Because the Boston Red Sox have failed to win a World Series since they sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, many Red Sox partisans attribute their team's futility over the last four-fifths of the century to the theory known as "The Curse of the Bambino."

Sox legions believe that the "curse"--the sum total of the most improbable baseball misfortune during 81 years--is not something to be scoffed at. As recently as yesterday, former Yankee Bucky Dent would not discount the possibility that the "curse" exists. Dent contributed mightily to Boston's lasting woe with his pop-fly home run that decided the 1978 American League Eastern Division playoff game. After the deal for Ruth in 1920, the Yankees went on to win 24 world championships, the Red Sox 0.

No area in the country takes its baseball more seriously than New England. In summer, Fenway Park is the game's heartbeat of the Northeast. Hall of Famers, topped by Ted Williams, have graced the Boston lineup. Fenway, which John Updike called "a lyric little bandbox of a ball park," remains the baseball church where Red Sox faithful have worshipped since 1912. And, yet, no matter how promising things sometimes have looked since Ruth's departure, something bad always has befallen the Sox. Bucky Dent? Bucky Dent!!!

Since selling Ruth, the Red Sox have made it to four World Series--and lost them all in seven games!

Twice the Red Sox have tied for first place in the American League, resulting in a one-game playoff--and lost both playoff games.

It's always something--something bad.

But now the Red Sox are positioned again to end the "curse." Having rallied with three straight victories over Cleveland, baseball's franchise of heartbreak will take to the field tonight at Yankee Stadium in the opening game of the AL Championship Series, facing the despised "Bronx Bombers" with another chance to get back to the World Series--and win it for a blessed change. But in New York, the Red Sox will hear the name echoing: Bucky Dent!

"I didn't know the ball was going to make it out of the park until I rounded first base and saw the second-base umpire signal home run," Dent said from his home in Florida. But there went the ball soaring in a short arc off the bat of a lifetime .247 hitter of modest build. It barely cleared Fenway's left field wall, the storied Green Monster, for a two-out, three-run home run in the seventh inning of the '78 playoff game that sent the Yankees toward a 5-4 victory and eventually the world championship.

"As I approached third base, it was really weird, this eerie feeling of silence in the park," Dent said. "You could hear a few Yankee fans yelling, but that was it."

It only got worse during the 1986 World Series, when first baseman Bill Buckner let a ground ball go between his legs in the 10th inning of Game 6 that enabled the New York Mets to go on to deny the Red Sox a championship. Dent said he could not rule out a "curse." "I don't know," he mused. "The Red Sox have had had some very tough times."

Johnny Pesky, 80, onetime Red Sox star, offered a different opinion yesterday from his home in Massachusetts. "I don't believe in the 'curse,' " he said. "That's fictional. The Red Sox have never been a lucky team."

Pesky was part of that bad luck. While playing shortstop in the 1946 Series, Pesky held the ball while the St. Louis Cardinals' Enos Slaughter scored all the way from first base on a two-out line drive over shortstop that merely dropped into left-center field. There were extenuating circumstances during the play--but there always have been oddities involved in Boston's worst diamond mishaps.

Eddie Doyle, a bartender for 25 years at Boston's Bull and Finch, the bar that inspired the television program "Cheers," scoffed at the idea of a "curse." But he did believe in "Lady Luck." As he said yesterday: "I just believe they need a little bit of Lady Luck coming to help out once in a while."

But Chris Nelson, another bartender there, countered: "Ever since that day with the Bambino, things went downhill. The times they had it right there for the taking, something, call it fate."

When they owned Babe Ruth, the Red Sox were a force--just as the Yankees would be with him. The Babe played for the Red Sox from 1914 to 1919, both as a pitcher and a developing slugger. He won 23 games in 1916 and 24 in 1917. In 1919 he hit .322 and led the league with 29 home runs and 114 runs batted in. With Ruth, the Red Sox won the World Series in 1915, 1916 and 1918. But on Jan. 9, 1920, Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth for $100,000 to the Yankees. Frazee did it so that he could pay some debts. In a few years the Yankees were playing in "The House That Ruth Built."

Fenway was the site of one of the greatest games ever, Game 6 of the 1975 World Series between the Red Sox and Reds, when catcher Carlton Fisk waved his soaring drive into fair territory for a home run. But in the final game, left-hander Bill Lee uncorked a blooper pitch that Cincinnati's Tony Perez hit over the left field wall to begin a Reds comeback. The Red Sox lost their 1948 playoff game to Cleveland after, many believe, naming the wrong starting pitcher, Denny Galehouse. Dent hit his pop fly home run in '78 after beginning his turn at the plate with a broken bat.

Consider this if wondering about the "curse": Dent is batting and fouls a pitch off his already sore leg. But on this day, he is not wearing the leg guard he usually did during the season. "I'm really hurting," he recalled. "I go over toward the on-deck circle and they spray some stuff on the leg and Mickey Rivers is over there. I've been using Mickey Rivers-model bats, but that day I cracked one in batting practice and by mistake I'm hitting with it. Mickey says, 'Hey, homey, you got the wrong bat. Take this one.'

"So I switch bats. A lot of people said the bat was corked. It wasn't. But it wasn't cracked either. Back at the plate, first pitch, home run."

The hit changed Dent's life. Almost anywhere he goes "people tell me where they were when I hit it." Now a coach with the Texas Rangers, Dent works in the offseason for a firm--in Massachusetts. So he's always meeting Red Sox fans. "They say, 'I hate your guts,' or, 'You ruined our life.' "

Pesky has seen almost everything go wrong--as well as playing a part himself. He was a Red Sox coach when Dent hit his home run. He was sitting in the stands behind home plate at Shea Stadium when Buckner missed the grounder. And there Pesky was in '46 in the middle of things--but "Dominic wasn't out there," he said. Dom DiMaggio, the regular center fielder, was out of the game in that decisive eighth inning when the substitute center fielder "lobbed me a throw" back to the infield, giving Pesky no reason to suspect that Slaughter would reach third base and keep going for the decisive score in the 4-3 game.

Pesky remains connected to the Red Sox, helping at spring training and working with minor leaguers during the summers. "I would love to see them win it all just one time and then live long enough to see them do it a couple more times," he said. "That would be something, to say you saw the Red Sox win it all."

Special correspondent Brian Straus contributed to this report.