Fans of the Boston Red Sox are defined by the magnificence of their misery. They can itemize their team's climactic agonies like the Stations of the Cross. A tantalizing lead, inevitably followed by victory-snatching disaster, stains their dreams and scars their muscle memory. Since 1918, the last time Boston won a World Series, postseason has been the haunt of red October. And so very often the satanic specter for Red Sox Nation has been Damn Nation: the New York Yankees. A home run by Bucky (Freakin') Dent in a one-game playoff in 1978; an 11th-inning blast by Aaron (Flippin') Boone in last year's seven-game playoff heartbreaker. Why, there might even be a curse--of the Bambino, perhaps. For it was the 1920 trade of Sox star Babe Ruth to New York that sent the Yanks on their way to 26 championships while the Ruthless Red Sox went ringless and the fans nursed their creepy karma like a drunk with his last beer.
Well, Boston will have to put its masochism on hold for a few more days. In a reversal so dramatic and historic that the New York Daily News ran the headline HELL FREEZES OVER, the Sox roared back from a three-game deficit to sweep four games from the Yanks--the first time that had been accomplished in baseball's 102-year postseason history--to win the American League Championship Series (ALCS). They advanced to the World Series against another old nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals, who defeated the plucky Houston Astros in a similarly adventurous seven-game fracas. With the Yankee phantoms of their failures--the Babe, Bucky and Boone--momentarily exorcised, Red Sox fans could hope for a championship, lifting a psychic boulder that has both crushed and linked generations of neurotic New Englanders. "If we win, people will be crying," said Sox fan Tom Faria, celebrating at the Yankee Tavern in the Bronx after Game 7. "Not just because they're happy. They'll be crying for their fathers. Just for that bond."
Fans live in the past. Their loyalty is built on stats and mental snapshots of games from decades before. They know, if only through oral tradition, that St. Louis won the 1946 World Series because of Boston shortstop Johnny Pesky's late throw to the plate and that in 1967 three wins by the Cards' magnificent pitcher Bob Gibson trumped the awesome batting of that sainted Sox Carl Yastrzemski. Fans on each side will surely remind themselves that those Series went the full seven, with St. Louis winning both.
But athletes live in the moment. Focus is everything. They don't believe in curses; they believe in skills. That's true of Larry Walker, who came to the Cards in August and helped St. Louis to its first World Series appearance since 1987. He heads a fearsome foursome, including first baseman Albert Pujols, the game's best young player; third baseman Scott Rolen, a perennial candidate for Most Valuable Player; and center fielder Jim Edmonds, who hit 42 homers this year.