BOSTON -- Boston Red Sox mythology has so completely supplanted Boston Red Sox reality that intelligent baseball fans have great difficulty seeing the actual human beings inside the Bosox uniforms. As a result, a wonderful effort by a very limited but extremely tough-minded team is being underappreciated.

If you're waiting for this Red Sox team to choke, don't hold your breath. These Sox may get their brains beaten out, as they did this afternoon, 10-5, by a 19-hit Toronto Blue Jays attack. But they don't panic much or quit or go brain dead in the clutch.

Throughout New England the moaning and finger pointing, the myth mongering and omen spotting will begin anew. All that's required for the gun-shy faithful to abandon the cause is one ugly defeat like this in which the Red Sox play as if their shoes were tied together.

Yes, Boston's AL East lead is down to one scrawny game with three left to play. From Worcester to Lynn, every Red Sox ghost will now be invoked -- Denny Galehouse, Johnny Pesky, Bill Buckner, the whole legion of the Undead. If the Chinese worship their ancestors, what do Bosox fans do -- desecrate them?

You can't blame the folks hereabouts for composing premature obituaries. Who wouldn't? Some fans even think they know which White Sox -- coming to town the next three days -- will ruin the whole season: Carlton Fisk. His name is whispered like a premonition of divine punishment. We sold Babe Ruth. We let Fisk go free agent. The gods keep track.

Unfortunately, this whole Sox-Fold-Again scenario has become silly and sad. Why? Because what we have here in Fenway this season is a bitterly unfair case of mistaken identity. These guys are not the Red Sox -- at least not in the traditional gothic sense.

Nobody's been able to figure out this Boston team all year. No power (20th in homers). No speed (26th). Fair defense. Two aging minor league unknowns (plus an obscure 34-year-old converted relief pitcher) in the starting rotation. A total-mystery bullpen after Jeff Reardon got hurt in early August.

How could such a vulnerable team go from 6 1/2 games ahead to 1 1/2 games behind in 19 days -- and not quit? Yet, somehow, with no assurance that Roger Clemens could pitch again this year, the Red Sox found the stomach to catch the Jays and, on Friday and Saturday, beat them, to rebuild a two-game lead.

Maybe, because they wear the words "Red Sox" on their chests, many people, including me, forgot to look inside.

If you had to assemble a team of unselfish players who, over the years, have proven their mental and physical toughness as well as their zest for combat in a crisis, here would be some charter members: Clemens, Reardon, Mike Boddicker, Dwight Evans, Tony Pena, Tom Brunansky, Mike Greenwell.

You could hardly hope for a better core of veteran leaders than these Red Sox. (Don't include Wade Boggs and Ellis Burks, who are stars not tone-setters.)

Boddicker was the pitching star of the '83 postseason for the Orioles. Reardon (20 saves in nine straight seasons) and Brunansky were at the very heart of the world champion '87 Twins. Pena, a five-time all-star catcher, went 17 for 43 in the postseason for the '87 Cardinals. As for Evans, he's risen above his Red Sox pedigree his whole career, from his catch in the '75 Series to his 14 RBI in 14 games in the '86 postseason.

These guys don't have to explain themselves to one another. "It's unspoken," said Brunansky, who hit three home runs on Saturday and had five in this three-game series. "We know what we've done. Lot of rings around here."

"This is the most amazing team I've ever been around. Lots of chemistry. No ego. Just a bunch of tough guys," said General Manager Lou Gorman. "No one's really recognized what's going on inside this team, which may be helping us. Because of the {Red Sox} history, all they hear is negatives about how they can't do it.

"When the past is brought up, they never say anything," adds Gorman, who has acquired 16 players from other teams in the last two years to try to free the club from its fatalism. "They know what everybody's saying, but they don't care."

These Red Sox hold in icy contempt an entire world within their sport which not only assumes that they will fail, but fully expects to have a good laugh at their expense while they bleed. You have to see their faces to understand the bottled anger they feel.

Other Red Sox teams hid when the inevitable September press crush hit their locker room. They allowed their own territory to be taken from them. These guys hold their ground.

This entire month has shown the Red Sox' grit. Evans has had such back pain that he's been in traction almost as much as he's been in the lineup. His two-run hit was a Saturday key. Brunansky hurt his shoulder making so many diving catches that he had to be rested to heal. His shoulder still aches; but he made two more diving grabs against the Jays.

Reardon is an even more extreme case. "If there was ever a guy who could've stayed out the rest of the year, it was him," says Gorman. "His money was guaranteed for two more seasons. But he came back from major back surgery in five and a half weeks."

"We do have a lot of 'gamers,' " said Reardon, using the term that players consider the highest compliment. "Nobody thought I could make it back. But I had the desire and I did it."

On Saturday, Roger Clemens gave the ultimate illustration of being a gamer. After missing three weeks with a sore shoulder, he didn't know if he could stand the pain of warming up, much less pitching. But with the bleachers roaring as each practice pitch cracked in the catcher's glove, he finally got loose and shut out the Jays for six innings.

"I got chills," said Boston pitcher Joe Hesketh. "It was like Babe Ruth," said Manager Joe Morgan. "Never seen anything like that in my life," added pitching coach Bill Fischer.

These Red Sox have added a core of hell-for-leather players whose attitudes match the one Clemens always had. They study the game. They risk themselves for the team. They'll spit in your eye. And they care. If they fail, like so many other Red Sox teams before them, shame on anyone who calls them names.