Josh Paul looked elated, and why not? After years of scuffling just to make the opening-day rosters of the White Sox and Cubs, he was in the playoffs as the Angels’ third-string catcher. Born in Evanston, and still a Naperville resident in the off-season, Paul was all smiles as he took batting practice at White Sox Park before the first game of the American League Championship Series. When a Chicago reporter asked him about the hair sprouting on his face, he said, “Playoff beard, just like the NHL guys–grow until you’re done.”

He’s done.

Paul, as all fans know by now, played an unfortunate role in the pivotal play of the series. The Sox had lost the opener 4-3 and were lying prone at the feet of the Angels’ bullpen when A.J. Pierzynski struck out to send the second game into extra innings knotted at 1-1. Paul rolled the ball back to the mound, the way all good catchers do, and Pierzynski turned and broke for first base as if the third strike had been dropped. Had it? Paul’s actions made that possibility look unthinkable, and it looked like home-plate ump Doug Eddings had made both a strike call and an out call. But Pierzynski flummoxed the umps into seeing it his way, and once he got to first base he stayed there–over manager Mike Scioscia’s fierce protest–until Sox manager Ozzie Guillen sent in Pablo Ozuna to pinch-run. Ozuna stole second, and then Joe Crede jumped all over a hanging split-finger fastball from Kelvim Escobar–who’d struck out five previous hitters, including Pierzynski, on splitters that had dived like a falcon after prey–and lined it into the left-field corner to win the game.

The Sox never looked back. They won four straight games to reach the World Series for the first time since 1959, in the process overcoming the curse of the 1919 Black Sox, last discerned in the 1994 baseball strike that aborted a potential championship and earlier in what I call the “Jerry Dybzinski fuckhead catastrophe” of the 1983 championship series.

Baseball has a long, rich history, and many fans and analysts drew parallels with previous immortal gaffes. To my mind, however, the Pierzynski-Paul phantom trapped third strike most resembled the infamous “Merkle boner” of 1908. Fred Merkle was a teenager with the New York Giants, who were locked in a fierce pennant race with the Cubs late in September, and he was on first base when Al Bridwell delivered what appeared to be a game-winning single with two out in the ninth. Except that Merkle, a scrub accustomed to running from the dugout to the center-field clubhouse after games at the Polo Grounds, took off for the clubhouse without touching second. The Cubs’ Johnny Evers tracked down the ball in the crowd swirling onto the field and headed for second to force Merkle and end the inning without the run counting. But third-base coach “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity seized the ball from him and threw it into the stands. Evers apparently touched second with another ball, at which point Chicago manager Frank Chance dragged out the umpires and argued that Merkle should be out and the game ruled a 1-1 tie. They sided with him. The game would be replayed, if necessary, and after the Giants dropped five key games down the stretch it was. The Cubs won and went on to what remains their last world championship.

“I’d rather be lucky than good,” Guillen said after the second game of the Angels series, and it’s a common sentiment in every sport. Ability you either have or you don’t. Luck can be conjured. I’d made up my mind not to cut my hair until the Sox were done–in spite of the winged Paulie Walnuts sideburns–and my Sox pal Kate had presciently dreaded the first game because she recognized that bad luck was overdue: the Sox were on an eight-game winning streak and pitcher Jose Contreras was on a nine-game winning streak, each too long to sustain.

The Sox acted immediately to deal with this shift in fortune. Guillen went back to the standard black Sox warm-up jacket from the fashionable new vanilla-sleeved letterman’s jackets he and his coaches had sported for game one. Mark Buehrle, who as the starting pitcher got to choose the uniform of the day, chose the short-sleeved pinstripe jersey after Contreras had gone sleeveless the night before. (Buehrle had followed the victorious Contreras in going sleeveless against the Boston Red Sox a week earlier.)

Leadoff man Scott Podsednik switched from high socks to low pants pulled down to his shoe tops. No doubt the fans had their own various mojos going as well, from inside-out rally caps to lucky shirts and underwear. I believe it was I who triggered the Sox’ winning rally in the fifth game by removing the 1917 Sox cap I hadn’t previously worn while watching games on TV, thus returning proper balance to the baseball universe.

But even if it’s better to be lucky than good, best of all is to be both, and the great tend to make their own luck. So do the not so great. No one would have remembered the Merkle boner if the Cubs hadn’t run the Giants down the last weekend of the season and won the replayed game. On the other hand, consider the Billy Goat curse placed on the Cubs at the 1945 World Series, which was followed by the collapses of 1969, 1984, and, of course, 2003. The public would have never known who Steve Bartman was (you knew it was coming, didn’t you Cubs fans?) if Mark Prior hadn’t followed his interference play two years ago by walking Luis Castillo with a wild pitch, Alex Gonzalez hadn’t booted a potential inning-ending double-play ball, and Ivan Rodriguez, Derrek Lee, and several other Florida Marlins hadn’t come up with key hits. Not to mention if Kerry Wood hadn’t given up the lead in the seventh game of the series the following night.

This is not apocryphal. It’s a fact: Pitcher Mark Redman turned to the others in the Marlins’ dugout after Bartman’s blunder and said, “All right, now let’s make that kid famous.” And they did.

And so I wrote to various other Sox fans the day after Paul’s gaffe (he really should have given Pierzynski a tag just to remove any doubt) comparing the incident to the Merkle boner and finishing, “Now let’s hope the Sox make Paul immortal.” And they did.

They went to Anaheim, where Jon Garland, after a two-week layoff, followed in Buehrle’s footsteps by pitching a complete-game victory. Freddy Garcia did the same the following night. And all along the Angels were victimized by bad calls and worse luck. In game four, for instance, Paul Konerko got the call on a borderline checked swing on a 2-2 count and hit Ervin Santana’s next pitch, a hanging slider, out of the park for a three-run homer. Podsednik got picked off but was ruled safe, and came around to score. Pierzynski got away with undetected catcher interference on what turned into an inning-ending double play. (Steve Finley was already arguing as he ran down the line and got nailed by an eyelash, costing the Angels a run.)

At the same time, the free-swinging Angels were putty in the hands of the crafty Sox pitchers. At one point in the third game, Vladimir Guerrero had seen a total of eight pitches in five at-bats against Buehrle and Garland, going hitless and hitting into two double plays (he ended the series one for 19).

In the eighth inning of the fifth game, with the score tied at three, Pierzynski again got on base undeservedly with two out when Escobar tagged him with his mitt while holding the ball in his bare hand, and Crede again made the Angels pay by driving in the go-ahead run with a trickler up the middle.

Great teams find ways to make other teams feel cursed, in the process sometimes removing long-standing curses of their own. Poor Josh Paul–the longer the Angels go without another championship, the darker his lapse will loom. In Chicago let’s agree to call it A.J. Pierzynski’s stealing first, the play that sent the White Sox to the city’s first World Series in 46 years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen Dunn–Getty Images.