Chicago White Sox: Second City's Second Team Hasn't Won the Crown Since 1917, but Has an Ace of Its Own.

Somewhere along the line, the poets and bards of baseball decided there were better stories out there, better tales of endearing futility that unfolded under more mystical circumstances, than the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros, two relatively boring franchises that simply never won. So, the poets and bards turned teams like the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs into the darlings of folklorists and merchandise salesmen, while the White Sox and Astros merely kept losing in relative obscurity.

But now, as the Astros and White Sox prepare to meet in the World Series beginning here Saturday night, perhaps it is time to celebrate a matchup that has all the historical impact of the more celebrated stories -- plus the delicious potential to go down in history as one of the greatest pitching battles of all time.

This series, in other words, lacks for nothing -- except buzz from a nation that has come to equate the World Series with pinstriped gazillionaires padding their ample resumes, or a perpetually cursed franchise exorcising its demons.

The White Sox have not won the World Series since 1917 -- a drought that is one year longer, but infinitely less celebrated, than the one the Red Sox snapped a year ago. As has been noted often this week, since that time this franchise has thrown more World Series (the infamous 1919 "Black Sox") than it has won. The White Sox have not even appeared in a World Series since 1959.

"We don't have a curse," White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said. "We just have a lot of failure."

The Astros, meantime, have never so much as appeared in a World Series in their 43-year history; only the Texas Rangers franchise (which began life as the Washington Senators in 1961) has been around longer without reaching the World Series.

That means the majority of each team's fans have no memories of their teams playing in a World Series. But even if it is another 40-plus years before either team makes it back, the potential exists for many enduring memories to be made.

For starters, in Game 1, the Astros will send to the mound arguably the greatest pitcher of the last half-century, if not of all time, 43-year-old right-hander Roger Clemens. Two years ago, he canceled his retirement to pitch for his hometown team, in hopes of lifting it above its history of futility and bringing it a moment like the one that awaits Saturday night.

Although Clemens has attempted to deflect the heartwarming sentiment toward longtime Astros Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, it was impossible for the big, emotional Texan to hide his feelings on the eve of Game 1.

"I ponder to myself, 'This could be my last couple of starts, or my last one,' " said Clemens, who has pitched in five previous World Series for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. "I'm trying . . . to share it with everyone. And that includes the entire city [of Houston]. That's the reason I came home."

Clemens will become the second-oldest pitcher ever to start a World Series game, trailing only Jack Quinn, who was 46 when he started for the 1929 Philadelphia Athletics.

"He's a gift from the baseball gods," Bagwell said. "You shouldn't be able to do what he's done at his age."

Clemens's opponent in Game 1 will be Chicago's Jose Contreras, who was Clemens's teammate with the Yankees, and whom Clemens once tutored in the finer points of the four-seamed fastball and the split-fingered pitch -- the pitches that both men will rely on Saturday night.

Contreras pitched the opener in each of the White Sox' first two rounds of the playoffs, after going 6-0 with a 1.99 ERA in September, as the White Sox held off the hard-charging Cleveland Indians.

"He's a guy who carried us for a while. When we were struggling, he's the guy who would go out there and we knew would get us a win every five days," said White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "The way he's pitching, who would argue [with his getting the ball in the opener]?"

The Clemens-Contreras matchup is the opening act of what is certain to be a multi-act drama taking place on the mounds of Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field and Houston's Minute Maid Park.

Following Clemens, the Astros will send to the mound the second-winningest postseason pitcher of all time (lefty Andy Pettitte) and the winningest pitcher in baseball over the past two seasons (right-hander Roy Oswalt).

Meantime, the White Sox boast a starting rotation -- Contreras will be followed by left-hander Mark Buehrle and right-handers Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia -- that produced four consecutive complete games in their victory over the Los Angeles Angels in the American League Championship Series, a feat that had not been accomplished in nearly half a century.

"I think the fans are going to see one of the best pitching performances in a long time," White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen said.

What set apart the White Sox and Astros this season, perhaps even more than their starting pitching, was the fact both teams, at various times, took on the unmistakable look of a team of destiny. For the White Sox, it took a 99-win season, a near-choke in September and a blessed run through the playoffs' first two rounds to unseat the crosstown Cubs, however fleetingly, for superiority in the city's baseball pecking order.

"We're in the World Series now," said Frank Thomas, the White Sox' injured superstar, "and they're at home -- no disrespect intended."

The Astros, meantime, were 15-30 at the end of play on May 24. The Houston Chronicle ran a mock obituary for the team, with a headline saying "GRAVE CIRCUMSTANCES . . . The Astros might as well start thinking about next year." The last team to make the postseason after being as many as 15 games below .500? The 1914 Boston "Miracle" Braves.

"We were done," Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg said Friday. "When you're 15-30, it's over. Your season's over. You're not thinking, 'Hey, we can still pull this out, guys.' Are you kidding me?"

What rescued the Astros this summer, and the White Sox this fall, is the same something that allowed the Red Sox to break through their curse a year ago, the same something that chooses a team every year to guide to baseball's ultimate triumph. And beginning Saturday night, it has two worthy candidates from which to choose.

HOUSTON - OCTOBER 15: Starting pitcher Roger Clemens #22 of the Houston Astros throws a pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game Three of the National League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on October 15, 2005 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Roger ClemensRoger ClemensJose Contreras