In this World Series, a tale of the ragtag coming together

Much of America cheers on the Red Sox as the team tries to end its drought of championships.

Follow the chalk of the foul line from home plate down toward Fenway Park's empty right-field seats, and Pesky's Pole is still buzzing. There's the matter of Mark Bellhorn's late-game home run Saturday night, which at once stung the right-field foul pole and shook all New England. But there's something else, too.

For the past two weeks, that pole has been a conduit for the hopes and dreams of the baseball world. This autumn, at least, the Red Sox are America's team.

There is the quest, of course - the attempt to exorcise a name and a number that have come to represent repeated heartbreaking failure. Yet to stop at Babe Ruth and 1918 - the two markers of the last time Boston won a World Series - is to misunderstand why much of America has suddenly become Red Sox Nation.

On their way to tonight's Game 3 in St. Louis, the Red Sox have become the country's bedtime story - a nightly tale of the utterly fantastic, involving a cast of characters more suited to a pirate ship than prime time.

They are common men for the common man, antiheroes for Generation X, the image of slackers in spikes. But with bat in hand, they have been an antidote to decades of Yankee anxiety and an escape for a nation eager for any hint of levity in an all-too-serious time.

"Once you start watching the games, you start to pick up on this," says John Odell of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "It is an assembly of interesting characters."

Heading into tonight's game, they have put the Red Sox ahead two games to none against the Cardinals. The same thing happened the last time the Sox were in the World Series 18 years ago. Back then, the Sox lost the series in seven games, and Bill Buckner's crucial error in Game 6 added to the so-called curse.

This group bumbled their way to eight errors in the first two games - a new World Series record - and still managed to win. Part of it is the potency of the Red Sox lineup, where the hottest hitter on the team is hitting ninth in the order, and last year's batting champion slots in at No. 8. Of the 354 pitches thrown by the Cardinals so far, Red Sox batters have swung and missed only 18 times.

But players point to a different factor. They say they have never played on a team with a stronger sense of togetherness, and that attitude has given players confidence. With it, they can cut through the New England angst to see what is beneath it - Boston's desperate desire to see its players win.

"On this team ... there's a kinship in that locker room that I think is a byproduct of the environment we play in here. I've never experienced anything like it," said pitcher Curt Schilling after Game 2. "[The fans] believe in me to the nth degree and a lot of times I tell the other guys, 'Don't be the only guy not believing in yourself.' "

This is a man who goes into Red Sox Internet chat rooms to talk with fans. This is the leader of a different type of team. That was obvious enough when it became the only team in baseball history ever to win a series it was trailing three games to zero.

But the Cardinals, and the caldron of Busch Stadium, present an altogether different sort of test.

Four times the Red Sox have made it to a World Series since 1918. Four times they have lost in seven games - twice to the Cardinals. But that's just the perfect twist to an 86-year epic - and makes this week's games more interesting.

For much of America, this ride on the Red Sox bandwagon began a year ago, as both the Sox and Chicago Cubs - who haven't won the World Series since 1908 - were five outs away from meeting in the Fall Classic. Neither made it. And although the Cubs faltered this year, the Sox have kept America intrigued.

Says Mr. Odell: "In this country, we like rooting for the underdog."

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