The Boston Red Sox swaggered into town for the American League playoffs oozing charisma from every pore. Even in batting practice it was overwhelming: mountain man Johnny Damon, cap off, hair flying, ripping line drives from foul line to foul line; David Ortiz, “Big Papi,” bareheaded as well but affecting wraparound sunglasses, smashing long flies into the seats; Manny Ramirez, “ManRam,” braids sticking out from under his cap, the fluttering fingers of his right hand held high on his long, left-handed follow-through; Trot Nixon lashing liners with that flat swing; Jason Varitek, the no-nonsense catcher, the captain, the glue. These were the self-proclaimed “idiots” familiar from last year’s heroics, when they fell behind the Yankees three games to none only to rip off eight straight wins, sweeping the Saint Louis Cardinals in the World Series and ending the 86-year-old “Curse of the Bambino”–a feat Chicago fans on both sides of town could only envy. If they came into Chicago as the wild-card entry, well, they’d been that last year, too.

The White Sox left the color to their manager, Ozzie Guillen, who for a month had done everything in his power to draw all the attention to himself with an array of off-the-cuff remarks–much like Jack McKeon did two years ago, when Guillen was one of his coaches in the Florida Marlins’ championship campaign. On the field the Sox seemed nondescript alongside the defending champs, yet that masked how capable they were.

Over the season I came to identify three players as the core of this year’s team. Bullnecked Aaron Rowand patrolled center field with an elegant grace, and even if his power numbers were down he could turn on the ball with a quick twist of the waist and Popeye forearms. Japanese import Tadahito Iguchi looked like a crab at second base, but like Rowand he was fundamentally sound, with deceptive power at the plate. Guillen would proclaim him the team’s most valuable player after his homer won the second game: “Dis kid does everything for me,” he said.

To me, though, the team’s MVP was catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who not only hit a career-high 18 homers–and two more in the 14-2 pounding the Sox gave the Red Sox in the AL playoff series opener–but called a daring, astute game for his pitchers all season long. I believe Pierzynski was responsible for the flowering of Jon Garland with 18 wins, and he’s the one who nursed three hurlers through the closer role: Frisbee-throwing Shingo Takatsu, swashbuckling Dustin Hermanson, and the corpulent flamethrower, Bobby Jenks. A veteran of several years with the Minnesota Twins, Pierzynski returned from a year’s NL exile in San Francisco to befuddle the batters in the Sox’ Central Division as much as ever. It was Pierzynski, more than any one pitcher, who was responsible for the team’s dominating 52-22 record in the division, and his decision to finish one critical game against his former teammates by having Jenks throw four straight curves was the tactical coup of the season.

Those three players best reflected this Sox team’s calm competitiveness, but they weren’t alone in that. Paul Konerko, who led the team with 40 homers and 100 RBIs, projected a lunch-bucket mentality, and the entire pitching staff emphasized guile over pure stuff (in marked contrast with the Cubs’ Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Zambrano). It wasn’t that the individual players didn’t have their backstories–Jenks once lived in an Idaho shack without electricity; pitcher Jose Contreras, a Cuban emigre, finally reunited with his family. But these didn’t compete with what the Sox were doing on the field.

The biggest fallacy about this year’s Sox–one sustained by Guillen’s harping on it–was that this was a team devoted to “small ball”: pitching, defense, and one-run strategies. They did lead the league in sacrifice bunts, but they were fourth in homers with 200, one more than the fearsome Bosox produced. When some scribes wondered aloud before the first game if the wind blowing out at White Sox Park didn’t favor the Red Sox, I thought it was probably the other way around–and the Sox concurred. Pierzynski’s three-run opposite-field home run punctuated a five-run first inning, and he later pulled another homer down the right-field line. Konerko, “Baby Belle” Juan Uribe, and slap-hitting leadoff man Scott Podsednik–hitting his first of the season–homered as well in the rout.

Contreras won his ninth straight start, going back to the huge victory in August over the Yanks and Randy Johnson that ended the Sox’ seven-game losing streak. Afterward, Contreras sat one of his daughters on his lap in the media interview room–oddly enough, much the way Boston’s losing pitcher, Matt Clement, had done with his infant child two years before, after pitching the Cubs to a postseason victory. Contreras credited Guillen for turning him around after George Steinbrenner traded him from the Yanks last year in a fit of pique prompted by one erratic performance too many.

What was most gratifying about that opening win was the fans’ response. The 40,000-plus who attended each of the first two games were almost all deeply loyal Sox fans, and they cheered passionately without any prodding from the scoreboard. When Podsednik led off after being hit by a pitch, they urged him to “Go! Go! Go!” in homage to the 1959 Go-Go Sox. They yelled “Paulie! Paulie!” after Konerko’s homer, and after Ramirez left three men on his first two times up, they goaded him in left field with “Manny! Manny!”

Ramirez quieted the crowd with a two-run single in the first the following night, and he walked in the middle of a two-run third that was powered by an Ortiz double and a two-out Varitek single. Meanwhile, battle-tested David Wells sailed through the Sox lineup the first three innings. Iguchi got the fans interested when he singled in the fourth, and he sent them into ecstasy in the fifth. A double-play grounder rolled between Tony Graffanino’s legs, echoing the infamous Bill Buckner gaffe in the 1986 World Series, and Iguchi put the Sox in front by hitting a Wells curve into the Chicago bullpen for a three-run homer.

“Gooch! Gooch!” the fans chanted, then greeted each Graffanino at-bat with calls of “Buckner! Buckner!” Mark Buehrle settled down to hand the 5-4 lead to the bullpen in the eighth, but not to the setup man everyone expected. “Oh my God, it’s Jenks!” shouted a fan to my right in the center-field bleachers as he emerged from the pen. “Give ’em the gas, Bobby!” shouted a guy behind me. And he did, working through the eighth and stranding Graffanino in the ninth after Graffanino tried to absolve himself with a one-out double. Damon and Edgar Renteria went down to end the game as the crowd cried, “Bobby! Bobby!”

These capable, colorless White Sox finished off the champs at Boston’s Fenway Park last Friday, winning the game in a sixth inning that lasted almost an hour. The Sox had taken a two-run lead in the third, but starter Freddy Garcia gave it up by allowing back-to-back homers to Ortiz and Ramirez, who’d stripped off his gloves even before he left the batter’s box. In the sixth Konerko hit a two-run homer off knuckleballer Tim Wakefield–“Paulie! Paulie!” yelled the raucous fans at Mother Hubbard’s, the downtown sports bar where I was watching the game–but Garcia opened the bottom half by grooving a pitch to Ramirez, who slugged it over the Green Monster in left field.

Guillen called on the erratic left-hander Damaso Marte, and he gave up a single and then walked the bases full with no one out. So Guillen summoned Orlando Hernandez. “El Duque” had looked done in the September stretch, had lost his spot in the starting rotation to skinny rookie Brandon McCarthy, and had barely made the playoff roster. Yet Guillen and general manager Ken Williams opted for Hernandez’s experience over McCarthy’s stuff. Calling forth some of his old high-kicking Yankees mojo, he got Varitek to pop out, coaxed Graffanino to do the same on the 11th pitch of the at-bat, threw a beautiful third strike on the outside corner to Damon–except that it was called a ball–and on a full count got him on a check-swing strike with a gutsy slider in the dirt. After Hernandez worked two more efficient innings–and Guillen applied the coup de grace by calling for Uribe to bunt home Pierzynski on a suicide squeeze in the ninth–Jenks pitched a three-up, three-down ninth, getting all three hitters on curves.

That sixth inning was the stuff of legend. Not to put the whammy on the Sox against the Angels in the Championship Series, but that inning felt like something Sox fans would savor for years. It was an event powerful enough to signal the end of their own accursed era, begun in 1919.

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