CHICAGO -- She's an old lady now, barely able to support herself much less the weight of 30,000 to 40,000 people.

A few winters ago, when a local group of Save Comiskey Park fans was campaigning against destruction of the 80-year-old ballpark, an architect took a hammer from a carpenter's belt, tapped the side of the building and quickly grabbed hunks of falling, dusty concrete.

"See?" he said, sounding like a doctor giving pre-surgery advice. "It's got to go."

And it will. Next year, there will be a new Comiskey Park across the street. Old Comiskey will be a memory. Her space will be a parking lot.

But for now, the old lady is standing proud at 35th and Shields. She beamed proudly this weekend as four straight 30,000-plus crowds poured through her portals to watch baseball's most surprising team, the Chicago White Sox, play the world champion Oakland Athletics. Friday's sellout of 40,417 was the White Sox' first since opening day 1984.

The White Sox finished last a year ago, 29 1/2 games behind the A's in the AL West, while their counterparts on the north side of town, the Cubs, were winning the NL East. Now, the White Sox are challenging for first and the Cubs are last.

Make no mistake, it's still a Cubs town. A year ago at this time, the contending Cubs were greeted by 1,000 fans and TV crews at O'Hare Airport when they returned from a road trip.

When the White Sox came back from their latest trip with a 5-1 record, the only one there to greet them at the terminal was a janitor.

But judging by the outpouring of fans this weekend and marketing by Rob Gallas, who used to cover the team for the Arlington (Ill.) Daily Herald, the White Sox have rekindled the flames of its 1983 division-championship.

That team was built on the power of Ron Kittle (35 home runs), Greg Luzinski (32), Carlton Fisk (26) and Harold Baines (20), and the durable pitching of LaMarr Hoyt (24-10), Richard Dotson (22-7) and Floyd Bannister (16-10).

This year's team will be lucky to have one hitter with 20 homers and one pitcher with 16 victories. It's more like the 1959 Go-Go Sox, who completed a decade of exciting play by winning the franchise's only league title since 1919.

The 1990 team is enjoying the magic carpet ride taken a year ago by the Baltimore Orioles, but General Manager Larry Himes denies following Baltimore's blueprint.

"I detest that," he said. "This started in 1986, not 1989. Baltimore had no bearing whatsoever on our planning here.

"It's nice it worked out that way, but when Baltimore came to town there was a lot of talk we copied their success. That is not true. I had an appreciation for what was coming. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel."

Now White Sox Manager Jeff Torborg has pitching, speed and defense.

Hines traded Bannister to Kansas City for starters Melido Perez and Greg Hibbard, and got Eric King from Detroit. He got right fielder Sammy Sosa and second baseman Scott Fletcher from Texas for Baines.

The rest of the team is made up of players obtained by past GMs and a wave of drafted players.

Gluing the team together is Fisk, 42. One of the team's few free-agent acquisitions (1981), he is a conditioning nut. "Commitment has no offseason," is his motto.

The White Sox, who haven't lost two straight games in six weeks, are anchored in the bullpen by Bobby Thigpen. In reaching 110 lifetime saves two weeks ago, the former Mississippi State outfielder eclipsed Bruce Sutter's record for most saves before his 27th birthday.

"We were sitting in the bullpen a couple of weeks ago and looked at the scoreboard to see we were 31-18, then noticed it was exactly a year ago we were 18-31," Torborg said. "That made us feel real good."

His bullpen has been close to infallible this season. Friday's 5-4 loss to Oakland was only the third time in 33 games the White Sox have lost when leading after the seventh inning.

And now, the crowds.

"They're starting to work for us," Torborg said during the A's series.

"It was like 1983, when I came in with the Yankees and the Sox were winning. And '77, when I was with Cleveland and they were hitting all those homers. It sounded like they were right in our clubhouse then and it sounds like they're in this clubhouse now.

"The park has really been rocking. Maybe that's why they're building a new one."