An Oct. 21 Sports article incorrectly indicated there have been 101 seasons of postseason play in baseball. Because there were no World Series in 1904 and 1994, this year marked the 100th season of postseason play. (Published 11/2/04)

-- It's all in their heads . . . isn't it? The Curse of the Bambino, that amalgam of jinx, superstition and despair that has dogged the Boston Red Sox for nearly a century, was reduced to just so much human imagining on Wednesday night by a scruffy lot of ballplayers who cared more about their hair than they did about history, except for the kind they were determined to make.

The curse wasn't officially broken when the Red Sox defeated the New York Yankees in Game 7 to win the American League pennant and advance to the World Series. But it was certainly dented.

The Red Sox became the first team in 101 years of postseason baseball to rally from a three-games-to-none deficit and win a series. They beat the curse into submission with their bats, with a spectacular barrage of home runs into virtually every deck of Yankee Stadium, to defeat the bitter arch-rival Yankees, 10-3.

Six of their runs came from one player, their center fielder with Samson locks and rough beard, Johnny Damon, who hit a grand slam in the second inning and a two-run homer in the fourth. Twice in this agonizing series, the Red Sox had fought back from the brink of elimination by forcing the Yankees into extra innings in games that lasted more than five hours. But their final victory was a laugher.

"A lot of people were counting us out," Damon said, "but not us."

Before the game started, Red Sox Manager Terry Francona made it clear that talk of curses and jinxes was absurd -- the game would be won with bats and gloves. "The reason we are here is to win, not to dream about winning," he said. His players promptly made good on his words.

Damon's slam came against Yankees right-hander Javier Vazquez, who was placed in the unenviable position of entering the game with the bases loaded. The Red Sox had driven starter Kevin Brown from the game after just 11/3 innings. Vazquez delivered the pitch, an inside fastball. Damon snapped his bat around and drove the ball straight to the right corner bleachers.

It was sweet redemption for Damon, who had entered the game with just three hits in 29 at-bats. His slump was cause for serious concern among Red Sox fans, who worried that Damon had played with fate by trimming three inches from his hair earlier in the series.

"We're coming back home, and we're going to party for a while," Damon added. "And then we're going to have a great World Series."

"Stick with us," he added. "Never count us out."

But the issue of Damon's hair and its effect on his hitting was nothing compared to the issue of the Curse in the minds of Red Sox fans. In 1920, Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 cash and a loan. Ever since, this has been regarded as a blunder of cosmic proportions. So much so that the gods of baseball have seemed to be punishing the Red Sox -- this was just their fifth pennant since 1918, which was the last time they won a World Series. The Yankees, meanwhile, have won 26 world championships.

But this time the team infamous for its heartbreak and postseason collapse is the Yankees, the first team in baseball history to squander a 3-0 lead. With each successive Red Sox rally, the tension ratcheted, belief quietly built among the Red Sox and public interest in this bitter historical feud mounted steadily.

Relations between the teams are always fractious, and never more so than in postseason. This series will be remembered for both the highly pitched feelings and the way those translated into the high quality of play. On Monday, the Red Sox beat the Yankees, 5-4, in a 14-inning marathon, the longest postseason game ever at 5 hours 49 minutes. The prime-time baseball coverage averaged a 14.6 national television rating. "Monday Night Football," by comparison, had a 7.7 rating.

At least outwardly, the Red Sox seemed an unlikely team to mount such a comeback. They are an unkempt lot, all facial hair and strange habits and mannerisms. Before games, they have been known to watch "Animal House" together. Francona can sometimes hear their exuberant screaming and the loud music from the dugout.

"This group is this group, they're a little nutsy," Francona said. "They are a little unique."

The Yankees, by contrast, were dispassionate, professional, almost detached. In their bitter history with the Red Sox, a history of brawls and pitches thrown at chins, they had always come out on top, and there was no reason to think they wouldn't this time, either. But for all of their cool self-assurance, the Yankees were actually subject to a mysterious jinx themselves -- a hitting slump. In Games 5 and 6, they ended 22 of 26 innings with a man stranded on base.

Before the series began, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling said he couldn't imagine anything sweeter than "to shut up 55,000 New Yorkers." On Tuesday night, Schilling indeed silenced the New Yorkers when he pitched seven heroic innings on a bad ankle that will require tendon surgery in the offseason. With blood seeping into his sock from sutures, Schilling allowed only four hits and no walks. He shut up the crowd and shut down the Yankees in aiding his team to a 4-2 victory, forcing this unprecedented Game 7.

New Yorkers bit their nails all day. Even the tabloid headlines had an air of anxiety. "Seven Help Us!" the New York Daily News exclaimed. The New York Post had a picture of Babe Ruth with a caption that said, "Put Me In."

On the eve of the game, outside Yankee Stadium, throngs milled around in team jerseys, hundreds of Jeters, Rodriguezes and Matsuis. They stood in line for Italian sausages and held up signs with belligerent legends. "You Don't Come in OUR HOUSE and push us around!" read one. Another read, "If History Teaches Us Anything, They Lose."

A lone man moved through the crowd wearing a rare collectible jersey. He didn't need a sign. The lettering on the back of the jersey spoke for itself:



But Ruth wasn't in the house. Only minutes into the action, the Red Sox declared what kind of game it was going to be. First, Damon singled and then stole second. When Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez smacked a single, Damon raced around third base and, maniacally intent on scoring, slid into home plate. He was tagged out on a stunning relay from left fielder Hideki Matsui to shortstop Derek Jeter to home.

But while the enormous roar of approval still hung into the air, David Ortiz stepped the plate. On the first pitch from Brown, Ortiz homered. As the ball sailed into the right field stands, the roar died. Ramirez crossed the plate, and then came Ortiz, for a 2-0 lead. Together, Ortiz and Ramirez pointed their fingers to the sky.

Presumably, not at Babe Ruth.

"Whoever came up with the idea of 'Keep the Faith,' I think those are the best words ever created," Ortiz said.

Boston's players celebrate their win over New York in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.Danny Arelo, right, of Pawtucket, R.I., leaps up from his seat with the other fans at a Boston watering hole after the Red Sox scored in the first inning of their American League Championship Series win over the New York Yankees.Boston's Johnny Damon, left, and Trot Nixon embrace after the final out. The Red Sox will play for their first World Series title since 1918.Boston's Johnny Damon, left, and Trot Nixon celebrate after eliminating the Yankees. The Red Sox will play for their first World Series title since 1918.