Whether he's watching them on cable TV, or listening on the car radio, or rising at 6 a.m. to buy the morning paper to get a late score, the Sheik is, to say the least, worried about his Red Sox.

"The league must be pretty weak this year if they can be so far ahead," muttered Irving (Sheik) Karelis, the jeweler in this calm/nervous town who happens to be my father-in-law.

A couple of times a day he says it. Always exactly the same words: "The league must be pretty weak this year."

The words sound disparaging, but they're not -- just a Red Sox fan's bizarre form of extreme optimism. Faith in the Red Sox themselves is, of course, never permissable.

The Red Sox used up their lifetime supply of second chances a generation ago.

Now, they're an old New England habit -- an addiction like cigarettes that you never completely break, no matter how often you try or how long you go without them. The gnawing's always there, ready to catch you in a weak moment.

The Sheik grew up on the Red Sox in the 1920s and '30s, then pitched in the minors for them in the '40s after some people called him the best curveball pitcher the University of New Hampshire ever had. For 40 years, since he retired with fond memories of striking out Ted Williams and Joe Cronin, of beating Don Newcombe head to head in 11 innings in Montreal, Karelis has followed them with duty, sorrow, knowledge.

Not once in his whole life, and he's old enough for Medicare, have the Boston Red Sox won a World Series.

This could be the year, although Karelis will not hear of it, growing grumpy if you talk about Series tickets or plans for a trip to Shea Stadium in New York during October.

So what if the Red Sox have a seven-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East as baseball pauses for the all-star game tonight. "They haven't even won the division yet . . . Only July," mutters the Sheik. "Lots of weaknesses . . . Long way to go."

"Sheik, this is their year. Everything's falling in place. Can't you just enjoy it?" I say to him. But he won't listen.

"The shortstop is terrible . . . They got no backup catcher . . . Seaver's awfully old . . . Stanley's erratic . . . How can you count on somebody named Oil Can? . . . The key will be how well Hurst comes back."

Each day, new difficulties introduce themselves to Sheik on the streets of Haverhill as he talks to his buddies at the Haverhill Country Club or Karelis Jewelers. They're all duplicates of him -- frightened fatalists. Doctors, lawyers, writers and businessmen -- guys with degrees from Harvard and MIT who can tell you every pitch of the previous night's game and who go by silly nicknames such as Tank and Moose -- all recite their litany as Angie brings them their cheeseburgers between nines. "Buckner's ankle's bad . . . Armas looks old . . . Baylor might wear out."

Unlike fans of a normal team, you don't root for the Red Sox. You simply suffer with them, accept their fate, curse them and love them again -- like flawed children. So, Karelis and millions of others like him are caught in a sweet-and-sour dilemma. Should he, and they, hope, one more time? The conflict, the psychological denial, is so great that Sheik always refers to the Red Sox' lead as "seven games" when it's nine or "six" if it's eight. Without hope, there is no true suffering, only melancholy.

The Red Sox Problem runs so deep, is so in the region's grain, that it even effects those who care nothing about baseball. It's part of a common history that is deeper than sport.

Once upon a time, the World Series seemed to have been created expressly to glorify the Red Sox. Furthermore, Fenway Park, in particular, appeared destined to host more Series celebration than all America's other ball yards put together. The first Series was won by the Red Sox in 1903. And, starting in Fenway's inaugural season of 1912, the Red Sox began a hegemony that, by 1918, had added five world titles in a span of just seven seasons.

In 1918, Babe Ruth won half of the Red Sox' four Series victories. The next year, he emerged as the greatest slugger in history as a Boston outfielder. So, in 1920, the Red Sox sold -- not traded, but sold -- Ruth to New York. Since then, the Yankees have won 33 pennants, the Red Sox three. Since then, New York has 22 world titles. Boston has none. You could say Red Sox fans do not like Yankees. Religious differences.

Or course, it's all a Puritan fable about selling your soul to the devil -- guilt, expiation and endless remorse. Today's Red Sox probable: Original Sin.

From Maine to Connecticut, millions of otherwise sensible people continue to play their ritual roles in the Red Sox chorus. That's why, when Karelis' wife, Ellie, mentions a plan that starts at 8 p.m., Sheik just says, "The Can's going tonight," and she knows the evening's agenda is set in stone.

This isn't domestic tyranny. It's just -- and all New England knows this -- that 1986 has turned out to be "one of those years." In the last 68 seasons, the Sox have only been in a hot pennant race about nine times. So, when it happens, everybody knows the symbolism of the thing, makes way before it and prepares for the autumn shriving.

Of all the Red Sox stumbling blocks in the next four months, none will be greater than the difficulty that young Boston ballplayers will have in comprehending the strange ebb and flow of public moods that will surround them. It will be all too easy for them to see pessimism and defeatism on every side, when, in fact, the passions and loyalties of their fans are deeper than any mere rooting.

If the Red Sox begin to doubt their followers, even think of them as a millstone, perhaps they should think of Sheik watching them on the cable. Roger Clemens is pitching. That's who Karelis and generations of schoolchildren hereabouts have dreamed of being -- the 25-game winner who will make null and void the decades of disappointment.

"The league must be pretty weak this year," Karelis says.

"Do you think Clemens' arm will hold up?" I ask. "He's never lasted 200 innings in a season in his life."

"He's got to get more on top of his breaking ball if he's going to keep it low," says Karelis technically.

The Sheik does not answer my question, pretends it never was asked. In the crowded Red Sox dugout, which now contains the population of the six New England states, there are some things that are just too serious to discuss.