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RED SOX'S TEST IS TO REPEAT THE ADVENTURE

For 86 years, the Boston Red Sox and their fans have watched someone else form the dog pile on the field, then retreat to the clubhouse to pour the champagne and light the cigars. It was finally their turn Wednesday night in Busch Stadium.

Boston wrapped up a sensational World Series sweep with its 3-0 whitewash of the St. Louis Cardinals, sending New England into a state of euphoria not seen since Woodrow Wilson was president. It will continue through Saturday, when a mammoth parade that could draw 4 million to 5 million people will be held in the city.

Now the Sox get to deal with the one key question the last 84 winners have wrestled with: How do we do it again? After this long a wait, it's a good problem to have.

The Sox can't possibly have as tumultuous an offseason as they did following their Game Seven loss to the Yankees in last year's ALCS.

Aaron Boone's 11th-inning home run started a chain reaction of events that saw Boston fail in its pursuit of Alex Rodriguez, put Manny Ramirez on waivers and eventually land Curt Schilling.

"I went through a lot of drama during the winter," Ramirez said. "But I kept my mind positive and I told my wife before the season started, 'Hey, baby, this is going to be my year. This is the year.' And we did it.

"I left everything in God's hands. I said, 'Well, if he wants me to go back to Boston, I'm going to go back to Boston. If he wants me to be in Texas (as part of a deal for Rodriguez), I'm going to prepare myself to have a great year.' "

Ramirez had a great year and an even better World Series, batting .412 to earn Most Valuable Player honors. His first-inning home run in Game Three on Tuesday night killed the enthusiasm of the Busch crowd, and the Cardinals never did anything to get it back.

While Ramirez survived the winter of 2003 to stay in a Sox uniform, there are major questions about who will survive this winter. The makeup of the Sox could change dramatically in the offseason as they have more than a dozen potential free agents (the number could fluctuate based on players' acceptance of arbitration). And there are big names such as pitchers Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, catcher Jason Varitek and shortstop Orlando Cabrera.

Lowe said after pitching the Game Four victory that he definitely wanted to come back. Martinez gave a long-winded, unprompted speech after winning Game Three that was widely interpreted as a goodbye chat. But the heart and the soul of the team is Varitek, whose glove punch to the face of Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez sparked a July 24 brawl in Fenway Park that is considered the turning point of the Sox's season.

Varitek is represented by super agent Scott Boras, who is expected to play hardball at the negotiating table. Varitek didn't want to address his situation after Game Four but did say he couldn't see himself with other players.

"These guys are my family. We believed in each other," Varitek said. "Once we won a game against the Yankees (in the American League Championship Series), the confidence started rolling. We did something that hadn't happened in Boston since 1918. We accomplished something that hadn't been done in postseason ever by anybody. And it's because everybody contributed. All 25 guys."

Boston's $125 million payroll might have to grow to keep its parts together. And what will the Sox do if the Yankees add Pedro and Houston center fielder Carlos Beltran?

The payroll gap mattered during the regular season, when Boston finished second to the Yankees in the AL East for the seventh straight year. But it all changed in the most remarkable ALCS ever played as the Sox wiped out a 3-0 deficit. Along the way, they beat Yankees closer Mariano Rivera on consecutive nights to force extra innings in games they eventually won.

Everything went the Sox's way after the Yankees took a 4-3 lead into the ninth inning of Game Four looking for a sweep. Kevin Millar led off with a walk, ex-Bison Dave Roberts pinch-ran, stole second and scored on Bill Mueller's single, and things were never the same.

"If Dave Roberts can't steal second base, I'm home watching this on television," manager Terry Francona said after Wednesday's clincher. "We had a lot of people step up -- we have a lot of good players that played up to their expectations. We also had some guys that were in role parts that came in and did amazing things to help us win games."

Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein said it was hard to not become despondent when his team was down, 3-0. While his players point to many moments on the field during that series as a turning point, Epstein had his own personal epiphany.

"Right before Game Four, I got surrounded by a bunch of reporters and they started asking all these questions about the offseason," Epstein said during the World Series. "They wanted to know what I'm going to do at the GM meetings, what I thought of free agents. It kind of struck a nerve with me.

"So I started to say to them -- and to myself, too -- that only three other teams have the same opportunity we have and that's to win four games and go to the World Series. That's not something I'm going to forget about or take lightly. So I didn't want any more questions about the offseason. Hearing myself saying that made it true."

The Sox had plenty of luck along the way. A couple of reversed umpires' calls went their way. A potential go-ahead double by New York's Tony Clark in the ninth inning of Game Five bounced over the fence for a double that kept the go-ahead run at third base, from where it never scored. Mark Bellhorn won Game One of the Series with an eighth-inning home run off Fenway's Pesky Pole. Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan had a brain cramp on the bases Tuesday, failing to score from third on a grounder to second with the infield back.

Finally, the gods were smiling Boston's way. The Sox get their championship rings next year on Opening Day in Fenway, April 11, against the Yankees, who suddenly are going on five years without a title. No more taunts of "1918, 1918" when they go to the Bronx anymore.

Joked Epstein: "I hope they're getting that '2000, 2000' chant ready in Fenway Park."
e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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