Friday, October 15, 2004

Pain is the longest-standing tradition for Boston Red Sox fans.

Grady Little won’t dial up the bullpen, Bill Buckner can’t stop a ground ball, Bucky Dent hits one out.

Add two to the list: One ace, Pedro Martinez, walked off the field at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday to the raucous taunts — “Who’s your daddy?” — of the New York crowd during a 3-1 loss that gave control of the American League Championship Series to the Yankees. The Red Sox’s other ace, Curt Schilling, yesterday was ruled out for Game5 of the series because of an injured ankle.

The faces change, the beatings go on.

Yet, the passion in Boston for the Red Sox — a team that hasn’t won the World Series since 1918, that repeatedly is beaten when it counts by their archrival Yankees and that trails the Yankees 2-0 in this ALCS — is stronger now than at any time in the storied franchise’s history.

The city is set to erupt yet again at another playoff showdown between the Yankees and Red Sox, who will meet in Game3 tonight at Fenway Park.

Fans will get to the ballpark and line the streets five hours before game time, to share both their pain of the past and the hopes that this could still be the Red Sox’s year.

“This is a city that is totally devoted to the Red Sox, win or lose,” said Brian Cawley, manager of Cheers at Beacon Hill, the bar used as the model for the popular television show. “It’s like a college football team in the South, a loyal fan base that keeps coming back, year after year, no matter how painful.”

And it is painful, arguably far more painful than the other old-school major league team to which the Red Sox are often compared, the Chicago Cubs.

Cubs fans, until the team’s recent limited success, have suffered only with the tag of lovable losers. The Cubs rarely have gotten close enough to get a sniff of a championship since their last one in 1908.

Red Sox fans, though, have been brought to the title table a number of times only to be denied.

It is a well-documented legacy of near misses.

There was Dent’s home run for the Yankees in the 1978 playoff game for the AL East pennant, the final insult in a season in which the Red Sox blew a 14-game lead in the final two months.

There was Bill Buckner allowing a ground ball by Mookie Wilson to go through his legs in Game6 of the 1986 World Series, when the Red Sox already had champagne on ice in the clubhouse.

There was Aaron’s Boone’s home run in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game7 of last year’s ALCS that sent the Yankees to the World Series.

Now, there is this — a different kind of pain, an excruciating tease, like Schilling’s torn ankle tendon.

Yet, there are no signs that Boston fans can’t take the pain any longer.

Just the opposite — the Red Sox are more popular than ever, already selling out every home game at Fenway Park next year for the first time in the franchise’s 105 seasons.

“There is an inherent thirst to believe that the fans of Red Sox Nation have,” said Charles Steinberg, Red Sox executive vice president of public affairs. “They must believe, as long as you give them reason to.”

The franchise received an injection of enthusiasm from the owners who purchased the club three years ago: former Baltimore Orioles president and Washington insider Larry Lucchino, former Florida Marlins owner John Henry and former San Diego Padres owner and television producer Tom Werner.

The Red Sox traditionally had been one of the least fan-friendly franchises in baseball and had terrible media relations.

The new owners, however, at their first press conference made a public commitment to field a club worthy of the fans’ support, market aggressively to a broad region, preserve all that’s good about Fenway Park and take the ballpark experience to a higher level.

They have accomplished those goals, giving fans a worthy team by showing a willingness to spend money and pursue talented players like Cy Young Award candidate Schilling, whom they acquired in a trade last November.

The Red Sox have been in the playoffs the past two seasons, with 98 wins in each, and have set attendance records — drawing 2.8million fans this season — while renovating and expanding the seating at antiquated Fenway Park, including putting seats on top of the fabled Green Monster left-field wall.

But it is ultimately baseball that makes the Red Sox and the experience at Fenway Park so unique and passionate, the perfect postseason stage.

“I played in Cleveland for seven years, and it’s not even close,” said Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez. “We’ve got the best fans in the world out there. When I am running out to left field, I point to the fans and they love that.”

First-year manager Terry Francona said what has amazed him is the reaction by Red Sox fans at Fenway to nearly every play.

“It could be the seventh inning, and the opposing pitcher could throw ball one to one of our hitters, and the place will erupt,” Francona said. “It’s like nothing I have ever seen.”

That’s because it only happens in Boston, where there is no greater tradition than being part of Red Sox Nation.

“They live and breathe with every success and every failure of every guy on the team, sometimes to a fault,” Francona said. “I’ve never been involved in anything like it.”

Now if they just could do something about those dratted Yankees.

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