- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

BOSTON Ever wonder just how fanatical New Englanders are about their Boston Red Sox? Try driving west on Beacon Street, heading from downtown toward Fenway Park, and you'll find out.

You'll see an overpass with a sign hanging from 20 feet up that is supposed to caution traffic to an upcoming anomaly. It should read "Reverse Curve," warning drivers in the left-hand lane that traffic on the upcoming ramp flows counterclockwise.

Instead, the message has been tweaked, probably by a lonely member of Red Sox Nation who has far too much free time on his or her hands not to mention the gumption of a master graffiti artist.

Our friendly diehard has managed to replace the letter "v" in "Curve" with an "s" while inserting another word in between. Thus, the sign now reads, "Reverse the Curse."

No further explanation is necessary. No one who knows a lick about anything in Boston has to think twice about the meaning.

When you grow up in New England, your sole purpose is to outlive the Curse of the Bambino which refers to Boston's sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920 and actually see the Red Sox win a World Series for the first time since 1918. And this season, thanks to a revolutionary new group of owners, the most talented team assembled in decades and, yes, even a little magic, there is reason to believe it could happen.

"Nobody's carrying a curse around here," Boston ace Pedro Martinez told a reporter last week in Anaheim. "I'm not. Don't ask me."

Curse or no curse, the Red Sox (68-49 through Tuesday) are in the midst of a memorable season. Owners of the best record in baseball through most of April and May, they have been overtaken in the American League East by the Yankees but trailed their arch-rivals by just five games through Tuesday and were two games behind the Angels in the wild card race.

Of course, pennant chases are nothing new for folks in Boston, who have seen the Red Sox in the hunt six of the last seven years. The 2002 season, though, seems to have a different feel.

Maybe it's the fact that Martinez (16-2) isn't doing it alone. Right-hander Derek Lowe, the previously maligned Boston closer, is having a Cy Young Award season with a 16-5 record, plus a league-best 2.09 ERA among starters and a no-hitter. Even veteran John Burkett has won 10 games, establishing himself as a valuable No.3 starter.

Maybe it's the newfound sense of camaraderie in the cramped home clubhouse at Fenway, where bickering and a me-first attitude had prevailed in recent seasons. Not so this year. The Red Sox are a close-knit group, and never was that more apparent than during their recent brawl with the Baltimore Orioles.

Lowe didn't make many friends on the Orioles when he plunked Gary Matthews Jr. in retaliation for Manny Ramirez being hit by a pitch the inning before. But he won over his own teammates.

"This will keep everyone together, knowing we care about each other," said infielder and team cheerleader Carlos Baerga. "That's what it's all about."

Or maybe it's the refreshing attitude being conveyed by the Red Sox's new ownership group, which has been embraced by the community like no one could have predicted and has emerged from chaos to become one of the best-run organizations in the game.

Only six months ago, the Red Sox opened spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., as a team in turmoil. A lengthy and controversial bidding war for ownership of the club finally was resolved when the group headed by former Florida Marlins owner John Henry paid $700million for the Red Sox, Fenway and 80 percent of the NESN regional cable network.

Reviled general manager Dan Duquette was fired and replaced by Mike Port, and unpopular pitching coach-turned-interim manager Joe Kerrigan was replaced by former Cleveland Indians bench coach Grady Little.

Perhaps more important than personnel decisions, though, was the manner in which the new owners (headed by Henry, former Orioles and San Diego Padres executive Larry Lucchino and TV producer Tom Werner) reached out to Red Sox Nation with open arms.

In February, as hundreds camped outside Fenway to buy season tickets, team vice president for public affairs Charles Steinberg passed out blankets to freezing fans.

Then on April3, as fans filed into the 90-year-old ballpark, none other than Martinez and All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra stood at the turnstiles, taking tickets from astonished onlookers.

Such displays of fan-friendliness are a rarity in today's game, especially for one of baseball's most established franchises that sells out most home games.

"The affection by the fans for the Red Sox has always been terrifically great," Steinberg told the Sports Business Journal. "What we're out to do is make sure the affection is returned by the Red Sox with equal force."

The affection has been shown in more tangible forms on the field as well. With an Opening Day payroll of $108 million second only to that of the Yankees the Red Sox were built to contend. And with the trade deadline deal for outfielder Cliff Floyd (along with Scott Rolen, the two best available players), the owners showed they are going to do everything within reason to make a run at a title.

And the Red Sox didn't just acquire Floyd; they made sure no one else did, a fact that was not lost on Port.

"This is a player of sufficient caliber that even a team south of us was trying to acquire," the GM said in an obvious reference to the Yankees. "The Red Sox were the ones able to get the job done."

That's not to say everything has been perfect in New England. This is Boston and these are the Red Sox, after all, so every event good or bad is magnified at least to the 10th power.

When the Red Sox, on the heels of a disappointing series in the Bronx, came home recently and were beaten 9-2 by Orioles rookie right-hander Rodrigo Lopez, newspapers and talk radio shows were filled with doomsday predictions. Boston rebounded to win the next two from Baltimore convincingly, quieting the doubters.

When Boston then proceeded to lose to the last-place Texas Rangers by the unsightly score of 19-7, the doubters were again out in full force. That is, until Lowe went out the next night and beat the Rangers 13-0.

And when all else fails, there's still that blasted Curse as much a part of Red Sox history as the Green Monster and Ted Williams.

The Red Sox could win 95 games, Martinez and Lowe could finish 1-2 in the Cy Young voting and Garciaparra, Ramirez and Floyd could form one of the deadliest hitting trios in baseball. But until the team proves it can win in October and face down its demons, Red Sox Nation will remain worried that collapse could come at any moment.

"It sure looks good on paper, man," said Little of the team assembled for him. "Now we just have to go out and win."

Perhaps then the sign above Beacon Street will return to its original wording.

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