The story starts in spring training, 2020.
Back before the world ground to a halt and was irrevocably altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the baseball season was shrunk down to 60 games. Before the Chicago White Sox officially made it out of rebuilding mode. Before they made the postseason for the first time in a dozen years. Before they replaced Rick Renteria with Tony La Russa. Before they won this year's American League Central championship and made back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history.
Before all that, Tim Anderson took the reins of the team.
"I remember," White Sox third base coach Joe McEwing told NBC Sports Chicago in July, "TA came in last year and said to Ricky, 'You taught us, you laid the foundation and you taught us how to go about it. It's our turn now. It's our turn to step up and take advantage of the foundation that all of (you) have set over time.'
"And they took ownership of it and accountability for it, and it shows."
The White Sox now sit on the precipice of what the rebuild was building toward: a run at a World Series championship.
And they have Anderson to thank.
Obviously, a baseball team features a large cast. Different parts of the team and clubhouse take their cues from different players. Undoubtedly, La Russa has made a big difference this season as the White Sox emerged as legitimate championship contenders. Of course, Rick Hahn pushed the go button on the rebuild while Anderson was still a rookie. The pitchers have benefitted greatly from the arrival of Lance Lynn, who's taken a leadership role on that side of the clubhouse. And no discussion of White Sox leadership can happen without mentioning José Abreu, the reigning MVP who has mentored several of the team's most important players to stardom while maintaining his role as its most important hitter.
But when it comes to what's made this team this team, it's all about Anderson. His personality is woven into the DNA of this group, a fun-loving bunch that's always talking, always smiling, always confident and always uber-focused on the task at hand: winning.
"If you were to personify our attitude, kind of like what makes us a club, in one guy," White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito told NBC Sports Chicago during the summer, "I would choose Tim Anderson.
"Even in failure, (he's like), 'That's not going to discourage me, that's not going to discourage us.' Shit happens, maybe unlucky or just had a bad day, but I feel like he's really good at separating. And he has so much inner confidence that's not dictated by results. 'No matter if I went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts, or I went 3-for-4 with three homers and a double,' it's the same guy every day. Extremely confident, extremely loose and ready to go out and win.
"I think it just injects that level of confidence (into the whole team). We're ready to win, no matter what, no matter how we're feeling. Having a guy like that in the clubhouse, I think is hugely important."
The White Sox, certainly, recognized a long time ago that Anderson had evolved into the face of the franchise.
After his bat flip heard 'round the world vaulted him into the national consciousness, the White Sox slapped his words — that he uttered while matter-of-factly telling reporters that baseball was boring and needed to change to better fit today's generation of players and fans — everywhere. "Change the game" became the team's marketing slogan, adorning the outside of Guaranteed Rate Field and serving as the team's dedicated hashtag on social media. They consulted him on the immensely popular "Southside" alternate uniforms.
And then he went and hit that walk-off home run in the Field of Dreams game, beating the New York Yankees and giving the White Sox a spot in the minds of baseball fans, serious and casual, everywhere.
Of course, White Sox fans know that Anderson's been that guy for years now. He evolved his game from a .240 hitter to a batting champion, worked tirelessly on improving his defense and most importantly, perhaps, became one of the game's best hitters, a reliable spark plug that not only shines in the biggest moments but gets his team going on a daily basis.
How important is Anderson to these White Sox? Just look at what happened when he didn't play. The offense went silent without their top-of-the-lineup Energizer Bunny. When he hit the injured list in early September and didn't accompany the team during a road series in Kansas City, it was even worse.
"Timmy is a fundamental piece on this team," White Sox third baseman Yoán Moncada told NBC Sports Chicago last week, through team interpreter Billy Russo. "He's always trying to bring the energy every day. He's always talking. Sometimes you wonder if he's ever going to stop.
"When he's in the dugout, you feel that. When he was on the IL and he wasn't with us, you could notice a difference. The dugout was quiet. And then, when he came back, you knew that he was there because he was around speaking and talking with the guys. ... That's how we see his importance in some cases, how his personality reflects on the team."
When Anderson was bothered by that bout of persistent leg soreness in late August and early September, La Russa constantly mentioned how important it was to have Anderson around, even if he wasn't in the lineup, a sign of the type of energy he infuses into his teammates.
"He's so into the game and brings so much energy and excitement that it's hard not to feed off of it," Giolito said. "He's grown into a fantastic leader. ... I love being in the dugout when he has a day off and sitting near him, because when he has a day off, he's up on the top step the whole game, talking s--t, messing around, in a good way, a positive way, keeping the energy alive, even when he's not playing.
"You think a guy that plays every day, he gets a day off, he's going to be in the clubhouse, he's going to be kind of resting, relaxing. That's not how he is. Super into the game, cheering everybody on, wants to see everyone around him be successful. It's just like an infectious attitude, in a good way."
But it's not just that on-the-field stuff. Anderson's role as a leader and a heartbeat of this team goes well beyond his third straight season hitting north of .300, well beyond the game-winning homers and constant energizing presence at the plate, on the base paths and in the field.
When Anderson's best friend, Branden Moss, was killed in 2017, he made the decision to focus on having fun, to look at his life in a constantly positive light, and that included his approach to baseball. For a while, it seemed every other sentence out of his mouth dealt with having fun. Years later, it's turned into a way of life for the entire White Sox clubhouse.
And with the smiles and the laughter comes that confidence. He spent last offseason talking about how much better the White Sox were than the reigning division champs, the Minnesota Twins. He couldn't have been more right about that, with the White Sox taking the Central crown in a runaway and the Twins finishing in last place. He said in a radio appearance that the White Sox were the best team in the AL.
They have October to prove him right. One thing's for sure, though, they think the way he thinks.
"I think we're confident bordering on arrogant," White Sox closer Liam Hendriks told NBC Sports Chicago last month. "We could be going through a tough stretch, and it doesn't matter. We've got the confidence in ourselves to go out there every single day and do it. And that's something that you can't teach. That's something that is ingrained in the personality of the club. I think that's something that's been taught over the previous years. I think TA has a lot to do with that.
"He's always willing to go out and make sure he picks that guy up, like if they have a defensive miscue or if they struck out in a big situation or anything like that. He's always the guy that's going to go up there and make sure they're doing all right or pump them up or get them back into it. He's that guy."
You hear often that one of the best qualities a pro athlete can possess is the ability to make his teammates better. Sometimes that has to do with what happens on the field or on the court or on the ice. In Anderson's case, it has just as much to do with how he's making his teammates feel before the bright lights come on.
That's become glaringly apparent this season with the arrival of Billy Hamilton, the speedy outfielder who talked earlier this season about having his entire approach to baseball altered by Anderson's confidence in him. Hamilton, whose offensive success has rarely matched his ability as a defensive and base-running threat, saw his confidence at the plate grow thanks to Anderson.
"A lot of guys don't want to be followers. But if I was to tell a young kid or anybody else, 'If you have to follow someone, it would have to be Tim Anderson,'" Hamilton told NBC Sports Chicago last week. "You know what you're going to get out of him every single day. You're going to get the heart, you're going to get the desire of him being here with his teammates, you're going to get the confidence he has.
"I've never seen a lot of guys who can be 0-for-3 against a pitcher and still be like, 'Hey, man, you're still not as good as me. You still can't get me out no more.' I've been around guys who have been like, 'Man, this guy, he's just too good for us. We can't figure him out.' He's like, 'No, he has it coming. We're going to get him. We're ready.'
"Everybody goes off him. ... He's just one of those guys that you want to be around every single day, because he can bring the energy, he's going to bring the confidence. If you can't vibe off of what he brings to the team, you shouldn't be a part of any baseball team or any type of sporting event ever."
The White Sox, of course, don't want to be a part of just any sporting event, their eyes set squarely on ending the 2021 campaign by hoisting a World Series trophy. That, too, is partially them taking a cue from Anderson. It doesn't take a special kind of player to want to win a championship, of course, but Anderson's laid this out as the ultimate goal since before the rebuilding days were officially over.
And he's had the confidence, the joy and the play on the field to back it all up.
Now the White Sox embark on October baseball, Anderson leading the way in every regard. They can't get where they want to go without him, not without him hitting, fielding, running, energizing, inspiring, emboldening — without the incalculable everything that he brings each and every day.
This is Anderson's team. It's a contending team because of him and the difference he's made. And if it becomes a championship team a month from now, it will be because of him, too.
"He's going to be a key to us winning the World Series. A lot of guys are going to be big keys, but Tim is the main factor," Hamilton said. "He's the leadoff batter, he's the captain. Once he goes, everybody fits into that category of being ready to go.
"As long as he's ready, we're going to be ready, for sure."