Baseball is a game of frozen paitings, huge murals locked in the mind's appreciative eye.

It is also the sport which, within this broad tableau, focuses its attention on individuals and their deeds with an isolating, skewering radiance.

Baseball never confuses those who love it, nor protects those who play it. Ultimately, it is the game without veils, the sport created for analysis and rumination.

Of all baseball's murals in the last quarter-century, none can surpass the American League East playoff last October between the world champion New York Yankees and the born-to-sorrow Boston Red Sox.

A baseball game, at its best, can be like an elaborate and breathlessly balanced house of cards. Tension and a sense of crisis build with each inning. Each deed of the game, each player, finds his supporting role.

Last year that house of cards was built not for one afternoon, but for an entire six-month season. By closing day each player seemed to carry with him a nimbus of symbols, an entire personal history like some Athenian warrior whose exploits against Sparta were memorized by an entire community.

In fact, that one game served as an almost perfect microcosm of 75 years of baseball warfare between the Apple and the Hub-a distillation of the game's richest, longest and most Homeric rivalry.

In the history of baseball, only one other moment-Bobby Thompson's home run to end the '51 playoff between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers-has provided such a monumental house of cards as the bottom of the ninth inning of this Yankee victory.

When that impossible distinction "best game ever" is being thrashed out it heaven, these games must be mentioned first. Perhaps they should each have a crown-best in the annals of their respective leagues.

The '51 playoff, marvelous for its fireworks and confetti, was the epitome of baseball's age of innocence, a game that any child could grasp.

The '78 playoff, however, pitted teams of darker and more complex personality in a far subtler game-a contest for the sutdent of inside baseball. Is there any other kind?

The '51 classic ended in raw pandemonium, the '78 masterpiece in utter profound silence. Certainly, it is possible to prefer the latter in such a matter of taste.

It must not be held against last year's masterpiece that it merely ended a divisional race, that the Yanks still had to upend two more pretenders before they could keep their World Championship for a second consecutive year.

New York needed just four games to eliminate Kansas City in the American League playoffs, and only six to lick Los Angeles in the World Series. Neither joust reached a moment of primitive emotion.

To beat the Bosox, the Yankees bled for six months, only to find themselves tied after the 162nd and last game of the regular season. Their final margin of triumph-5-4 in this one-day sudden death showdown-was thin as smoke, a distinction almost without a difference between the two most powerful teams in the sport.

Even now, that concluding moment of delicious indeterminance remains as fresh as the crack of the first line drive of spring. Baseball returns. But the Yankee-Red Sox playoff of 1978 lasts.

The sun is warm in Winter Haven now, the Florida orange trees nod their full branches over the outfield fences of the Red Sox spring training retreat.

But for Carlton Fisk, and many another Sox and Yank, the air still seems crisp, the sky a dazzling autumn azure and one solitary popup hangs high over Fenway Park.

The final split-seconds of that playoff afternoon are one of baseball's indelible frozen paintings. Let Fisk speak about the moment when the air burst from a balloon that had been blown ever larger for 163 games.

"I knew the season would be over as soon as Yastrzemski's popup came down," said the tall, patrician catcher with his hair parted in the middle like Henry Mencken.

"It seemed like the ball stayed up forever, like everything was cranked down into slow motion. I was trying to will the ball to stay up there and never come down . . . what a dumb thing to have run through your mind.

"Even the crowd roar sounded like a movie projector at the wrong speed when everything gets gravelly and warped.

"After the last out, I looked around and the crowd was stunned. Nobody moved. The looked at each other like, 'You mean it's over now . . . It can't be over yet . . . oh, nuts . . .'

"It had only been going on for half a year, but it seemed like a crime for it to end."

The buildup to that final crescendo actually began more than 24 hours before. The great playoff of '78 was, in reality, two days of absolutely contrasting atmosphere and mood.

Boston's Fenway Park is normally best on the worst days, in raw misty spring and foggy fall. The streets around the Fens are crowded, narrow and damp. Taxis blow their horns at the herds of Soxers in Landsdowne Street.

That's the way it was on the first day of October-the last day of regular season.

A healing rain caressed that ancient, indescribably delicious ballyard-a rain of balm and absolution. In that soft October drizzle the Sox of Boston were washed clean.

Just as New england was ready to give up hope, the prayers of Red Sox fans were answered. On that final Sunday, Boston won and the New Yorkers, playing 300 miles away in Yankee Stadium, lost.

The most spectacular and sustained pennant race in American League history had reached the only climax worthy of it-the two best teams in baseball each had 99 victories. One of them would have to win a 100th.

Just two weeks before, the Red Sox had finished one of the most ignominious collapses in history-losing 171/2 games in the standings to the inexorable Yankees, blowing all of a 14-game lead and falling 31/2 games behind with only 14 to play.

If Cotton Mather had been alive, he would have been a Bosox fan. And he would have been mad.

In other towns, the incipient collapse of a beloved team might brigh forth prayers and novenas, as Brooklyn once lit candles for the Dodgers. In fickle Fenway, however, the faithful reacted as though the Sox had deliberately knelt in the hallowed Fens and licked the Yankee's boots.

The Red Sox have long memories. It is their curse. They are an imaginative team-more's the pity-susceptible to hauntings and collective nervous breakdowns. They prove that those who cannot forget the past are also condemned to repeat it.

The evil that the Bosox do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their moans. Somewhere it must be written that the Carmine Hose shall suffer.

When the Sox are winning, every player is a minor deity. When the angels fall, they are consigned to the nether regions.

So, that final-day victory, Boston's eighth in a row and 12th in 14 games over the last two weeks, was like an emotional reprieve from the gallows.

The entire final week of the season was summarized in that final chilling Sunday. Each day Boston would throw an early lead on the scoreboard, hoping to shake the New Yorkers' faith in their tiny one-game lead. And each day the Yankee dreadnought would send its message back via the radio waves with an answering victory.

A new punishment had been found to fit the Sox felony of squandering a huge lead-torture by victory. A sense of fatality, or inexorable and welldeserved punishment, seemed to hang over the Sox. The Prayer to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, was tacked to their bulletin board.

Finally, the ghost was all but given up. Brave talk ceased. Predictions of a playoff were swallowed. During that Sunday morning batting practice, the Sox were grim.

Then the spirit of mischief seemed to enter Fenway. Toronto's flaky outfielder Sam Ewing snuck through the open door in the scoreboard and posted a fictitious "8" next to the name of the Yankees' opponent-Cleveland.

Then early-arriving crowd went into a tizzy that did not stop for three hours. Bizarre echoing eruptions rumbled through the stands whenever word of the Yankee demise arrived by radio.

All afternoon, Sox relief pitcher Bob (Big Foot) Stanley kept a transistor radio to his ear in the bullpen, leaping to his feet to lead hundreds of fans in ovations for Cleveland runs.

Slowly, a ripple, and finally a roar would erupt from 32,000 people as, one-by-one, the blessed message was passed like a fire bucket.

Before the game even ended-with Boston ahead, 5-0, and New York behind, 9-2-the scoreboard exalted: "Next Red Sox Home Game Tomorrow."

This was the afternoon that made '78 unique in baseball's century.

Two other teams had suffered breakdowns comparable to Boston. The New York Giants of 1915 got the rubber bone for blowing a 15-game Fourth of July lead to the Miracle Braves of Boston, and eventually losing by a craven 101/2 games.

And the '51 Dodgers had a 13-game lead on August 118 only to be tied on the last day of the season, then beaten.

But no team had ever looked iinto the abyss of absolute self-betrayal and recovered from it, come back to finish the season-despite injuries-like a furious hurricane.

At their nadir, the Sox had lost six straight September meetings with the Yankees by a score of 46-9. They were out-hit, 84-29. "It was so lopsided," said Boston pitcher Mike Torrez, "that you wouldn't have believed it if it had happened to the original Mets."

The real victims of the Boston collapse were, in part, the Yankees. The Horrid Hose were so disgraceful that they drained the glory from the Yanks' great comback.

"Never sell the Yankees short," said Boston coach Johnny Pesky, who has hated pinstripes for 40 years. "They played great the last three months (52-22). They'll never play that well again as long as they have a -----."

While other teams are too tight to breathe in a crisis, the Yankees spit their tobacco and smooth the dirt with their spikes.

The Yanks, with their almost unsinkable raw talent, their polished passion for the game once the contest begins, and their partial immunity to the pandemonium that swathes them, have gradually come to resemble a sort of leviathan with hiccups.

In midseason the champions were hemorrhaging in Boston. There are other New England sharks than the mythical Jaws of Amity. The pearly white teeth snapping around them on those moon-bathed nights at Fenway were the healthy and rapacious Sox.

"if Boston keeps playing like this," said New York's Reggie Jackson, "even Affirmed couldn't catch them. We'll need motorcycles. . ."

Every day and every night in those final hours of troubled manager Billy Martin the scene around the Yankees was the same. The crowds in the hotel lobbies, at the ticket windows and outside the players' entrances were huge, pummelling the players with kisses and curses.

Meanwhile, the Sox read their press clippings. Everyone from Ted Williams to the cop in Yawkey Way said these Sox were the best edition since '01.

What blighter would point out that the Fenway Chronicles show an almost inexorable baseball law: A Red Sox ship with a single leak will always find a way to sink. For documentation, see the Harvard Library. Doctoral theses are on file there.

In other seasons, the Sox self-immolation was a final act consonant with the team's public image for generations-a green wall at their backs, green bucks in their wallets, green apples in their throats.

Red Sox fans had come to view their heroes with the skepticism of a Hawthorne or melville searching for the tragic flaw. No team is worshipped with such a perverse sense of fatality. "Human, all too human," that's the Red Sox logo.

Ever since the day 60 years before when dastardly Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, fortune had forsaken the Sox. The axis of baseball power swung south with Ruth. Since Boston last raised a Series banner in 1918, the Yankees have been champions 22 times.

This grim heritage, however, was an unfair burden to the '78 Sox who were the antithesis of their predecessors. If the Sox had a critical flaw, an Achilles heel, it was their excess of courage, their unquestioning obedience to the god of guts. This, they swore to a man, was the year for that eternally receding World Series Triumph. Let the '80s be damned.

The Sox scapegoat was easy to find-doughty little manager Don zimmer, the man with the metal plate in his head whom pitcher Bill Lee contemptuously called "the gerbil."

Zimmer was publicly seen as a hard guy who was given a high-strung, high-octane Indy race car and kept the pedal to the metal as though he were driving an old dirt-track stocker. Naturally, the engine blew and the Sox coasted to a dead stop.

However, the Yankees also had catastrophic pitching problems, constant injuries for the first 100 games and a manager who had to be fired for his own health's sake.

Why were the Yankees so good at cutting their losses, while the Red Sox were so poor at minimizing theirs? Why did the Yankees have the restraint to let their injuried heal in June, when the Sox were pummelling them, while the Sox exacerbated their miseries by going full throttle?

It's all tied up with history and that old Yankee fear. It's axiomatic in the Northeast that no Red sox lead is safe. And it is cradle lore that no Boston team ever has faced up to a Yankee challenge in September.

Therefore, Zimmer had little choice but to push his delicately balanced powerplant until the black smoke poured from the exhaust. Mythology forced his hand. Only a 20-game lead would suffice.

The Sox pushed that lead to 14, but then the black flag waved the Sox into the pits, while the Yanks kept circling the track.

The hordes of invading Yankee fans even took to taunting the Sox in their own lair. In the tunnel under th Fenway stands, Yankee fans set up a cheer each night as they passed the doors of the Boston locker room.

"three, three, three . . . two, two, two . . . one, one, one . . .ZERO, ZERO, ZERO," they counted down the dwindling Boston margin each night as the Yankees swept the famous four-game series that will live in lore as The Boston Massacre.

Perhaps a philosopher would not be surprised at the Zenlike manner in which the Red Sox reunified themselves.

As soon as the massacred Bostonians, the despair of eight states, threw in the towel, gave up the ghost and tossed in the sponge, they pinned the Yankees' ears back in their seventh-and-last September meeting.

That, of course, is the visceral clubhouse definition of choking. If you can't tie your shoelaces under pressure, but play like a world-beater as soon as it's too late, that's worse in the dugout world than being a no-talent klutz. That is called taking the apple.

Even if Boston's sweet fruit of victory had a bitter pit of self-knowledge at its center, the hard swallow was medicinal.

One day the Sox were pathetically cornering reporters, asking, "Tell me, what's wrong with us?" Soon, it seemed, they would be asking that sorrowful question of lampposts and parked cars.

But a small thing like one victory over New York, even one that seemed meaningless, broke the grip of the curse.

So, when the Yankees arrived at Fenway on Playoff Day, they no longer came either as June victims or September conquerors. They came as October equals-very worried equals.

The house of cards was finally built. And it was monstrous. Which way it would fall no player claimed to know.

At baseball's showcase World Series games, the batting cage is as congenial as aKiwanians convention. Teams arrive for fame and fun; no grudges fester. Before the playoff, the Yankees and Red Sox circled each other like lions and leopards around the same African watering hole. Their only words were taunting barbs disguised as light humor.

Some celestial handicapper must have written out the lineup cards. They were too symbolic to have been penned by mortans named Don Zimmer and Bob Lemon, the Yankees' caretaker manager.

Each team spotted the other a Golden Glover as both evans and New York's Willie Randolph were sidelined.But far better for symmetry were the starting pitchers: Torrez against Ron Guidry, the man called Lou's siana Lightnin'.

Just a year before Torrez had been the Yankees' World Series pitching hero, winning two games. Then the Sox signed him at free agent auction for $2.7 million-their loud pronouncement that they would match the Yankee pocketbook.

Just four days before, Torrez had emerged from the emotional low point of his career. If one player's failure epitomized the charge of gutlessness made against all the Sox, it was Torrez. For 40 days down the stretch when he was desperately needed, he had not won a single game, while losing six.

The Sox feelings about the great Guidry were simply summed up. "We have the home field. We have the momentum. They . . ." said shortstop Rick Burleson, pausing, "have Guidry."

Guidry's feelings were even more elemental. Asked if a mere one-game playoff were fair, the left-handed executioner answered, "One's enough. I can only pitch one."

Discovering Guidry in the Yankee locker room is like stumbling over a cat in a dog show. His story is the hidden moral kernel in the vain bluster of the Yankee saga. Imaganie, if it can be done, a player amid these New Yorkers who has the innate confidence of an only child, the proud self-containment of a Lou'siana Cajun and the strong silences of small town boy raised on hawk hunting and walking the railroad tracks.

No star player is so invisible on his own team, whether loping across the outfield or lounging in the dugout. But for the playoff, no player approached Guidry for being conspicuous. The reason was cogent-Guidry entered the game with the best record of any 20-game winner in the history of baseball: 24-3.

Every game needs a call to arms, but this one started with trumpet blasts.

A brilliant fall light-a painter's vivid stark light-bathed Fenway as Torrez began the day by throwing his first four pitches to Mickey Rivers low, high, inside and outside. The Yankee speedster waited only one pitch to steal second base.

"so that's it," the throng seemed to say by its sigh. It was going to be just like last time, when New York jumped to leads of 12-0, 13-0, 7-0 and 6-0 in four Fenway days.

When the long history of the Sox sorrows is written, those horrific first innings in September would rank infernally high. Each game came complete with the same chilling footnote: "Ibid....for full details, see previous night's game."

Would it be so again? Always, it was Rivers beginning the psychic unraveling, stealing second as though it had been left to him in old Tom Yawkey's will. That sad lopsided spectacle seemed underway again when Torrez made an egregious error-throwing Reggie Jackson a fastball strike on an 0-2 pitch with two outs.

The ball climbed to the level of the left-field light towers, climbed until it seemed to look in the faces of the teenagers who had scrambled atop the Gilby's Gin sign beyond the wall. The Yankees would lead, 2-0, Guidry would breeze. The great day would be a dud. But the groaning crowd had forgotten the Fenway winds.

Whenever the Sox and Yanks meet in Boston, the first order of business is to inspect the flags. The Yankees, a predominantly left-handed hitting team, desperately want an inward breeze to enlarge the confines of the cozy Fens.

The Sox, designed along Brobdignagian lines, with seven home-run hitters, would settle for dead calm. Only when the flag points toward the plate do they droop.

When the Yanks arrived in early September, for four straight days the Sox grumbled as the wind blew, sometimes 30 miles an hour, straight in from left. Betrayed again, even by Fenway Park.

So, when Jackson's blast was suddenly stymied by the wind and fell almost straight down, nearly scraping the wall as it fell into Carl Yastrzemski's glove, a marvelous sense of irony swept over the Boston dugout.

The Yankees had been robbed by the same fates that had bedeviled Boston.

"that was no wind," said Lee later. "that was Mr. Yawkey's breath."

It is a unique quality of baseball that the season ticketholders who see all of a club's crucial games believe they can also read the minds of the players.

Each team's season is like a traditional 19th-century novel, a heaping up of detail and incident about one large family. After 162 chapters of that tome, the 163rd chapter is ridled with the memories, implications and foreshadowings of the thousands of previous pages. Any play which rises above the trivial sends a wave of emotion into that ocean-size novel of what has gone before.

Since everyone is reading the same vast book, the sense of a collective baseball consciousness can become enormous. With each at bat, each pitch, there is an almost audible shuffling of mental pages as the pitcher, hitter and catcher all sort through the mass of past information that they have on one another.

Just this sort of extended personal history existed between the Yankee star Guidry and the Boston captain Yastrzemski to begin the second inning. In a word. Yaz was harmless against Guidry when the left-hander was at, or even near, his best.

So, when Yastrzemski rocked back on his heels on the second pitch of the second inning to thrash at a fastball in his wheel-house (up-and-in) it should have been a feeble mistake. Instead, it was a home run-a hooking liner that curled around the rightfield foul pole by less than a bat-length. Yaz had turned the Lightnin' around.

Suddenly, the afternoon bristled with potential.

Guidry was at his weakest. Torrez, who was to strike out Yankee captain Thurman Munson three times with nibbling, teasing sliders, was at his best. In other words, they were even.

"when these teams play," Fisk had said two weeks before, "it is like a gigantic will controls the whole game. And it's either all behind one team, or all behind the other."

But this day the forces of the game could not make up their minds. It was a beautiful ambivalence.

The crowd seemed to be in the grip of angina, the cheers caught in their nervous throats. The Keep Your Sox On faithful sat silent in their fireman caps decorated with the nicknames of their undependable deities: Boomer and Butch, Soup and Scooter, Rooster and Pudge, Eck and Looie, Big Foot and Spaceman, Dewey and Yaz.

By the end of the fifth, the day's work more than half done, the ballpark was so silent that those in the rooftop seats could hear Blair pleading to his Yankees, "Let's go, man. Let's go."

For this single afternoon to achieve permanence, it had to be a miniature of the entire season, a duplication of the same emotional roller coaster.

So, in the sixth, the Sox scored again, Burleson lining a double over third and Jim Rice clipping an RBI single to center. As rice's hit, his 406th total base of the season, bit into the turf, it seemed that the game, the year and a Most Valuable Player duel between Rice and Guidry had all been decided on a single pitch.

More folly. Any historian knows that a 2-0 lead after the sixth is the quintessential Red Sox lead-just enough to merit euphoria, just enough to squander. After all, in the seventh game of the 1975 World Series Boston could taste its incipient upset over Cincinnati, leading 3-0. And that turned to dust.

Every seesaw needs a fulcrum, and Lou Piniella quickly provided one for this game.

A ground out and an intentional walk put men on first and second, two outs, and Fred Lynn at bat. When fragile Freddy yanked a Guidry slider into the rightfield corner, every dugout mind had the same thought: "Two runs."

Piniella, however, materialized directly in the path of the ball. He was so far out of normal Lynn position that he ought to have had a puff of magical smoke curling up behind him.

"it was a ridiculous place for him to be . . . about 20 yards from where he normally plays me," said Lynn.

"i talked to Munson between innings," said Piniella afterward. "we agreed that Guidry's slider was more the speed of a curveball and that somebody could pull him."

Even so, Piniella was stationed in a sort of private twilight zone.

"it was a 100-1 shot any way you look at it," said Lynn. "He plays hunches out there. The man's just a gambler."

At bat, Piniella says, "I've guessed on every pitch that was ever thrown to me . . . don't do too bad, do I?"

To those in the stands, the play looked routine, like so many in baseball: a blistered line drive directly at an outfielder standing a few feet in front of the fence. It was the hallmark of this game that its central plays reflected the true daily life of the inner sport. They were not flamboyant and egalitarian, but exclusive and subtle. Baseball's well-kept secret is that it has never been solely a democratic national pastime, but an elitist passion as well.

The Babe and the Iron Horse will never understand what happened next.Big Ed Barrow and Col. Jacob Ruppert will take a lot of kidding in baseball heaven when tales are told of the tiny home run hero the The Playoff.

Since the roaring '20s, the diamond nine from New York that wore gray pinstripes has meant heartless hegemony, monolithic muscle.

Bucky Dent, though he bats last in the Yank order, nonetheless is a symbol of power himself-the power of cash. For two seasons George Steinbrenner was obsessed with getting Dent away from the Chicago White Sox. Finally, a trade was made.

When Dent dragged his bat to home plate with two out and two men on base in the Yankee seventh, then fouled the second pitch off his foot, hopping out of the batter's box in pain, he looked as ineffectual and inconspicuous as a CID agent with a bomb in his briefcase.

Normally, the worrywart Fisk uses such delays to visit his pitcher with admonitions, or to demand warmup pitches. "Fisk is out at the mound so much," needles Lynn, "that I've threatened to change the number of Carlton's position from '2' to '1 1/2.'"

But for Dent, what's the worry?

As Dent was administered a pain-killing spray, on-deck hitter Rivers, who had forgotten his sunglasses and butchered a flyball earlier, suddenly became uncharacteristically observant. He saw a crack in Dent's bat and fetched him another of the same style.

Of such minutiae is history made. That and fastballs down the middle.

"After Dent hit it," said Fisk, "I let out a sigh of relief. I thought, 'We got away with that mistake pitch.' I almost screamed at Mike.

"Then I saw Yaz looking up and I said, "Oh, God.'"

Several innings before, the wind had reversed and was blowing toward the leftfield corner.

Yastrzemski watched that boosting wind loft the ball barely over the wall, fair by 30 feet. As the three-run homer nestled in the net, Yastrzemski's knees buckled as though he had been hammered over the head with a bat.

The Yankees erupted from their dugout like souls released from Hades.

What followed seemed as inexorable as a shark eating the leg after it tastes the foot.

Quicker than you could say, "Rivers walks and steals second again," Torrez was leaving the game. Though he had fanned the next hitter-Munson-three times, Zimmer waved in Stanley. Naturally, Munson doubled to the wall for the inning's fourth run.

When Reggie Jackson, the Hester Prynne of sluggers who walks through the baseball world with a scarlet dollar sign on his chest, knocked a home run into the centerfield bleachers in the eighth, it seemed like mere hot doggery. And when Jackson slapped hands with Steinbrenner in the box seats before greeting any of his mates to celebrate the 5-2 lead, it was just another of Reggie's compulsive theatrical gestures.

Little did the crowd suspect what all the players knew-that the war had not ceased.

Beyond the Fenway fences, the trees of New England were tinged with reds and oranges. They might as well have been tears.

This game, like the entire season, was about to be salvaged by the sort of Red Sox rally against fate that had no historical precedent.

If Torrez and Guidry went down as the pitchers of record-the official loser and winner, then Stanley and that ornery Goose Gossage were the pitchers of memory.

In the eighth Jerry Remy grounded a double over the first-base bag off Gossage and scored on Yastrzemski's crisp single to center. Yaz followed Remy home when Fisk and Lynn cracked singles, using their quick strokes to combat Gossage's numbing speed.

The bear trap was set for the Yanks-men on first and second with only one out, and the lead down to 5-4.

The great book of the season had, however, been turned to the wrong page to suit Boston.

Gossage mowed down Butch Hobson and George Scott-low-average sluggers with long, looping swings. Neither could get untangled quickly enough to handle his rising fastballs.

Never mind. The stage has been set for the bottom of the ninth with Gossage protecting his 5-4 lead.

From the pressbox, baseball is geometry and statistics. From the box seats, it is velocity, volume and virtuosity. From above, Gossage is a relief pitcher. From ground level, eye-to-eye in his own world, he is a dragon.

Nevertheless, the brave Bosox started beating on Gossage's ninth-inning door. The fiesty Burleson drew a one-out walk.

Winning is an ancient Yankee story, a heritage of talent, mixed with an audacious self-confidence and an unnerving good fortune. Losing is an old sadness for the Sox, a lineage of self-doubt and misfortune. All those threads of history and baseball myths were about to come together in one play.

The 5-foot-6 Remy slashed a liner to right when the Goose's 0-2 fastball laid an egg.

The assembled parishioners sang "Hallelujah," then groaned their eternal "Amen" as they saw the ball fly directly toward Piniella.

Little did they, or Burleson on first, know that only one person in the park had no idea where Remy's liner was-Piniella.

"I never saw it," he said. "I just thought, 'Don't panic. Don't wave your damn arms and let the runner know you've lost it.'"

So Piniella the Gambler stood frozen, trusting, as he has so often, to luck.

While Piniella waited for the streaking ball to hit at his feet or hit him in the face, Burleson waited between bases, assuming Piniella had an easy play.

A throw of the dice, said Mallarme, can never abolish chance. The exception seems to be the New York Yankees who abolish chance with their poise, letting luck fall about their shoulders like a seignoral cloak.

"i never saw it until the ball hit about eight feet in front of me," said Piniella later, drenched with champagne. "It was just pure luck that I could get my glove on the ball and catch it before it went past me. If it had gone to the wall, those two scooters would still be running around the bases."

Had Burleson, after stopping in his tracks, tried to go first-to-third, he would have been a dead Rooster. Piniella's throw was a one-hop strike to the bag.

Had Piniella not had the presence of mind to fake a catch, Burleson would have reached third easily. From there, he could have scored to tie the game on Rice's subsequent fly to Piniella. From second, he could only tag and go to third.

If Dent's homer has been discussed throughout America, then Piniella's two gambles-his out-of-position catch on Lynn and his blinded grab on Remy-are still being dissected in every major league dugout.

"it's the play I'll always remember," said Graig Nettles.

Steinbrenner will never forget either. "I have have a tape cassette of the whole game in my office," said the owner. "I don't know how many times I've watched that game. And Ia always stop at the Piniella play and run it over and over. What if Jackson had veen out there? He's left-handed, so the glove's on his other hand, the ball gets by him, Remy has an inside-the-park homer and we lose.

"it's annoyed me that our playoff game seems to have been overshadowed by us beating the Dodgers in the Series for the second year in a row," said Steinbrenner. "Don't people understand? Somebody wins the Series every year. There's only one game like that in a lifetime. I'd call it the greatest game in the history of American sports, because baseball is the best and oldest game, and that's sure as hell the best baseball game I ever saw."

If any game over brought 75 years of animosity to a climax, this was it.

"when they had two on in the ninth with Rice and Yaz coming up," said New York's Roy White, "I was just holding my breath. You wanted to close your eyes and not see'em swing. The wind was blowing out and I could feel that Green Monster creeping in closer."

"all I could think of was Bobby Thompson and that '51 playoff," said Nettle. I figured if anybody was going to beat us, those were the guys."

This playoff lacked only one thing: a time machine. When Captain Carl, Boston cleanup man, stood at the plate facing Gossage with the tying run dancing off third and the winning run of first, that moment should have been frozen.

The 32,925 standing fans, the poised runners, Yaz's high-held bat, Gossage's baleful glare: for once baseball had achieved a moment of genuine dramatic art-a situation that needed to resolution to be perfect.

A game, a season and an entire athletic heritage for two cities had been brought to razor's edge.

"i was in the on-deck circle, just like I was when Yaz flew out to end the '75 Series," said Fisk.

"you know, they should have stopped the game right then and said, 'Okay, that's it. The season is over. You're both world champions. We can't decide between you, and neither of you should have to lose."

Sport's moments of epiphany are written on water. The spell of timelessness must be shattered, the house of cards collapse. Yaz cannot stand poised forever, waiting for the Goose, like the characters on Keats' Grecian Urn. Art may aspire to fairness, but games cannot aim that high. They must settle for a final score.

"i was thinking, 'Pop him up,'" said Nettles. "Then Yaz did pop it up and I said, 'Jeez, but not to me.'"

When the white speck had fallen into Nettles' glove, the Fenway fans stood in their places. For long minutes no one moved, as the baseball congregation drank in the cathartic sweetness of the silence. Proud police horses pranced on the infield, waiting to hold back a crowd that never charged.

"they should have given both teams a standing ovation," said Nettles. But he was wrong. This was better.

Finally, the whir of a public address recording began. Gently, softly, the music of an old fashioned melancholy carrousel drifted through Fenway Park.

The sun was going down, so we all went home, bearing with us canvases for a lifetime.