Pennant Fever Grips Boston - And It's August

The Red Sox usually falter this time of year, but bats are cracking and Epifanio Sanchez is smiling

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'WHEH ya been all summah,'' asks Charlie, better known in these parts as the Sausage King, as he hands me a hot sweet Italian link stuffed with peppers. Poking at a grill of sizzling meat, he admits business has been a little slow this year.

Until now.

In a year when many people would rather go to the dentist than indulge a bunch of whining millionaires in grass-stained pajamas, Fenway Park has become the hottest place in town. Or maybe the US.

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The reason is simple. Usually by this point in the season, the Sox are sinking faster than an infield fly, and New England turns to football for consolation.

But this August, Boston's boys of summer are ripping apart the best teams in the league. Suddenly, no one remembers the strike that stole the World Series last year. From the doughnut shops in Back Bay to the presidential campaigns in New Hampshire, every one has pennant fever.

So on a warm, breezy night, not wanting to miss all the excitement, I kissed my wife on the cheek - a diehard cricket fan from India, she often reminds me that no one in that sport ever goes on strike - and headed off to Fenway to find a seat next to a man named Sanchez and a little boy with a talkative fist.

In the past week, the Sox have made the unstoppable Cleveland Indians look like the unstartable San Francisco Giants and the once-hailed Baltimore Orioles look like a softball squad for Joe's Diner. Now the archrival Yankees are in town, and a sweep would cap a 14-game winning streak and put the Sox so far ahead of second-place New York that Mickey Mantle wouldn't even be able to make a difference. (The outcome of the second game was unknown at press time.)

''Look,'' says Epifanio Sanchez, gazing wide-eyed around the stands. ''It's like a carnival.''

There are boys with buzz cuts and baseball gloves on each fist, riding on their fathers' shoulders. Little girls eating soft ice cream in bowls shaped like batting helmets. Vendors lobbing peanuts to hungry takers 40 seats away. Seats once baked vacant in the early summer sun; now there's only standing room.

Right fielder Troy O'Leary hits a home run in the sixth, and Mr. Sanchez is on his feet. His 32-year love affair with the Sox is just an extension of the passion he's had since playing second base on the dusty lots of the Dominican Republic from the age of 5.

''I was a good hitter,'' he says with nostalgia. For him, one recent attraction at Fenway was Cal Ripken, the Baltimore short stop who could pass Lou Gehrig's record for most consecutive games played on Sept. 6.

''You'll not see too many like Cal Ripken,'' Sanchez says. ''The other guys worry too much about the money; they don't play the game like before.''

Sanchez is happy, but not quite at peace. ''We missed the World Series last year,'' he says. ''We need that to set things right.''

The seventh inning comes, and the park echoes with a chorus of ''Take Me Out to the Ballgame.'' A couple waltzes in the aisle. Several rows over, a young boy named David wears an oversized Red Sox jersey and cap. A fan of few words, he shows his pleasure by giving me a high five in response to every question.

''Who's your favorite team?'' High five. ''What's better on Fenway franks - mustard or ketchup?'' High five.

''Are the Sox going to win the World Series?'' High five.

David's father smiles, and promises to get him a ticket if Boston makes it to the fall classic.

If the fans are returning to the game, the Red Sox franchise isn't taking them for granted. Major League Baseball this summer had some fences to mend at ballparks across the country, where attendance has lagged.

Fenway is draped with messages of appreciation for the crowd. The marquee flashes gratitude between innings. At one point, the announcer even reminds fans that they may keep any balls hit into the stands.

And as a wave rolls through the seats, I can't help but think that at least here in Boston, America has reconciled itself with its troubled pastime.

It's almost autumn. So head out to the park. Have a hot dog and a double play.

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