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SOX FANS WILL ALWAYS HAVE THE COMEBACK

The memories began washing over me as soon as Doug Mientkiewicz squeezed the final out Wednesday night, ending the most remarkable comeback in postseason baseball history.

I thought of the late Tony Conigliaro, who was a 19-year-old rookie when I discovered the Red Sox at age 9. "Tony C" was my first sports hero, a tragic figure whose career was cut short by a beaning and who died young after suffering a stroke.

Conigliaro would have enjoyed what his old team accomplished over the last four days against the Yankees. So would Ned Martin, the late radio announcer whose golden voice put me to sleep when I listened to Sox games on one of those old transistor radios in my bed.

Ted Williams would have loved the comeback. So would all the grandfathers and grandmothers of New England, who went to their graves still hoping for their beloved Red Sox to win them a World Series, to give them one grand and glorious summer to remember.

I had forgotten how important it was to people back home, until the phone began ringing late Wednesday night. Friends, family members, former roommates, all calling to exult in the Red Sox's good fortune. I heard from my old pal Hobson, a lifelong Sox fan who once drove seven hours with me to Boston to attend a special night for "Tony C."

The Red Sox still have unfinished business. It's not the Yankees they've been chasing for 86 years, but a World Series title. If they want to put the Curse of the Bambino to rest, they must win the Series.

Still, no one can take this triumph away from them, whether they win the Series or not. Whenever a team falls 3-0 in any sport, the 2004 Red Sox will be invoked as proof that anything can happen.

Roger Angell, the great baseball writer, called Red Sox fans "lifelong doubters." Sox fans are chronic pessimists. They learn to expect the worst, to be suspicious of any sign of good fortune. Over the years, no team has been better at lifting their fans' hopes, only to crush them.

I've been a Red Sox fan for 40 years. After they lost the first three games to the Yanks, I fully expected them to win the next three, then lose in Game Seven. I was worried when they went ahead, 6-0. When the Yankees cut the deficit to 8-3, I thought, "Here we go." I was afraid until the final out was recorded.

After all that heartbreak, we lifelong doubters can cherish a team that pulled off the greatest comeback of all. For once, it was nice to have those defeatist impulses proved wrong, to be reminded that curses don't matter when you have the better team.

Maybe the Sox won't win the World Series. But a curse might be lifted just the same. It's the curse of eternal doubt and fatalism. It's an awful thing to believe that bad things will inevitably come your way. It's sad when a sports team can come to reinforce the negative self-image of a person -- or an entire city.

After awhile, fans of a chronic loser begin to embrace their condition. It ennobles them in a way, makes them seem more human. I've heard Bills fans say they wouldn't trade the four Super Bowl losses for one victory. There are people who believe Red Sox fans will feel empty if they win the World Series. They'll miss their identity as sympathetic losers.

That's silly. Winning is better, and the comeback over the Yanks was the finest sporting moment in the lives of Red Sox fans. The Yankees have won 26 World Series since buying Babe Ruth from the Sox. But the Red Sox are the only team ever to come back from 0-3 to win a series -- and they did it against the Yanks.

Yogi Berra, a great Yankee, coined the phrase, "It ain't over 'til it's over." A great Red Sox team made it their own.
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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