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Last Year’s Just a Hill of Beans

Already the local columnist has apologized for calling the race over in June, having agitated fate and pinstripes.

The townspeople filled the streets in charming, brick-lined neighborhoods 11 months ago and shouted out their reworded epitaphs. They could die happy, they said then. Now, they could just die.

The World Series trophy, a rumor here for 86 years, has seen every hospital room, every sappy luncheon, every seaport that does not hang a Yankee flag.

The Tour de Papi inspired wonder and tears where it paused, long enough to collect a few more fingerprints and reflections.

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It’s still here somewhere.

So why does Boston seem so sad so soon? Why does it seem they caulked the cobblestones with resignation?

Because they play the game every year. They run the race every year. The Curse is gone, but its footprints remain, up and down the spine of every Yankee hater from here to Nantucket.

And, man, did those 11 months go wicked fast.

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Not, however, as fast as that four-game lead in the AL East, which stood not three weeks ago, Red Sox over Yankees.

Tonight, the Yankees and Red Sox begin a three-game series at Fenway Park that could officially end the year of living deliriously.

Oh, Sweet Caroline.

Hadn’t the Red Sox left the Yankees for dead 163 games ago? And not the satisfying, edit-the-gravestone kind of dead?

The Yankees who were to be flogged or fired, were not. Anyway, not fired.

The Yankees who were old and/or useless turned out to have something left, and it won them games, including four of the last five against the Red Sox.

Not only is Alex Rodriguez a true Yankee, he is a true most valuable player.

Unless they intend to throttle the Yankees with the trophy, assuming it is not otherwise occupied at the Walpole Elks Club Barbecue and Horseshoe Tournament, the Red Sox will have to pitch their way to next week.

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David Wells tonight against Chien-Ming Wang. Tim Wakefield on Saturday against Randy Johnson. Curt Schilling on Sunday against Mike Mussina. Together, the three Red Sox starters are 4-7 against the Yankees. Johnson is 4-0 against Boston, and strong enough perhaps to help lug Mussina’s 7.20 ERA against the Red Sox into Fenway.

If it turns out Johnson feels as strongly about pitching to the Red Sox as he does about street-borne cameras and finicky umpires, the Idiots might care more about the Indians than the Yankees by Saturday afternoon.

And, there’s this: After Mariano Rivera gave up two earned runs to the Red Sox over two early April days at Yankee Stadium, he became Mariano Rivera again and gave up 10 earned runs in the next six months, none to the Red Sox in seven appearances. And who’s the Red Sox closer today? Mike Stanton?

In a final American League weekend that began with the Angels and White Sox in and everybody else blowing long, slow breaths, the Yankees and Red Sox are the centerpiece. It will be October by the time we know everything, which makes perfect sense. If Red Sox Nation is all squeamish or has lost hope entirely, it could only be October, which is an improvement. It used to be April.

Even Sunday evening might not bring regular-season closure; there could be ties to be played off Monday and Tuesday. There’s still the matter of the Indians, and the White Sox, and home-field advantages, and the sale of the Washington Nationals, and the evolution of the steroid policy, and whatever else 72 hours of ball can conjure.

Yet, in the Eastern-centric game of baseball, the world stops where the Yankees and Red Sox start. The Yankees drew more than 4 million fans the season after the most dramatic collapse in postseason history. The only empty seat at Fenway belonged to the Babe himself, who finally left the building going on nine decades after he was sold.

On Thursday evening, Amtrak train No. 923 rumbled through Providence, R.I., and toward Massachusetts. In the fourth car from the front, a man named Earl was saying that he’d been a Sox fan for more than 60 years. By the looks of it, the blue cap he wore had lived most of it with him.

“It was a good year,” he said. “But the Yankees are too hard on us.”

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At the moment, the Yankees were but a game ahead, a weekend’s games still out there.

“You know,” a guy in a Trot Nixon T-shirt said, “I like Francona and all. But man, how does he leave Arroyo in so long last night? He’s killin’ us. And Clement tonight, oh my God. This can’t be happening.”

The bare-your-soul train paused briefly in the Back Bay, and ol’ Earl repeated the words that have practically become the state motto.

“At least they did it once in my lifetime,” he said. “At least I got that.”

Reminded they’d all said that last year, and that it seemed to be good enough then, Earl smiled.

“My son,” he said, “he’s a big Sox fan too. I bet him twenty bucks the Yankees would catch ‘em. They always do.”


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