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Thomas Boswell

From Woebegone To Champions

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page D01

ST. LOUIS -- After Jason Varitek had lifted Keith Foulke in his arms in victory, after every Red Sox in a delirious mob scene near home plate had mobbed him, the Boston catcher found an empty infield space in front of home plate. There, he got down on his knees and kissed the ground. And stayed there a long time in a gesture of gratitude and relief that was 86 years in the making.

From every corner of Busch Stadium, every Red Sox fan gathered behind the dugout, thousands of them, screaming out the remnants of their brains, pretending they were in Kenmore Square or Lansdowne Street and the riot cops hadn't arrived yet. Every fan seemed to have a unique sign, all variations on a theme, but no two the same, just like these calculatedly eccentric Red Sox with their outlandish looks and commitment to creative craziness: "Roll Over in Your Grave, Babe", "The Curse Ends Tonight", "Erase the Pain", "Thanks Theo", "2004 Curse No More" and "1918 is History."

Boston's Keith Foulke, center, Doug Mientkiewicz celebrate after Cards' Edgar Renteria made the last out of the game. (Mark Humphrey -- AP)

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In baseball's previous 99 World Series, championships were won by players and for players. Fans got to enjoy the show. But they were an adjunct, not an essential. In this 100th Series, the players won for themselves, of course, but for their fans in equal part. Perhaps no team in any American sport has ever sympathized with the frustration and passion of its followers like these Red Sox, nor sought so genuinely to set right the past, exalt the present and give a curse-free promise to the future.

This entire day was a long anticipation of a celebration that seemed to be inevitable. Hours before this fourth and final game of this most cathartic World Series ever played, the frustrated, fanatic but ever faithful fans of the fatalistic franchise from the Fens gathered outside this vast red stadium. They seemed at peace, assured. This, at last, was the end of the pilgrimage.

All were dressed proudly in their Red Sox regalia. Some even wore caveman wigs that went halfway down their backs with mock beards to match. A group of adult Johnny Damon duplicates each wore their Red Sox caps perched atop their Cro-Magnon hairdos. A couple even carried the "W.W.J.D.D." signs ("What would Johnny Damon Do?") seen in Fenway Park.

And what, in fact, did Damon do?

What symbolic act did the man who cheerfully dubbed his teammates "The Idiots" provide for his Nation? Leading off the game that could give the Red Sox their first Series victory since World War I, Damon lashed a line drive home run into the St. Louis bullpen, scattering Cardinals relief pitchers like startled birds.

That breathtaking leadoff blast proclaimed like a cymbal crash that "It's finally over." The last competitive life left in these Cardinals and the last ounces of those thousand-pound saddlebags on the shoulders of every Boston player were finally lifted.

This was the night when Red Sox fans were allowed to savor their delight in a 3-0 victory with no more anguish allowed. Their gift was a dazzling Series sweep of the 105-win Cardinals in which the Red Sox never trailed at the end of a single inning. Only one team in history ever had more wins that these Cards and got swept -- the '54 Indians. After Damon's homer set the tone, Derek Lowe suffocated the Cards with seven innings of three-hit ball just as Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling had erased the offense of the best-hitting team in the NL in the previous two games. The combined ERA for the Boston trio: 0.00. Meantime, the Cards' starters in this Series allowed 18 runs in 17 1/3 innings.

The analytical core of this Series turned out to be elementary. Both teams had exceptional lineups. But only the Red Sox had starting pitchers with the raw stuff to miss the bat of their foes and make the Cards' best hitters become defensive. Boston batters had no fear, even with two strikes. The best of the Cardinals progressively deteriorated. Scott Rolen: 0 for 15. Jim Edmonds: 1 for 15. In a statistic that not one expert could possibly have predicted, the Cards' vaunted 3-4-5-6 hitters had one RBI.

In the last 11 days, the Red Sox have provided baseball with enough drama, lore and incredible improbability that one winter may not be sufficient to discuss it all. To realize what the Red Sox have done, with an eight-game winning streak that is the longest in the history of postseason play, we must go back and take the pulse of sentiment on Oct. 16. That was an absolute bottom, the kind of nadir that must sometimes be reached before redemption can start.

The Red Sox new ownership had assembled a $127 million roster -- the richest ever in baseball, except for the Yankees'. Finally, Boston had a team that could match the Steinbrenner Yankees talent for talent and almost dollar for dollar. Owner John Henry, President Larry Lucchino and General Manager Theo Epstein thought that, for the Red Sox to remain a viable enterprise for another generation, the Yankees, the curses and the Game 7 losses in the World Series finally had to be extinguished.

Then came what seemed to be the ultimate Red Sox indignity. Having reluctantly emulated Yankee spending while adding a heavy dose of New England Moneyball-style brains, the result was a three-games-to-none Yankees lead! How could this be? Are the gods truly crazy or just vindictive? At that dismal juncture, I got a brief message on my home answering machine from a lifelong Red Sox sufferer. "They killed my father," said the voice, "and now they're coming after me." Maybe he was kidding.

The next night, as midnight approached, New York handed a one-run ninth-inning lead to Mariano Rivera to protect yet another pennant at the Red Sox' expense. The beginning of a column was already written: "Unplug the life support system. Let great-great-grandma slip peacefully away. This may take another 86 years."

Well, there's been a change of plans. Get great-great-grandma a lobster roll and a Sam Adams.

Long after this game, not a Red Sox fan had left as players posed for photos and the chants, "Thank you, Red Sox," and "Wicked Red Sox," went up. Pedro Martinez ran up and down the warning track hoisting the championship trophy high over his head as he dashed through the crowd. The scene was not at all what some pundits have predicted. This week, many stuffy voices have already said that Red Sox Nation, with a World Series crown on its collective head, will suddenly be disoriented and suffer an identity crisis.

What will fans of the Red Sox do if they cannot recite, chapter and verse, the catechism of woe that has been befallen them and their forbearers? How boring for Red Sox fans to be just another franchise with no uniqueness, no aura of mythology.

These skeptics are, no doubt, the same clods that wonder how Washingtonians will cope with getting the Expos after 33 years without a major league team. What will we do without our angst-ridden identity as baseball lovers who're denied a team?

The answer, of course, is the same for both groups of the longtime baseball disenfranchised. After a certain necessary period of numbness and disbelief subsides, both will gradually become very, very happy and have a parade. Coping will be blissfully simple after that brief adjustment. And, every spring, Boston fans will be delighted not to answer questions about 1918, just as Washington fans will be pleased not to hear, "Will you ever get a team?"

This evening, there was a lunar eclipse that began about an hour before the game, a rarity that would have produced a blood-red moon during the game if only the sky had been clear instead of cloudy. Perhaps the overcast was better. Lunar eclipses are so mundane, if you think about it. Why, another one is due in 2007 -- barely a blink in baseball time.

The victory that arrived on this evening for the Red Sox and their true believers was far too rare and precious, too long overdue and spectacular in its consummation, to be upstaged by something so commonplace as the earth, moon and stars.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company