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To escape stress, troops in field tune in the Sox

BALAD, Iraq -- It says something about the stress level of Lieutenant Phil Blanchard's life right now that the Pittsfield, Mass., native and lifelong Red Sox fan finds watching the Olde Towne Team's torturous playoff run the most relaxing part of his day.

Blanchard's job as platoon leader in the First Battalion of the 64th Armored Regiment lends new meaning to the phrase "diehard Red Sox supporter." On a typical day, he leads 18-hour patrols to search out and destroy Iraqi insurgents who lay deadly ambushes for US convoys and lob mortar rounds into the sprawling base of the Fourth Infantry Division's Third Combat Brigade, 40 miles north of Baghdad.

On Blanchard's first patrol back in July, an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade struck a glancing blow on one of his tanks. Any time they go out on patrol, he and his men expect to come under fire in sneak attacks similar to the ones that the US military said killed three Fourth Infantry Division soldiers and wounded five on Sunday and yesterday.

For Blanchard and other Sox fans on the front lines in Iraq, watching the local nine grind it out against the hated Yankees, something made possible by the recent arrival of satellite TV dishes and decoders in this most remote and hostile corner of Red Sox Nation, is a welcome diversion from the dangers of duty.

"It takes your mind off how things are here," said Blanchard, whose next patrol was due to head out early today, about the time the Red Sox captured Game 4, 3-2. "When you have a game to get back to after a patrol it's pretty good. You get to focus on something else. Once the game is over, it's right back to reality.

"It's great that there is baseball," he said. "Of course things are better when the Sox win."

Blanchard's Red Sox obsession is clear from the duty board at the entrance to the concrete hangar on the dusty former Iraqi airfield his platoon calls home, where the unit's daily schedule is listed under the large heading "Red Sox vs. Evil Empire."

Blanchard is reading "Babe: The Legend Comes to Life," because "you gotta get to know the man to beat the curse."

Red Sox fans are a distinct minority among the troops in Iraq. In an army dominated by Southern drawls and Midwestern twangs, Blanchard's broad New England accent stands out. So do the pictures on the wall over his bunk. Most soldiers have pictures of family members, or pinups of scantily clad young women cut out from magazines. On Blanchard's wall, the clippings are pretty much all Pedro, Nomar, and Manny, a fitting collection for someone who says his earliest childhood memory was of his father jumping for joy after Dave Henderson's memorable home run in Game 5 of the 1986 AL Championship Series.

Chief Warrant Officer Eric Moran, 32, who grew up in Boston and now serves in Baghdad, also has an earliest childhood memory from the Sox playoff past: Luis Tiant twirling a marathon complete-game win against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 1 of the 1975 World Series.

Moran and Master Sergeant Joseph Sturniolo, 51, of Framingham stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to catch Game 3 live on the satellite TV his unit set up in their recreation tent at Camp Victory in Baghdad, and did not regret it despite the 4-3 Sox loss to the Yanks.

"It was a pretty good game," Sturniolo said. "But I was hurting when I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. the next morning." Sturniolo and Moran serve in a unit that escorts visiting delegations through Baghdad, where US convoys are attacked several times a day.

"It's been gut-wrenching since the playoffs started," Moran said. He was talking about the Red Sox, not the threat of ambushes.

"When they came back from two down against Oakland, that was pretty hard on the ticker," Moran said. "If they win the World Series, I think I'm going to cry."

For soldiers who are not from the Boston area, Red Sox fans' passion comes as a surprise.

"I never quite understood the rivalry," said Blanchard's platoon sergeant, Jason Gallegos, who hails from Wyoming but has rooted for the Yankees since the days of Don Mattingly. Blanchard "lives it. You can feel the actual feeling he has. If the Red Sox win, I'll definitely root for them in the World Series."

That comradely sentiment did not prevent Gallegos from some good-natured ribbing of his commander after the Pinstripes took Game 3.

"That's the worst part," said Lieutenant Brent Osborn of Nashville, commander of a scout platoon in the First Battalion of the 64th Armored, who became a Red Sox fan after attending Boston College. "After they lost to the Yankees in 1999, I had to listen to the Yankee fans."

"The worst part," said Blanchard with a laugh, "is when your platoon sergeant is a Yankees fan."

"Being here now definitely puts it in perspective," said Osborn, who watched Game 3 holding his hand radio, in case he got the call to lead a patrol out to search for Iraqi fighters. "Before, if the Sox lost, I'd get angry. Now I'll be, like, `It's just a game.' "

"But they can't lose a playoff to the Yankees!" he added.

Sox fans are not the only passionate baseball supporters in Balad. On Third Brigade's main base, troops have built a makeshift ballpark in a dusty field where soldiers play whiffleball. Until a few days ago, the scoreboard was a replica of the one on the Green Monster, and a sign on the right field wall once said, "Go Red Sox." But Cubs' fans have apparently taken over the field, removing the scoreboard and replacing the sign with a caricature of the late legendary Chicago announcer Harry Caray.

"The Red Sox just can't get any respect," observed Lieutenant Ed Park, a Yankee fan.

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