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SHARING THE JOY MADE ALL THE PAIN WORTH IT

I put in my first call to Geoff Hobson at 10:20 Wednesday night, with the Red Sox leading the Cardinals, 3-0, in the sixth. They were leading, three games to none, in the Series. They were on the verge of a World Series championship. Hobson was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

"This is not good," he said from his living room in Cincinnati, where he writes for the Bengals' Web site. "I have a sick feeling in my stomach."

Like any seasoned Sox fan, Hobson had learned to be wary. He was well aware they had blown a 3-0 lead in the seventh game of the 1975 Series. He knew they had squandered leads in the 1978 playoff game against the Yankees, and the sixth and seventh games against the Mets in 1986, and in the seventh game of the ALCS against the Yanks a year ago.

When you're a Sox fan, you never feel safe. That's why this World Series was such an odd experience. It was too easy, too clean. You didn't feel any of the customary Sox fan's dread. They hadn't trailed in the entire Series heading into Game Four. The little boy in me, crushed so many times through the years, was still a little fearful.

Like Hobson, and so many fans of our generation, I came of age as a Red Sox fan in the 1960s. It started for us with the 1967 team, which went from ninth place to the pennant in a single season, ending a long stretch of chronic losing at Fenway Park. That '67 team changed baseball in Boston forever. Since that year, they've had 31 winning seasons, the most of any team in baseball. But until Wednesday, no World Series championship.

They made a record album about that '67 team, called "The Impossible Dream." It was one of the first of its kind, a sappy, romanticized chronicle of the season. I was 12 years old that year. I loved it. Every kid who lived through that season loved that album. In fact, the opening line of the record was, "This is really a love story . . ."

We were young and naive then, and the '67 Red Sox gave us the belief that anything was possible. They lost the Series that year -- to St. Louis -- but we figured they'd come right back and win it. Funny how things worked out. As we grew into adults, our team taught us always to expect the worst. The little boy has been running around inside us for all these years, wishing for the Sox to finish the job.

Hobson grew up in suburban Boston. I grew up in Rhode Island. We met in 1980, when we worked at the same newspaper in Binghamton. Once we realized we were both Red Sox fans -- with a mutual fondness for Tony Conigliaro -- a friendship was cemented for life. We drove to Boston together for "Tony C" night, playing a beat-up cassette of "The Impossible Dream" on the car stereo along the way. We stood up in each other's weddings.

Hobson knew "The Impossible Dream" by heart. We used to recite passages to each other. The Boston general manager in '67 was Heywood Sullivan, who made a number of shrewd deals that year. There's a spot on the album where the narrator says, "It was only fitting that Sully was on the phone again."

So whenever I'd call Hobson over the years, to announce the birth of a child or some other significant event, he would always say, "It's only fitting that Sully's on the phone again."

I was on the phone again Wednesday night. It was still 3-0, Red Sox, when I called him back in the bottom of the eighth. Boston had failed to score after loading the bases with no outs.

"That inning was a disgrace," he said. You could hear his friends and family members laughing at him in the background. "It's over. They're going to lose, four games to three."

I have to admit, I hadn't expected to be this nervous in Game Four. The Sox had won seven straight postseason games. One loss wasn't likely to stop them. In fact, some Sox fans were hoping the Series would go six games. They felt it would be sweeter if the clinching game took place at home, in old Fenway.

The sports fan in me was actually disappointed in the Series. I wanted the Cardinals to put up a fight, to bring out Boston's best, and to give the world a Series to remember. But once it got close to game time Wednesday, once I could taste it, I wanted the Sox to finish it off. We'd had enough drama over the years, enough dread. A sweep would do just fine.

I called Hobson for the final time in the bottom of the ninth inning. It was still 3-0. For the first time, he actually sounded confident. Keith Foulke got two outs. Then we were one out away. Edgar Renteria hit a comebacker to the mound, and we began screaming over the phone.

"They did it!" Hobson said. "They actually won the World Series."

We congratulated each other, and I told him it had been a privilege to share our Red Sox obsession for all these years. I'm sure a lot of Sox fans felt the same way. There were some devastating moments, to be sure. But it's the shared rooting experience, the bond with other fans, that makes rooting for a team worth it in the end.

The best thing about sports is that it allows us to be kids again. Watching the Red Sox finally win the World Series reminded me why I fell in love with baseball in the first place. It reconnected me with that 12-year-old Red Sox fan.

Hobson called me back a few minutes before midnight, after sharing the moment with his son. We were both close to tears. I told him it would never be the same now that they'd won it all.

"Yes, it will," he said. "They'll just have to win it again. It was a great night, Sully, and I'm glad you were on the phone again."
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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