Shaggy band of ballplayers winks at the impossible

In the wee hours of last Sunday morning, when the nation's collective clicker had long since abandoned the Yankees-Red Sox debacle for "Saturday Night Live" or the latest Jack La Lanne infomercial, Boston fans turned ugly. The score was 19-8, and the chant emerged with a strong hint of exasperation and resignation: "Let's go Patriots."

The Series of the Century had been reduced to a farce. Thoughts here bent toward that afternoon and football, where the New England Patriots are world champions, where players did not collapse under pressure, where the team was on the verge of setting a record for excellence - 20 straight wins. The Yankees, after all, were up three games to none - a situation that no baseball team had overcome since the introduction of the seven-game series in 1905.

But Boston has never truly been a football town. This is Red Sox Nation, and now the Sox have a record of their own - one that might be even more astonishing than the Patriots' 391 days of perfection.

It is enough to do something that has never been before in baseball history - a thread that stretches back to the days when Oklahoma was not yet a state. And to win four straight against the Yankees, who had so long toyed with the Sox as little more than an annoying kid brother, toppled something even more profound than the weight of history - the doubt of inadequacy.

Yet more than all that, perhaps, this is a team that taught Boston simply to love baseball again. In the end, the occult had no locker in the Boston clubhouse; the Yankee Mystique was just a mistake. This is a band of shaggy-haired, self-proclaimed idiots who had the daring - or the stupidity - to wink at the impossible.

The immensity of the achievement is something that could leave even Tom Wolfe at a loss for words. It is an accomplishment more suited to measurement on the Richter scale than in sports pages. That it came against the Ultimate Winning Machine makes it a tale more suitable for the Brothers Grimm than The Boston Globe. Indeed there was a giant - wearing pin stripes.

The statistics are well known. Since 1918, the Yankees have won 26 World Series and the Red Sox none. This was the sort of thing that led New York sportswriters to put the word rivalry in quotes. And honestly, there was noting Bostonians could do about it. Under owner George Steinbrenner, the Yankees have essentially patented winning with a cloned uniformity of crew cuts and clutch hitting.

This year's edition of the Boston Red Sox, however, was seemingly lucky if everyone just made the team flight. The hirsute Johnny Damon has regressed back to the "before" picture on the evolutionary tree. Manny Ramirez's hairdo could hold a family of small birds and no one would know it. Kevin Millar changes his look more often than Madonna. Yet all the Sox shenanigans merely masked their heart.

It was obvious from the beginning in Curt Schilling, whose bloody sock in Game 6 brought "The Natural" into real time. Yet it was less clear in someone like David Ortiz, a slugger so cool he could wear spats and a zoot suit to the plate. In the series, though, his mighty swings felled the beanstalk, with game-winning hits in Games 4 and 5, as well as a first-inning home run in Game 7.

"One day I was driving from my house to the stadium on a workout day and I saw a big sign on the street that said, 'Keep the faith,' " he said in a press conference after the game. "I just ... sat down for a minute and just thought about it - you know, we've been through the whole year. Then I went to the field and I just expressed myself to my teammates about [how] the Boston nation has been waiting for us."

Boston has been waiting a long time. For more than 80 years, the state of the Boston nation has been angst. To the lunch-pail crowd, the Sox have been the sum total of all superstition - baseball's black cat. To the Cambridge cognoscente, they have been a tragic hero of Hemingwayesque scope - a dirt-and-cleat reminder of mankind's brave struggle against the seeming inevitability of failure.

Early Thursday morning, though, Santiago came home with his marlin. Lieutenant Henry returned to the hotel with his wife and son in the bright sunshine. And the people of Boston danced though Kenmore Square in the perfect crispness of one October night.

There is, of course, the small matter of a World Series to be played, though the National League team was not known at press time.

Houston would bring former Sox player Roger Clemens and a 43-year chip on the Astros' shoulder - before this season, they had never won a postseason series. It would be Carlos Beltran versus Ortiz and the election in preview: Massachusetts versus Texas, Kerry versus Bush - Red Sox red and Houston blue, in a reversal of the electoral map.

St. Louis would bring echoes of the past, pairing what could be the two most baseball-mad cities in the country in a rematch of the 1946 and 1967 World Series - both taken by the Cardinals in seven games. Cue grainy footage of Ted Williams and Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski and Bob Gibson.

Either way, the fall has been classic even before the beginning of the Fall Classic.

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