.

That’s right, the playoffs. We predicted all along that the Sox would make the playoffs, thanks especially to the acquisition of Tony Phillips, a terrific leadoff man who also has a wide-eyed, infectious intensity. (He broke up a potential double play in that 4-2 win over the Indians here to open the gates for the first two Sox runs, to cite just one example.) Yet we figured the Sox would get in as the wild card team, not as a division winner. Few expected the Sox to challenge the vaunted Indians for first.

But nobody expected the amazing comeback of Harold Baines, who without his beard looks younger and fitter than ever at age 37, and who is putting up his best numbers ever–15 homers, 62 runs batted in, and an average well over .300 going into the break–with July traditionally one of his best months. (He won last Saturday’s game with two homers.) And of course there’s Frank Thomas, on the way to yet another career year in a career of nothing but career years. At the break he was not only hitting near .350 with 23 home runs but also driving in almost a run a game–a pace out of baseball antiquity typical of someone like Lou Gehrig.

The best thing of all about the back-to-back series with Cleveland might have been that they reminded us of what fun it is to root against the Indians, a surly, arrogant bunch. There’s Belle, the uppity Hershiser (whom the Sox bled to death in Cleveland after he’d shut them down in Chicago), the traitor Franco, and, last but not least, “Black” Jack McDowell, who makes a much better villain than hometown hero. They’re a team one loves to hate, the sort of team one wants to be involved with in a pennant race.

And the Sox, at last, are a team of characters. Foremost among them are Baines and Phillips, both with big, hitching swings that would have driven former batting coach Walt Hriniak crazy. A year ago they would have been kicked off the team. Now, the familiar cheer of “Ha-rold” is ringing through the park, and fans are roaring for Simas’s entry from the bull pen. These Sox are making baseball fun again, and only a few months ago that seemed an impossible task.