The pennant race began unusually early this summer, which is only fitting for the craziest, juiciest, most hectic, most heroic (read homeric), and potentially most absurd baseball season in memory. Last weekend the Cleveland Indians came to Comiskey Park percentage points ahead of the White Sox in the American League Central Division. It was only the first series after the all-star break, but already the games would prompt charges of watered-down base paths, doctored baseballs, and corked bats. In the most unusual event of a highly unusual weekend, the bat in question was stolen from the umpires who had confiscated it, replaced with a surrogate, and then mysteriously returned (or was it?).

These delightfully arcane distractions aside, the baseball itself was skillful, competitive, and thrilling. And it was played out in an atmosphere in which players are threatening to bat .400, break Roger Maris’s single-season home run record, and win the triple crown (all the above in the person of our own Frank Thomas, to name but one noteworthy star of the summer of ’94). But it was also an environment in which no less an authority than Bill James wrote on the New York Times op-ed page that baseball as we know it, yes, could very well collapse should a work stoppage end the season. What an apocalyptic setting. It’s almost as if the sport itself were concentrating all its vast resources in an attempt to avert a strike–to will a seemingly impossible compromise between owners and players. How can a sport so vital be so close to catastrophe?

That was the question that presented itself when we arrived at Comiskey last Sunday. The place was already buzzing with speculation over the missing allegedly corked bat. Yet there were Jerry Reinsdorf and Ozzie Guillen outside the locker room haggling over the negotiations between the players and the owners. Just to bring everyone up to speed, the owners recently presented the players with a new contract proposal, one that would roll back many of the gains the players have made over the last two decades. (For instance, the players not only would be asked to take a pay cut if injured and placed on the disabled list, in effect they also would pay the premiums on the insurance policies that would benefit the owners in case of such injuries.) It took the owners about 18 months to present that contract to the players, but now Reinsdorf was bemoaning the players’ failure to respond in the few weeks since. The players, in fact, have responded by threatening to strike in order to prevent the owners from instituting the contract by fiat, which they can do if they declare the talks at an impasse. Reinsdorf knew all this, of course, but was trying to seem reasonable. “There’s got to be a deal somewhere,” he said. Guillen was uncharacteristically (and ominously) silent.

Yet on the field it was all baseball, as befits a series fought for first place. The Sox opened the second half of the season a week ago Thursday with Alex Fernandez on the mound, and he beat the Tribe to put the Sox in first. But he also surrendered a homer to Cleveland’s Albert Belle, who had been unusually hot of late–even for his streaky career. So with Belle’s first plate appearance Friday night, Chicago manager Gene Lamont asked that Belle’s bat be confiscated and X-rayed for cork, a substance that is sometimes inserted into hollowed-out bats to make them lighter but (theoretically, at least) no less strong. The Indians went on to win that game, 3-2, beating Jack McDowell, but while the game was in progress someone evidently entered the Cleveland manager’s office, gained entry to a duct that led to the umpires’ dressing room, and replaced the confiscated bat, leaving the umpires’ room a mess as well.

Some 24 hours later, the bat–or a bat, anyway–was mysteriously returned to the umpires. Was it Belle’s bat? Did it contain cork? Neither question had been answered at the end of the weekend. If found guilty of using a corked bat, Belle–Cleveland’s clean-up hitter–could be suspended for a week or more. Chicago general manager Ron Schueler was trying to put up a sporting front by the time Sunday rolled around, saying it was all in the hands of the league office, but he also made it clear that there was a definite assumption of guilt. “Obviously, somebody thought he was guilty, or they wouldn’t have bothered going through with that,” he said.

Man of reason Schueler, however, was also the person who had lit the fire under this series to begin with. The Indians, perennial losers, are enjoying their best season in 40 years. They have a new ball park, Jacobs Field, and they were plainly ecstatic to get out of the old one, the drafty, cavernous Municipal Stadium on Lake Erie. They responded by signing several veteran free agents to augment a talented young nucleus, and they won 18 straight games at home earlier this year to move past the Sox into first place. The mild-mannered Schueler responded that they weren’t that good. Yet somehow they were, and what’s more they took Schueler’s comment as an insult.

Not that they need anything to get psyched up about. They have the best leadoff hitter in the game, Kenny Lofton, and a terrific switch-hitting second baseman, Carlos Baerga, who bats third–and deservedly so–in their lineup. What’s more, they have the aforementioned power hitter, Belle, a Punch-and-Judy two-spot hitter of the old school, shortstop Omar Vizquel (who even chokes up on the bat, remember that?), and other talents ranging from hotshot rookie third baseman Jim Thome to the well-traveled designated hitter Eddie Murray. The pitching is a patchwork, but thus far it’s been a surprise.

Newly acquired bull pen ace Jeff Russell came on to save Friday’s game, and Dennis Martinez pitched a four-hit shutout to win Saturday’s and put the Indians a full game into first place. This was turning out to be a classic confrontation between two traditional approaches to baseball: the even-keeled, one-day-at-a-time approach of the Sox, and the emotional, upstart approach of the Indians.

The thing about baseball is that it always comes down to a battle between pitcher and hitter, two individuals trying to outsmart each other. The notion of chemistry isn’t as pervasive as it is in basketball or hockey (or even soccer, a sport the Sox-Indians series enabled us to leave quickly behind). Still, that only makes baseball chemistry more mysterious and ethereal, the stuff that separated the Mets from the Cubs in 1969 and vice versa in 1989. It is a group confidence that enables the team to play beyond its normal capabilities. And the Indians definitely have it.

While the Sox went through a rather apathetic batting practice Sunday morning–most of the starters begged out–the Indians lined up in the dugout early to watch the Sox, in the threatening manner of their namesakes on a ridge in a movie western. They couldn’t get on the field soon enough. This attitude is what one expects from kids like Lofton and Baerga, but it has rejuvenated veterans like Murray, Martinez, and Jack Morris.

Morris recently shaved off his trademark mustache, and he looked about 20 years younger as he took the mound. Morris was 1-4 with a 6.75 earned-run average in his first seven starts, with the mustache, then 7-1 with a 3.77 ERA since. Chemistry or ability, mind or matter?

In any case, the Sox had most of the ability on this afternoon. Against Morris, who was trying to recapture his youth, they had pure youth in Jason Bere. He has an excellent fastball, a good curve, and a decent change-up, all delivered out of the same textbook pitching motion. And he went at the Indians in the textbook manner. Whatever he started a batter with the first time through the order–fastball or curve–he did just the opposite the second time through. He had poor Cleveland right fielder Manny Ramirez spinning in circles. The first time up, in the second inning, Ramirez had runners at the corners and one out. Bere needed a strikeout. He threw Ramirez a curve for a called strike, another curve for a swinging strike, and then a high, hard fastball for swinging strike three. The next time up, Ramirez got nothing but fastballs until Bere got up in the count 1-2. Ramirez fouled off another fastball, and then Bere threw him a beautiful curve; it went from letter high to knee high, and dived for the outside corner of the plate. Ramirez waved at it and missed.

Bere made one early mistake. Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. smacked a fastball just inside the left-field foul pole for a homer. Then Bere settled down, retiring 8 in a row and 10 of 11 before leaving in the sixth with a 4-2 lead.

The game was really a series of swift punches and counterpunches, with the Sox getting the upper hand and then holding on to win. They had their usual businesslike demeanor, but they were also aggressive on the base paths. They got a run in the second when Julio Franco walked, stole second, and came home on a two-out single by Lance Johnson. After Alomar tied the game in the third, the Sox went back in front in the bottom of the inning. Guillen led off with a single, went to second on a hit-and-run groundout, to third on a wild pitch, and home on another groundout, by Tim Raines. That cleared the bases for Thomas, and he picked on a 3-1 Morris fastball and hit it into the right-field seats. Warren Newson scored in the fourth: he rapped a leadoff single, scampered to third on a hit by Ron Karkovice, and raced home on a shallow sacrifice fly by Guillen. Little Joey Cora added a solo homer in the seventh; at that point, Morris just threw up his hands.

Lamont was treating Bere with kid gloves. When Bere, who’d lost the all-star game the previous Tuesday, got wild in the sixth, Lamont went to the bull pen, bringing in former Cleveland pitcher Dennis Cook. That’s when the Indians’ manager, Mike Hargrove, accused Cook of doctoring the baseball. The umpires went to the mound, examined Cook’s glove and cap, and pronounced him clean. Cook got even for the damage done his reputation by pitching two and one-third innings of solid relief, to set up Roberto Hernandez for the save in the ninth.

Lofton had complained that the Sox were trying to take away his running game by making the area around first base a mud pit. Yet he was 0-for-5 and didn’t reach base at all on Sunday. As for Belle, well, he was tame after his bat was confiscated, and went an uneventful 1-for-4 on the day. In the eighth inning he drove one to the wall, but that only brought to mind what Lamont had said the night before: “Corked bats don’t make balls go 500 feet, but it makes balls hit 370 go 380. Players don’t cork their bats to hit tape-measure home runs. Belle hits a lot 370 and maybe that ten extra feet means a home run.” That was exactly the case with his final out Sunday.

Otherwise, Lamont was his usual laconic self afterward. “Good series, both sides,” he said, and there was no use arguing that. The Sox, most of them, were in the trainer’s room watching the end of the World Cup at that time. A few were playing Ping-Pong. Just another day’s work. Leave chemistry to the chemists; the Sox play baseball.