The Boston Red Sox did not leave Yankee Stadium on Sunday night in 25 coffins. The Bosox took a bus; it only looked like the world's biggest hearse.

"Our pain isn't as bad as you might think," said cryptic Boston southpaw Bill Lee. "Dead bodies don't suffer."

Luis Tiant distributed commemerative handkerchiefs to several teammates as the Sox drove out of the Bronx. The hankies, which were waved throughout the packed Stadium at the Sox all weekend, bore the words: "Boston Blew It."

The Horrid Hose already have admitted to themselves what many in baseball are just realizing - that the Boston Massacre of 1978, not 1770, already is one of the worst collapses in the game's history.

Regardless of what the final two weeks of the season hold, the Bostonians of Don Zimmer will be remembered more vividly in lore than many a championship team.

Their crash has made insant history. It isn't the biggest El Foldo of them all. But it's close.

OnJuly 19, the night the lights started to go dim in Massachusetts, the Sox led the New York Yankees by 14 games. Last Saturday on Sept. 16, the date which may mark the Sox nadir, Boston trailed the Yanks by 3 1/2 games.

That 17 1/2-game plummet in less than two months probably will find its place as the second. or third-worst prolonged plunge, depending on one's taste in disasters.

Certainly the New York Giants of 1914 win the rubber bone. The Giants led the Miracle Braves of Boston by 15 games on July 4, then finished second, 10 1/2 games behind.

Baseball scriveners have not unearthed any other instance of a first-place team losing as much as 14 games to a pursuer in the last half of the season, much less falling 3 1/2 games behind with 15 still to play.

However, all things considered, the New York Giant comeback of 1951 probably should rank ahead of this Yankee revival.

The Giants trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by 13 games on Aug. 11, forced a playoff on the last day of the season, then won the pennant on Bobby Thomson's Home Run Heard Round The World.

For short-term opprobrium, many teams have left an impressive stench as their legacy, most recently the Pholdin' Phillies of 1964 who proved that the final week of September can seem like eternity.

But the current Red Sox have proved themselves over the long haul. As shortstop Rick Burleson said after Saturday's sixth straight defeat to the Yanks - total score 46-9 - "We've taken a lot of abuse and we'll take a lot more, and we deserve every bit of it."

Or as New York's Reggie Jackson so generously phrased it for a jugular-biting posterity, "We played great, but we didn't win it. They lost it. If they'd played .500 the last half of the season, we'd never have caught them."

No sooner did the Sox reach their 14-game pinnacle over the Yankees, than they lost eight of nine games in late July to see their lead over the New Yorkers crumble to 6 1/2 by Aug. 1.

On Aug. 3, Boston faced its Great Crisis in yankee Stadium - a double header. They swept both. The Sox were saved, their lead back to 8 1/2 games.

But by the last day of August, the smell of death was in the wind. The Yanks were flying.

Forgotten was that bleak night of June 27 when the injured Yanks were reduced to playing Mike Health at catcher, Chicken Stanley at short, Tomaso Garcia at second, Gary Thomasson at center and washed-up Andy Messersmith on the mound.

"Bring me the head of Tomaso Garcia!" said yankee fans

The dog days of August gradually put the Sox through the makeshift misery that the Yanks already had felt. One by one the Sox heros - Pldge, Rooster, Dewey, Butch, Soup, Yaz, Boomer and Scooter - had their reaks and bruises. And the bench produced only splinters.

"We'll never have a long slump this year, because our bench and our bullpen and our starting pitching is so much deeper," said Zimmer in May.

"Our bench guys are great for two or three days," said Zimmer in late August, "but when you play 'em for two or three weeks, you find out why they were on the bench to start with."

Psychic ills compounded tangible ailments. The Boston public raced head and head with the Boston press to see which could panic first. "You'd think we were four games behind. not four games ahead, the way everyone is pulling their hair." said a Boston official as the Yanks came to Fenway on Sept. 7. a date that will live in infamy.

Four days later, the Sox had been humiliated in their own park

"It takes a typhoon a long time to build." said Boston's Lee. "and then it takes a long time for it to stop.

"With the kind of momentum the Yankees have, and the kind of inertia we've got, this thing ain't gonna turn around overfnight."

Before the Sox finally won a game from New York Sunday, the double-edged statistics of the great boom and bust had reached levels that the players themselves hardly could believe.

While the yanks went 42-15 (.737), the Sox languished at 25-33 (.431). If anything, the Yanks played almost as far above their heads as the Sox played below theirs.

The Boston slugging stopped totally, just as the yank pitching went berserk. Before that July 19 hiatus, Boston had slugged .464; afterward .369 - a drop of 95 points. The Yanks, with a humble 3.55 ERA on July 19, suddenly reeled off a spectacular 2.49 mark in the next 57 games.

"Anyone who thinks that winning and losing aren't as contagious as any disease hasn't watched these two teams," said Boston's Carlton Fisk.

The Yanks of Before (July 19) made 73 errors to Boston's 63. The bedeviled Sox of After made 70 errors to New York's 34. Thus do errors reflect morale, as well as team concentration and confidence.

However, perhaps the most stunning statistics of all were the team's batting average before and after that mid-July line of demarcation.

Of the nine regulars on each team, eight Red Sox averages fell, while eight Yankees soared. The lone exceptions were New York's Chris Chambliss and Boston's Jerry Remy, who went down and up, respectively, by just a few points.

Five Yanks hit at least 50 points higher, led by Graig Nettles who was .246 on July 19 and .332 afterward.

Four Sox went into catastrophic slumps. Carl Yastrzemski dropped 95 points (.311 to .216), Fred Lynn collpased 93 (.327 to .234), George Scott fell 79 (2.67 to .188) and Dwight Evans sagged 60 (.272 to .212).

The vaunted bottom of the Bosox order became as feeble as the worst in baseball.

The Over The Wall Gang was reduced to one man - Jim Rice. Over those 57 games of torment Rice had 18 homers - as many as Burleson, Remy, Yastrzemski, Lynn, Scott, Evans and Hobson combined.

Just to complete this one-in-life-time image of two brilliantly talented teams rushing in opposite directions like express trains, every Yankee pitcher improved his ERA after July 19, while every Sox pitcher except Bob (The Vulture) Stanley shot up.

"it's enough to make you think that the most awful cliches in sports, you know, about never giving up 'til the last out and not quitting when you're 20 games behind, and true after all," said Reggie Jackson.

Though the league standings say that the Sox are in the thick of a tight pennant race, the team itself does not think so. If they rally to catch the yanks, the Sox as a group will be more amazed than any fan.

The Sox clubhouse this September has been quieter than many a graveyard. Names hang above each locker, but there might as well be epitaphs, too.

Here lies Bill Lee, prophet of doom. "I told management that this would happen when they traded Bernie Carbo and I've turned out to be a prophet," said Lee, who knows he will be traded or released."I told 'em they were building an elite team of nine star players with no bench behind it. They traded every player who didn't fit their conservative team image. It was nothing but spite. We've specialized ourselves behind the eight ball.

"I warned 'em months ago, like the song says. 'You think you're in heaven, but you're living in hell.'"= All the other Sox tombstones bear ambiguous messages.

Captain Carl Yastrzemski: played courageously in pain, made great defensive plays, retained his dignity, but offered little leadership, keeping himself, speaking little.

Jim Rice, haughty in victory, even haughtier in defeat. Kept his state marvelous, but produced little in key games against Yankees.

Fred Lynn aroused teammates' scorn by calling in sick during last two Yankee Stadium games, forcing 39-year-old Yaz into center. Lynn walked better in hotel lobbies than on

Rick Burleson never quit, despite the field in those Final days. One yank game when he had six tough-but-makeable plays and executed none. Led the Sox in public confessions. depth of misery and criticism of teammates. He questioned Dwight Evans' gumption after he pulled himself from lineup due to dizziness.

Evans "I feel like I just got off the Tea Cup Ride at Disney World. Man, I've had some great conversations with people lately. I'll forget what I'm talking about in the middle of a sentence."

Boomer Scoot, in the midst of an 0-for-36 slump and a fielding disaster to match, maintained that he had lost not one smidgen of his ability and was still just a star in a temporary slump.

Fisk, playing with a broken rib, couldn't throw out Grandma Moses stealing. He, too, kept his public poise, but asked in private, "What the hell's going on?"

Butch Hobson, playing with enough injuries for a team, made 42 errors, but never whimpered - just like Bear Bryant taught him. When he and reliever Bill Campbell saw a vulture circling Fenway they held their injured right elbows skyward. We figured that's what it came for."

Luis Tiant smoked his stogles, flicked his eyes over the sad scene and spit his tobacco juice. Every fifth day, he took the mound, pitched masterfully, and usually lost, 2-1.

Mike Torrez, known for his gutty World Series wins, was stung by the criticsm of hard-to-please Bostonians who blasted him for his 1-3 record against New York.

Manager Don Zimmer took the heat, never blinked, never changed strategy, never admitted the situation was anything more than "tough." If failure to meet desperate situations with desperate remedies is a form of panicking, then Zimmer must also share some blame.

The Red Sox may yet uproot their headstones and rise from the earth. "We're too good a team to be remembered this way," said Torrez. "Everything in baseball goes in cycles. There may be one more turn of the wheel."

The Yanks, however, who play their final 12 games against Cleveland and Toronto, the two worst teams in the East, don't think so.

"Three weeks ago my brother called me from North Carolina," said Catfish Hunter," and said, 'Well, Jim, it looks like you'll be home in time to harvest the peanuts this year. None of that World Series Foolishness.'

"I told him, 'Looks that way.'"

Now Hunter is not so sure. It is the Red Sox who have sown and now must reap.