You have to understand the sickness that is the Boston Red Sox, or perhaps even be infected by it a bit yourself, to grasp the colossal symbolic and psychological importance of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday.

To the Yankees, it's no big deal. They lead two-games-to-none. It's not a "must" win. In fact, regardless of how this ALCS, or for that matter this whole season ends for the Yankees, we all know what the future holds for them. They will try to buy the world title every year from now until eternity. As long as George Steinbrenner bosses the ballclub, they will either be very good or great every year or else they will end the season with whiplash marks from spikes to cap.

The Red Sox, however, are profoundly different. They are a franchise with deep, but not bottomless pockets that has periodic windows of opportunity to be great, to win that first world title since 1918 and to end the curse. Of course, those "windows" always slam shut, usually smashing the fingers of Ted Williams, Jim Lonborg, Carl Yastrzemski or Jim Rice in the process. These epochs are usually separated by 10 to 20 years -- allowing an appropriate period for a new generation to build its hopes, genuinely believe them to be realistic and then have them smashed into a thousand bitter shards of calcified gall.

One of those precariously constructed Fenway Park eras is now at a tipping point. Boston has finished second to the Yankees in the AL East for seven straight seasons, but the gap has narrowed to the point that, for the past three years, there's barely a hair's breadth of difference between the clubs. This season, Boston still holds an 11-10 advantage (including the first two games of this ALCS).

Make no mistake, for the Red Sox, from its owners and General Manager Theo Epstein down to its lowliest fans -- be they poets or plumbers -- this really was the year. This season, the ancient Red Sox expression "This is the year," was not said sardonically or with resignation. This was the dead serious, loaded for bear, best-Red-Sox-team-in-50-years club that was not only going to beat the $180 million Yankees but reverse the curse after 86 years.

So, if the Red Sox win Game 3, there will be hope in the broadest sense. Not just hope for this series but for the immediate future of the team. There's the possibility of overtaking the Yankees for the pennant or, at the least, turning this playoff into a worthy six- or seven-game war. However, if they lose and fall behind the Yankees three-games-to-none, a deficit no team has ever surmounted, the Red Sox as we know them will cease to exist. The team won't be demolished, but it will be blown to the four corners of baseball by the winds of free agency and the bitter necessities of baseball economics.

Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek and Orlando Cabrera are free agents, as well as Pokey Reese, Gabe Kapler, Scott Williamson and others. With his recent bizarre news conferences, Martinez may already have completed his job interview to be a Yankee next season. Who knows the mind of a man who, the day after his "the Yankees are my daddy" quote decided to bring a 28-inch tall man with him into the clubhouse? Add to this complex personnel mix that management also has to decide whether to exercise club options for key players like Bill Mueller, Mike Timlin and Kevin Millar.

If Boston management, and the overwhelming consensus of the besotted Red Sox Nation, decides that the team has given a magnificent effort this month and has either prevailed or lost to the Yankees largely because of a fluke injury to Curt Schilling, then this team will probably be reassembled in '05. With tweaks, the Quest would continue another year.

Sleep tight, Bronson Arroyo. Your start on Saturday isn't too important.

It's amazing how one simple premise can change perspective. Assume the Red Sox win on Saturday. Perhaps tightly wound Kevin Brown, who spends all day working himself into a semi-psychotic state before pitching, will be drained after repeating his ritual two days in a row.

"Kevin was very ready to pitch today. Now he has to go through that again. He was more antsy than anyone in the clubhouse," said Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. How much psychic fuel does Brown, 39, burn in such preparation? Well, this is a guy who, when he lost last month, broke several bones in his left hand punching out a wall.

"My hope is that [the rainout] hurts him," said Boston Manager Terry Francona, in a joking manner. "If it's a wet field [on Saturday] maybe we'll bunt." Very funny. Though probably not to Brown, who has endured back spasms all season.

Asked whether the rainout had slowed the Yankees' momentum, after giving Schilling and Martinez their first back-to-back loses of the season, Francona quipped, "Well, they didn't win tonight."

If any spark of optimism returns to the Red Sox' flame of mind in Game 3, then it will be fanned by reports that Schilling actually showed surprising progress with his ankle injury in an extended bullpen and long-toss session on Friday.

"Curt threw with a high-top shoe. No bracing. He did pretty well actually. We're leaving the door open for his season not to be over," Francona said. "He threw with more of a normal stride than he did [in his Game 1 loss]. We were encouraged. But that's just the first step of the process. Now we have to see how he feels tomorrow."

Schilling still experienced the somewhat painful but extremely distracting "clicking" of a tendon in his right ankle that won't stay in its proper "groove." But the support of the high-top shoe made it "manageable," according to Francona. Whether it will be manageable when Schilling tries to throw 97 mph in a fifth, sixth or seventh game is another matter.

Actually, Schilling only had one real cause of pain in his throwing session. But it was in his toes, not his ankle.

"The high-top shoe worked good. But it was too short. It hurt his toes," said Francona, who has watched the Red Sox' medical staff invent various ankle braces and try every known contraption to help Schilling.

"Yeah, we'll see if we can get a bigger size," Francona joked. "All of that stuff, and we've got the wrong size."

Don't say it.

A Yankees fan carries a sign with the year Boston last won the World Series. They were led by Babe Ruth, who went 2-0 with a 1.06 ERA in the series.