Four days from now, the Boston Red Sox may be able to look back and laugh, their confrontation with collapse behind them.

However, no shaken Sox player, no quaking follower of the unraveling Carmine Hose, laughs these days.

Of all the abysmal debacles in Bosox annals, could any match the disaster currently taking place?

Its like a chain collision on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Each day the Sox' lead over the insatiable New York Yankees shrinks like a pair of cheap socks.

The Red Sox return to New England today for four of the most hysterically anticipated games in the history of the baseball-daft Northeast.

Three victories over the Bronx Hessians in four tries would do nicely.

Heavens to Paul Revere, how many times do the '78 Sox have to bury the Yanks, anyway? Wasn't the funeral held long ago, after a proper baseball autopsy? The Yankees have more lives than a guilty conscience.

This season's September Fenway Follies have a special poignance. In other seasons, the Sox demise was a final act consonat with the team's public image for generations - a green wall at their backs, green bucks in their wallets, and green apples in their throats.

"You'd think somebody was going to saw New England off and let it float out into the Atlantic," said a Boston club official yesterday. "People panic before anything happens. We're four games ahead, not four games behind, and our own fans are giving us up for dead."

No team is loved so fanatically as the Red Sox, and none is worshipped with such a perverse sense of fatality. Red Sox heartache is part of the legacy that New Englanders hand down from father to son, and yea, from mother to daughter, too.

Red Sox fans view their own heroes with the skepticism of a Hawthorne or Melville searching for the tragic flaw in his character. "Human, all too human," that's the Red Sox logo.

This grim baseball heritage of zero world titles in 60 years, while the Yankees were winning 20, is a particularly unfair burden for the current Red Sox to bear.

These Bosox, who have lost six of their last seven games, who have seen their margin over New York evaporate from 14 to four games, are the antithesis of their predecessors.

If the present Sox have a critical flaw, an Achilles heel, it is their excess of courage, their unquestioning obedience to the god of guts. Like their doughty manager Don Zimmer, who played the game with a metal plate in his skull, the Red Sox drive themselves until they drop.

They know they are no team of the future. Carl Yastrzemski, Luis Tiant, Bill Leee and George Scott are all on their last baseball legs. This is the year for that eternally receding World Series triumph. Let the '80s be damned.

That urgency has infected, and to some extent contaminated, the entire season.

Normally, Butch Hobson would have had surgery in April. Third basemen are not customarily asked to rearrange the bone chips in their elbows in the dugout so they can bat or throw without having their right arm lock.

But Hobson, a former Alabama quarterback under Bear Bryant, has set the Sox an example for headstrong courage. He has grimly played almost every day - committing 35 errors and going without a home run for the last 10 weeks.

Hobson has been an inspiration with his death-defying dugout catches of foul pops. However, almost any healthy player could have surpassed his total contribution. "The only way I can get Hobson out of the lineup," says Zimmer, "is put him in chains."

Captain Yastrzemski has tried to match Hobson. Yaz has winced on every swing-and-miss for months. Yet he plays on, his wrist and hand wrapped like a boxer before the glove is slipped on. The fiercely proud 30-year-old is still a magnificient clutch hitter. But his power has eroded - one homer in seven weeks.

The Sox joke that nobody can shake hands after a home run because the whole team is beset with hand and wrist injuries. Boomer Scott has been reduced to 11 homers by hand miseries, while Jerry Remy, the team's only speedster, will be unable to bat for another week with a broken bone in his wrist.

"This is no time to sit on the bench," said Dwight Evans, who came back from a serious beaning in less than a week. Evans' return has been gritty; on Tuesday he threw out a runner at the plate; on Wednesday he smashed the back of his head into a wall while making a circus catch.

"I couldn't take another blow to the same spot," he said. But he plays on.

In this sick bay on the Back Bay, Jim Rice is the all-curing doctor.

No player in recent years has so singlehandedly carried a floundering team.

Of Rice's 38 home runs, 24 have put Boston ahead. Three have tied the score. And six came with Boston just one run ahead.

That means of 38 blasts, 33 have come at vital times - an almost unbelievably high ratio.

While the Yankees have pleaded extenuating circumstances all season, bleating about their injuries, Zimmer never mentions that he has been able to put his starting nine on the field only 35 times in 137 games.

"Whenever a player tells me he can play, he plays," said Zimmer. "That's the rule on this team."

Since Zimmer probably "played hurt" more conspicuously than any other player in the last 25 years, it is no surprise that he has selected players with that trait, and it is no surprise that they push themselves to the hilt, and perhaps a bit beyond.

Catcher Carlton Fisk, for instance, does not consider his broken rib worth mentioning.

The Sox have no prospect of good health. Hobson, Yastrzemski and reliever Bill Campbell will remain as they are.

Campbell followed the tough-guy line in midseason, pitching five shutout innings in Yankee Stadium on no days rest with a tender arm to help win a "crucial" game. He has been useless since.

So now the Sox will circle the wagons one more time in Fenway, where their record is a staggering 52-17 this year.

Fisk will gird his rib and Yaz his wrist. Evans will grind down his batting helmit and dig in, althouth his dizziness persists. And Hobson will ignore his torn knee cartilage, his knee ligament damage and readjust his floating elbow bone chips.

Mike Torrez will pitch in turn, although the middle finger on his pitching hand has been swollen since July. Old Luis Tiant will ignore his groin-muscle pull.

The Boston Red Sox - baseball's supposedly spoiled country club team of rich playboys - will drag themselves out to meet the defending world champions.

And every Red Sox knows the unjust epitaph waiting if the team shatters New England's fragile heart again.

"Why the Red SOx? Everybody knows what killed the '78 Red Sox," the know-nothing barroom philosophers will say in years to come. "They were just like all the others. Cause of death: lack of gut."