`What the Red Sox need is . . .'

YOU don't have to be born in New England to be a Boston Red Sox fan, but it helps. Even though I've lived in New England for 26 years and saw Ted Williams hit his final home run on my first visit to Fenway Park, I am not a Boston Red Sox fan. I have not been one since Mr. Taylor's English class back in 1946, when we listened to the Red Sox lose the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals on the other side of the continent.

You see, I was born and raised in southern California, where they surf a lot and think life was made to be pleasurable. Where I come from, if you kept trying to do something and it didn't work out -- like win -- you tried something else, like going to Palm Springs or rooting for the Yankees. You didn't just keep going out to the same little ballpark year after year and saying, ``If only we had some pitching! If only we had some speed on the base paths!''

Now, my son, Greg -- he is a Boston Red Sox fan. But then he was born in New England, which, according to my theory, gives you a big edge in character development. I mean, he goes to a college up in Maine where it's so cold the girls don't take off their parkas until spring. I submit that waiting for summer in that kind of clime since childhood teaches you how to get behind a team and root no matter what.

And woe unto any self-proclaimed critic who volunteers to ``analyze'' the weaknesses of the team Greg gets behind. No greater fury hath a sports fan than a New Englander whose Red Sox have been analyzed and found wanting.

Oh, it's all right for the faithful to take the team apart and put them together again on one of Boston's umpteen radio sports talk shows. But to be acceptable, the criticism must be built on the faith that ``we're gonna do it'' -- if not this year, then next . . . or the next. . . .

From the perspective of Mr. Taylor's English class none of that made much sense. (Ah, pity today's kids who must stay up half the cold autumn nights to watch World Series games and are not allowed that nationally unifying force of clandestine radios in classrooms where teachers and students alike stopped everything to listen to the Series on October afternoons.) Here was a kid, whose Yankee fandom had always been richly rewarded, suddenly greeted with the shock of losing by New York's American League brethren in Boston. ``Where is this Boston, anyway?'' I thought.

So when destiny had it that I should settle in New England, a few adjustments were necessary.

There were the Red Sox World Series losses in 1967 and 1975, of course, and Yankee Bucky Dent's 1978 season-ending home run, which will remain forever etched in the memories of Red Sox followers who have perennially watched leads slip away. I learned to adapt and cheer for the Boston Celtics, which is like rooting for the old Yankees, since it is when the Celtics don't win the National Basketball Association championship that you look up.

All of which brings us to last June 16. That's the date on the scrap of paper with my signature in Greg's wallet which reads, ``The Red Sox will lose the pennant.'' I only signed it to demonstrate my clear foresight, based not on emotion, of course, but on comparison of team strengths. Greg has guarded it with his life.

During the following weeks, however, it became apparent that this was no ordinary summer for the Red Sox, that it was indeed to be their year.

At first, I said, ``I hope the Sox don't win the pennant, because they'll only be humiliated by the Mets in the World Series.''

Then came that miraculous fifth game with the California Angels in the American League playoff, when having waited until there were two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth, the Sox stopped the world and came back to win the pennant.

Right then I predicted the Boston Red Sox would win their first World Championship since 1918 in seven games. Even when true fans had their doubts and foolish ones were talking ``sweep,'' I said, ``Don't worry -- the Sox in seven.''

That's why I hardly screamed or winced in Saturday night's sixth game of the Series, when in the bottom of the 10th the Red Sox reverted to their 68-year-old form and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory to send the Series into a final game.

Real Red Sox fans like Greg once more were reeling, but I could sit back and relax.

Even Sunday's rain delay corroborated a sense of inevitability. ``The Sox in seven.''

When you read this, there will be no joy in Boston. There will be only one thing left for New Englanders to say: ``What the Red Sox need is more strength in the bullpen, a front office and management that can stay awake, a little speed on the base paths, and another thing . . . .''

L. Dana Gatlin is a free-lance sports writer who lives in Topsfield, Mass.

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