Will the Boston Red Sox go down in history as the greatest waste of time of the 20th century?

What would be in second place? Perhaps checking the lottery numbers every day for 81 years to see if you've won but neglecting ever to buy a ticket.

How do you measure negative return on emotional investment? The Red Sox are the dry well of baseball, the salted gold mine of sports. You can buy the Brooklyn Bridge only once. But, in New England, they've bought the Red Sox for the last four generations. Where else can your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all be furious at the same team?

Which brings us to the second game of the 1999 American League Championship Series. New York won. For details, see previous 81 years.

When it comes to the Red Sox and Yankees, why would we think the last season of the century would be any different from the rest? Instead, isn't it more reasonable, although much cruel, for the last meeting of this millennium that the teams recapitulate their long history rather than rewrite it? Sure it is. And don't bet on the meek inheriting the earth too soon, either.

For the second straight night, every conceivable tiny twist of baseball fate worked against the Red Sox while favoring, or at least not thwarting, the Yankees. It's a good thing there's no Curse. Otherwise, these two defeats would be Exhibit 1 and Exhibit 1A in the exorcism trial.

In Game 1, the Yankees tied the score because Boston's catcher missed a perfect knee-high, one-hop throw to the plate. Of course, maybe it's not so mysterious if you factor in his 25 passed balls this season. The Sox also missed a chance at a beautiful two-on, no-out rally in the 10th inning--with the heart of their batting order due up--because an umpire made a horrible call. How do we know? Because umpire Rick Reed admitted his blunder after watching the replay. Umpires never admit they blew it. Except, perhaps, if it can hurt the Red Sox twice as much because they know they got the shaft.

Game 2, if anything, trumped the hexed doings of Game 1. For the Haunted Nine, Jason Varitek and Troy O'Leary blasted balls that came within inches of clearing the right field fence in the House That Ruth Built. Both bounced back into play--the first for a triple, the latter for a double. On O'Leary's bomb, the New York outfielders actually gave up the chase and were nonplussed to see the ball bouncing back toward them. Was that a subtle breeze blowing inward from Monument Park? Naturally, these being the Red Sox who are under discussion, neither man scored. Who says that ghosts don't have enough breath to fog a mirror? Naturally, these being the Red Sox who are under discussion, neither man scored.

"We caught some breaks," said winning pitcher David Cone, who allowed two runs in seven innings to beat Ramon Martinez. "You have to feel lucky when balls hit the top of the wall."

How did the Yankees win, you ask? It couldn't be something simple. Not between these teams. The symbolism has to be more ham-handed than the Yankees' Paul O'Neill, a man playing with a broken rib, slicing a broken-bat bloop single over the shortstop's head for the game-winning hit. How perfectly Red Sox. Broken bat. Broken rib. Broken Boston hearts.

"It'll look great in the paper," said O'Neill, "but believe me, I didn't hit it hard."

As always, Boston fans will have one crucial juncture in the game to second-guess. This wouldn't be a true Red Sox passion play if it weren't totally obvious that the Bosox could actually have won. Thanks to a two-run homer by Nomar Garciaparra off Cone, Boston had a 2-1 lead in the seventh with a Yankee on second base, two out and Chuck Knoblauch at bat.

Let's see: Do you hook Martinez and wave to the deepest bullpen in the American League? Or do you leave Martinez, who has thrown 116 pitches, in the game? Hmmmmm. What extenuating circumstances might there be? Sixteen months ago, Martinez had surgery for a torn rotator cuff--the most feared of all surgeries for pitchers. He hasn't pitched a complete game in two years. And, in his six starts for Boston this year, he has never thrown that many pitches. Oh, one other thing. Knoblauch blasted a ball deep to left in his previous at-bat off Martinez.

Naturally, since this is the Yanks and Bosox, Manager Jimy Williams left Martinez in the game and, on a two-strike pitch, Knoblauch doubled into left to tie the score. Knoblauch eventually scored the winning run on O'Neill's single, thus making Martinez the losing pitcher.

This series is not over. If this were a normal contest between sensible teams, the correct interpretation of events might be that the Yankees are almost stunned at how well, and how confidently, the Red Sox have played them in their own hostile park. Besides, Pedro Martinez will work Game 3 against former Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens on Saturday in Fenway Park. The fantasists of New England may dream that, for the perfect Red Sox retribution, its team must sink to the depths before rising. How appropriate.

How unlikely. How out of character. In the eighth and ninth innings Thursday night, as the Red Sox loaded the bases once, then put men at the corners in the ninth, it seemed the odds that the Red Sox would score were roughly 1 million to 1. Butch Huskey, Jose Offerman and Damon Buford all failed with the bases obese with Bosox.

After all these generations of failure, after 24 Yankees world titles since the Red Sox had their last one in 1918, maybe everything will suddenly turn around in a blink. And if you believe that, be sure to check those lottery numbers every day for the tickets you never bought.

Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us 81 times . . .

CAPTION: The luck of the Red Sox: Starter Ramon Martinez, right, pitches well, but stays one batter too late.

CAPTION: The Red Sox had plenty of runners but only two runs, courtesy of a home run hit by Nomar Garciaparra, right.