Red Sox, Fans Discover the Meaning of Life

Times Staff Writers

For one night, at least, Red Sox fans could dance in the streets.

Their long-suffering team did not win the World Series, did not break the curse that -- by local legend -- dates to 1918. But the Red Sox did the next best thing.

They earned a chance to play for the title by defeating their nemesis, the Yankees, in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series at New York's Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night.

The 10-3 victory was not only convincing, it was unprecedented. Boston had trailed the best-of-seven playoff three games to none. No team in major league history had ever come back from such a deficit.

"We've been waiting our whole lives for this moment, this game," said John Bohan, a 27-year-old construction worker pressed into the crowd watching the game at a bar south of the city.

His buddy, 28-year-old truck driver Mike Caporale, said: "This is historic. My father didn't see it, my grandfather didn't see it, but I'm going to see it."

After four straight wins, the Red Sox will face either the Houston Astros or St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series beginning Saturday. They will have a chance to end their legendary dry spell, their last championship coming at the end of World War I.

Well past midnight, thousands of fans celebrated in Kenmore Square and on the streets around Fenway Park, waving flags and lighting fireworks. There was cheering, shouting and hugging as cordons of police officers looked on.

"Going to Fenway is almost a religious thing," said Bohan, who joined the crowds there after the game. "It's like going to witness a miracle."

How much does baseball mean to this city and the rest of New England?

"It's intangible, this thing about why we love the Red Sox," Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said before Wednesday's game. "But it is something special, something we breathe, something we were brought up on."

Harvard professor Dudley Herschbach recalled that he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry on the same day the Red Sox clinched the 1986 American League pennant.

There was no question as to which event was more important. "The Red Sox, of course," he said. "People get Nobel prizes all the time, but how often do the Red Sox go to the World Series?"

Yet his team lost to the New York Mets in a heartbreaking seven-game series that year. Much like rooting for the Chicago Cubs -- who have not won a championship since 1908 -- being a Red Sox fan has meant courting disappointment.

Joseph Conforti, a professor of American and New England studies at the University of Southern Maine, said that years of losing had provided appropriate suffering for a people whose Puritan roots "always told them they are condemned to hell."

Losing has spawned its own mythology: The Curse of the Bambino.

One year after their last World Series victory in 1918, the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Since then, they have not only struggled but also watched their rival win 26 championships.

"The so-called curse and struggle," said Dodger owner Frank McCourt, who grew up in Boston. "The fans take an approach of, 'What's going to happen next?' There's a sort of dread."

All of which rose to the fore when the team lost the first three games of this playoff.

Fans were looking at another collapse against the pinstriped team from New York whose controversial owner, George Steinbrenner, had bankrolled a $182-million roster of all-stars.

Though his team carries a $131-million payroll, Boston owner John W. Henry complained before the season: "It will suffice to say that we have a spending limit and the Yankees don't. Baseball doesn't have an answer for the Yankees."

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Red Sox's demise.

Down by three games -- down to its last three outs in Game 4 -- the team started winning. And the fans got nervous.

The broadcast of Game 6 on Tuesday night drew an astounding 70% share in Boston. In other words, seven of every 10 television sets being watched across the city were tuned to the game.

When Conforti visited the dentist the other day, the hygienist told him she had to start wearing her dental mouth guard during games because she was grinding her teeth so much.

Documentary filmmaker and baseball historian Ken Burns, another die-hard Red Sox fan, joked that he watched the games from his New York apartment with "beer, peanuts, a defibrillator and a psychiatrist."

When Game 7 finally came around, the streets of Boston emptied as if it were 4 a.m., the people shuttered inside with their television sets.

The game began with the stuff of their worst nightmares, outfielder Johnny Damon tagged out at home plate in the first inning. But moments later, designated hitter David Ortiz hit a home run into the right field stands and Boston took a 2-0 lead.

For the Red Sox, it only got better.

They chased Yankee starter Kevin Brown out of the game midway through the second inning and Damon, the next batter, got his revenge with a grand slam, giving his team a 6-0 lead.

Of course -- as any Red Sox fan could tell you -- Boston led New York 5-2 in the eighth inning of Game 7 in last season's league championship and lost in extra innings.

There would be no such letdown this time.

The Yankees rallied for two runs in the seventh inning and Boston answered with another home run in the eighth. The lead was never seriously threatened.

McCourt said there was an adage that Bostonians cared about three things: "Sports, politics and revenge."

Fans got two of those things in one victory. But even as they celebrated into the early hours, there were signs that old habits die hard.

By this morning, McCourt guessed, the people of his hometown would already be looking ahead, worrying about what comes next.

Conforti, the professor, sensed as much from his home to the north.

"Immediately, there will be a sense of gloom and doom," he said. "That's the psychology of Red Sox fans -- now are we going to lose the World Series?"

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Mehren reported from Boston, Wharton from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.

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