-- Asked to describe the range of emotions that he and his city had endured in the past week, Red Sox fan Jason Marshall used two words that don't often go together.
"Dismay," he said, referring to Boston's losses in the first three games of its American League Championship Series with the Yankees. "And then euphoria," he quickly added. "Or, well, almost."
At Who's on First, a dank, windowless cavern, Marshall, 26, was one of what seemed like dozens of anxious patrons with a thin beard lining his jaw -- matching that of Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. Ortiz's first-inning home run gave the Red Sox a lead they would never relinquish. The crowd erupted just after midnight, as "almost" gave way to a 10-3 victory and the realization that the Red Sox were headed for their first World Series in 18 years.
Fans too nervous to celebrate outwardly as the Red Sox built a seven-run lead, and as the Yankees briefly clawed their way back, sprinted into streets heavily barricaded and teeming with police. A crowd of a few hundred grew to what appeared to be at least a few thousand people climbing lampposts, banging cowbells and waving American and Dominican flags outside Fenway Park as car horns and sirens blared across the city. One man held a small handmade sign that read simply, "We have waited too long."
"This is history right here and there's nowhere I'd rather be," said Brian Bethell, 32, of Lynn, Mass., as he hugged a friend amid the bedlam.
Jim Tiberii, 33, of Everett, Mass., yelled into his cell phone over and over: "Awesome! Awesome!"
It was a scene few here could have imagined just a few days ago, when this city was shell-shocked and the Red Sox were on the verge of a familiar dismissal from the postseason. But what followed was a string of improbable victories that left Bostonians wondering whether their status as baseball's perennial bridesmaids -- an undeniable component of this city's identity -- might finally be shed.
While the big showdown was nearly 200 miles south in the Bronx, fans from across New England converged on a half-dozen bars in Kenmore Square, in the shadow of Fenway Park.
"I had to see what it would be like in this city when they finally do it," said Mike Dougherty, 21, a junior at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island who took the train to Boston to watch the game near Fenway Park with friends.
As recently as Sunday, when the Red Sox trailed three games to none, all hope had appeared lost. Invoking divine intervention at a bizarre ceremony in front of Fenway Park after the first two losses, Mayor Thomas M. Menino convened an interfaith collection of spiritual leaders charged with lifting the curse that some believe has prevented the Red Sox from winning the World Series since 1918.
At first, his words appeared to have fallen on deaf ears, as Boston suffered the most lopsided drubbing in playoff history, in Game 3. Scalpers struggled to hawk Game 4 tickets for less than face value on the streets outside Fenway Park. Billboards placed around the city with the slogan "Keep the Faith" seemed starkly out of step with reality. And a member of one Internet site for die-hard Boston fans summed up the prevailing mood of his counterparts by posting the rhetorical question: "Is this the lowest point in franchise history?"
The answer, it turned out, was a resounding no. After the Red Sox reeled off an unprecedented three consecutive victories while facing elimination, Boston residents were bleary-eyed Wednesday morning from staying up to watch four consecutive contests that concluded after midnight. Television ratings in the Boston market for Monday night's 14-inning marathon that ran nearly six hours were higher here than those for the Super Bowl last January, which was won by the home town New England Patriots.
"I am a walking zombie," proclaimed surgical technician Jayne Johnson, 43, on her way to get a cup of coffee at Massachusetts General Hospital. She said she had watched every minute of every playoff game, a claim lent credibility by the Red Sox jacket, T-shirt, knit hat and lapel pins she wore with her green hospital scrubs. She had left her Red Sox backpack at home, she said.
The dramatic shift in their fortunes left Red Sox fans in an unusual position. Postseason defeats in 1975, 1986 and a year ago -- when the Yankees beat them on a dramatic, walk-off home run -- were occasions for soul-searching that left fans embittered for months or longer. But this week many said that after fighting off the prospect of a sweep at the hands of their arch rivals, falling short would not be nearly as devastating as years past.
"After what they have done, coming back from the dead, this team will be remembered as a success no matter what happens out there tonight," said Noah St. John, president of a Massachusetts-based company that advises corporate employees and athletes on overcoming failure. On Wednesday he set up a sidewalk table on the corner of Van Ness Street and Yawkey Way, with Fenway Park behind him, and handed out pins to passersby with the slogan "Believe and Succeed."
"As far as I am concerned, this is my World Series," said Bill Jacques, 19, watching in Who's on First as the teams took the field. He said he works at a fancy suburban country club, and has drawn complaints from his boss for refusing to shave since the team started winning games a few days ago.
"I'll get to that eventually," he said. "But hopefully not for another couple of weeks."