White Sox 5, Red Sox 3
-- The end came exactly as it did 12 delirious months before with a batter named Edgar Renteria hitting a ground ball up the middle for the final out. Only this time Renteria was no longer a Cardinal but a member of this Red Sox spectacle that rolled through a winter, spring and summer of books, movies and television shows until it seemed 86 years of Boston's vanquished torment was an endless American reality show.
Then it was over on a Friday evening that hung damp and limp like a party that had finally burned itself out. It was gone in the time it took a 35-year-old Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, all but purged from the Chicago White Sox roster, to strut from the bullpen with the bases loaded and nobody out in the fifth inning and get three straight outs.
And once he did, the life drained from Fenway Park. And the final three innings of the year after the curse was slayed were played in a relative silence, blemished only by the sound of the joyous White Sox pouring out of their dugout to celebrate their 5-3 victory and three-game sweep of the Red Sox.
Then the passionate, the hardy, the eternally faithful who were finally fulfilled last October, shuffled quietly though the Fenway concourses and down the ramps and into the night talking of hockey and dinner plans and everything but baseball. Meanwhile, in a tiny room beneath the first base stands, the Red Sox shrugged and talked casually about the months past, seemingly almost relieved to be done with the concept of being the victorious Red Sox at last.
"It was one of those things where we just got swept," first baseman Kevin Millar said with a smile. "There's a winner and a loser and we were the loser. That's baseball."
But what happened last year was more than just baseball. Some would say it was magic. Some would call it serendipity the way Boston kept storming back from the brink of elimination. And for a few moments on Friday they did again. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez hit back-to-back home runs in the fourth to tie the game at 2. Then Ramirez hit another two innings later to make a 4-2 game 4-3. That's when El Duque came in, and the Red Sox never threatened again.
On the other side of the stadium, the White Sox celebrated their good fortune. Lost in all the talk about the ending of Boston's lament is the fact that the team from Chicago's south side had actually gone 88 years since winning a postseason series, a streak that began with the 1917 World Series and ended last night. Yet instead of waxing on about long-suffering fans, the White Sox guzzled beer and drenched their clubhouse with so much champagne it dripped from the ceiling.
"For the franchise it's great," White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen said. "Finally we make another big step. I think the people in Chicago should feel proud of these players. They did everything. Every day they come out and became what we are."
In a way they were everything the Red Sox weren't -- faceless, anonymous, filled with pitchers without big names who nonetheless stymied the Boston hitters for three games. And then there was El Duque, who was almost traded away at the end of the season when it looked like he had deteriorated so much that he would never pitch for the team again.
He talked the team's executives into letting him try to pitch out of the bullpen at year's end and then found himself on the playoff roster in place of young Brandon McCarthy, who pitched well the last month of the regular season after being called up in late August. "We took some heat for putting El Duque on the roster, but we had to go with our heads and not our heart," Chicago pitching coach Don Cooper said. "He told us he could do it. I don't know how old he is but he's got the mind and the body of a 25-year-old. He's been through this stuff before. He's been in big situations before. But I don't think he's ever been in [stuff] like this before."
If there was a moment of these playoffs, it was when he got Jason Varitek and Tony Graffanino to pop up and Johnny Damon to strike out to extract himself from that nearly fateful sixth.
"You never get used to it, no matter how many games you pitch in whatever situation," El Duque said through an interpreter. "You have to concentrate pitch by pitch and try not to make the wrong one."
He didn't. And as the fans filed out on the end of the year after their dreams were filled, the stadium speakers blared their beloved anthem "Sweet Caroline." Only there was no one left but a few dozen White Sox fans to sing it.
The party was over.