BOSTON — Like thousands of other fans, Louis Nieves tried to do his part to ensure a Red Sox victory. While the firefighter could have spread out on a leather couch to watch Wednesday's game on a big-screen TV, Mr. Nieves stood in the kitchen of Engine Company 22 and squinted at a 13-inch flickering set. "We always win when I watch it in my kitchen [at home]," he says.
By 11:40 p.m. Wednesday, when a collective roar rose into the Boston sky, superstition and suspense finally yielded to serendipitous joy. At last, Nieves said, "we can feel what other fans have felt."
For any city, this would be big. But for Boston, it is something else altogether. The thrill was all the sweeter in a region whose disposition traces its heritage to frostbitten winters and Puritan preachers, where hopes and dreams often abide in close mental proximity to the possibility of failure. The almost-win Red Sox went hand in glove with pothole-ridden streets and a capital city perpetually in New York's shadow.
All that changed this week. With a World Series win against the Cardinals in St. Louis, 31,458 days of heartache, longing, and bitter baseball disappointment fell from the New England shoulders.
The win and the ensuing mayhem come on the heels of a dizzying year: The Big Dig - Boston's daunting and interminable feat of engineering - was finally dug; a Boston son, Sen. John Kerry, came from behind in the presidential primary to fight for the White House; and the New England Patriots, February's Super Bowl champs, are undeterred this season, with 21 straight wins.
"It is a great moment for the city ... after a lot of negativity over the past 30 years," says Robert Allison, author of "A Short History of Boston."
Some may even be excused for wondering whether Boston's underdog identity can survive all this success.
Thousands poured into the streets around Fenway Park Thursday morning, with chants of "curse is over," while hundreds of others blared their horns, reved their engines, and sent celebratory puffs of exhaust into the air.
At the same time, New Englanders are a famously brooding lot. Blame it on the weather, on an old Yankee ethic, or on somber intellectualism - but even amid the rush of victory - there is an awareness that the tides can turn.
"Part of the New England psyche is that you have the potential to be a great place, and you have the potential to be a terrible place," says Mr. Allison. "You have the potential to do good things, or to really mess them up."
Wednesday night, even as the Sox continued their lead into the seventh inning, a crowd at one local pub hadn't given over to the fact that their team would win the Series. They were excited, but with a caution born of experience.
"The last time I was in any situation like this was when I was 13 years old," says Eric Quist, a lifelong Sox fan. Then, he says, he was 14 and thought it would happen. Then 15.
Some wonder if things will be the same from now on. "After the Sox win, they suddenly become like every other team. It's all about how you define yourself," predicts Aaron Frigard, also at the pub. "Some of the passion will dissipate because they finally won it."
But no one expects an embarrassment of city riches to transform the region's temper. "You do have New Englanders in general and Bostonians, in particular, getting more worked up about certain things than the rest of the world," says Tom Kelleher, a curator at Old Sturbridge Village, an outdoor living history museum of New England's past.
Not a few look back to the 17th century for an answer, pointing to the "guilt-ridden paradox" suffered by the Puritans who founded Boston, says Mr. Kelleher. Beyond fire and brimstone, struggle has also defined the New England attitude, especially in its shaping of American history. It was a city under siege by the British during the colonial era. A cradle of the American Revolution. It was the center of the abolitionist movement and home to bitter protests over school busing in the 1970s.
The quest of the Red Sox, who hadn't given their city a World Series victory since 1918, has long been considered one of the most heartbreaking modern struggles. "The thing is, it's not that they fail, but that they come so close," says Allison. "Yet through some inexplicable event things go wrong."
Or at least they used to. Raymond Chretien of Quincy, Mass., has been following the Red Sox and the Patriots since he was a child in the 1960s. "I can still remember when my father would call the Patriots patsies and the Red Sox bums ... they couldn't get their acts together," he says. "I grew up knowing what it felt like to be an underdog."
Still, Chris Carden, the library director at The Bostonian Society, says that sense of hardship has always been infused with hope. "It's always been, 'Wait until next year," says Mr. Carden. "I grant you in some cases, everybody's whole life was based on that."
Even as the so-called curse is lifted, it was beating the Yankees in the playoffs that gratified so many. "They won so much while we won zip," says firefighter Nieves. The tension with New York dates back long before Babe Ruth was traded from the Sox to the Yankees - to the 1680s, when the British Crown created a Dominion of New England and put the former governor of New York in charge. Tension increased when Boston was superseded as a financial center by New York with the opening of the Erie Canal in the early 19th century.
Now, fans wonder what it will feel like going into a season without 86 years of loss. Few suspect that growling or booing has come to an end. Says Allison: "We'll find things to complain about."
• Michael B. Farrell and Christa Case contributed to this report from Boston.