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Sox Angst Heats Up Yet Again

By Jonathan M. Berlin

AS the clock struck midnight on a crisp autumn night nearly four years ago, Red Sox outfielder Dave Henderson had seemingly exorcised 68 years of demons that had plagued the team. After his towering leftfield home run in the extra innings of Game Six of the 1986 World Series against the Mets, only three outs stood between the Sox and their first championship since 1918. As Henderson circled the battle-scarred diamond, he made a weak and only half-successful attempt to subdue the thin smile that began to crease his face.

In my living room, on the other side of the TV that displayed Henderson's heroics, I did not have to be as pokerfaced. Primal screams and high fives replaced the nervous silence of that night, and of a lifetime of Red Sox disappointments. A friend and I played Sports Illustrated editors amid the short-lived euphoria, mentally trying to design a cover that would preserve the Sox' triumph for eternity.

It would have been the perfect climax to a lengthy and noble postseason. Two weeks before, the Red Sox themselves had been one strike away from defeat in the American League playoffs when Henderson himself sent an 0-2 pitch into the bleachers, paving the way for a Sox victory.

Could the omens have been any more promising? Henderson had struck gold twice for the Red Sox, saving them from the brink of defeat, and then bringing them within one strike of the ultimate victory. If the team couldn't win then, how could they ever be expected to win?

As the Sox, now once again temporary kings in the American League East, try to lure me as a faithful but aging servant to the team's doomed pennant hopes, the haunting memories resurface.

I have been enchanted by the Red Sox ever since I can remember--or at least since since 1978, when I started to follow the game. Each year, of course, my spirits have sunk along with the team's position in the standings.

Nineteen-seventy-eight. What an appropriate year to become a Red Sox fan. Fourteen and a half games ahead of the dreaded Yankees in July, deadlocked on October 2. And after weakling Bucky Dent belted a Mike Torrez pitch over the Green Monster, the '78 Sox were history.

It took me a while after my first Sox season to realize that, for the team's fans, disappointment was the rule rather than the exception. At the time, in my youthful zeal, my fist would punish a nearby chair, the floor or even my own thigh at the sight of a Sox miscue. After the season, I almost could not finish Sparky Lyle's The Bronx Zoo, which painstakingly recounted and reveled in the 1978 tragedy.

I think that as I've gotten older, I have put the Sox' problems in the proper perspective. I do actually enjoy going to games when the Red Sox lose. I have no trouble watching a game without slamming my fist down. And, though it opened a few healing wounds, I must confess that I hardly resisted the opportunity to relive the 1986 fiasco through Roger Angell's Season Ticket.

BUT despite my seemingly blase new attitude, I've recently discovered that my hopes for a glorious Sox season manifest themselves as pervasively, if not as passionately, as ever before. The first thing I do every summer morning--as I have done for the past 12 years--is open up the sports pages and see how the team fared the previous night.

I pretend that the score doesn't matter. I tell myself I truly appreciate the subtleties of the national pastime. And, I tell myself, the poetic musings of the cleverest newspaper sports columnists convey The Baseball Experience better than any statistic can.

This pipe dream sounds nice. But I don't read those columnists.

There are often three of those baseball columns on the front of my paper's sports section, but some don't even reveal the score until the last paragraph. Some of the writers will undoubtedly win Pulitzer Prizes, but I've found that until they tell me the score, I couldn't care less about their highbrow discourse.

In recent years I've even stopped pretending that a particular day's game interests me. I not only bypass the front page, but the box score too. While the rest of my body would rather be in bed, my fingers rush to page four, where the standings give me the immediate gratification I crave.

I must admit, my stats-seeking fingers have enjoying riding the crest of the Sox' impressive string of victories. Despite all those haunting disappointments of seasons past, I can't help but get excited again, just like I did in '86, and in '78 before that.

So, once again, I have become a born-again zealot, convinced by the same tireless argument that we won't know it when the Messiah does actually arrive. Yes, I have once again been swept up in the great Red Sox pennant chase. Back, yet another time, for more abuse.

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