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Fenway's community of desire

Together, Sox fans plumb the torment, joys of Game 4

Something happens when you live through a weekend like this -- two do-or-die games, that history thing -- in the company of people who are feeling just as hopeful, just as nervous, just as out-of-control.

So it was yesterday in the standing-room spot between sections 19 and 20, the intersection of the stairway and the Fenway Grill, the corner of heart attack and joy. Hugh Merlino, 30, pressed himself into a green metal pole and went through the gamut of baseball emotion: confidence, calm, agony, and exuberance. From "I'm dying" to "I told you! See? I told you!"

"We live and die with every pitch," he said, at one point. And the people around him muttered their agreement.

They knew him by now, after two days of leaning over the same railings, shifting back and forth on the same concrete floor, and wearing the same Sox-fan clothes. Merlino was the mayor of this 6-by-6-foot zone. Whatever he felt, they shared.

Fenway sections tend to have their own zoologies, their own sets of archetypal players: the loud demon fans, the sulkers, the diligent scorekeepers. They have optimists and pessimists, and ritual arguments. On Saturday night, the grand debate of Red Sox fandom had played out along this aisle, as a young man despaired aloud at his trailing team, and an older man looked over knowingly and said, "It's not over yet."

Of course, the elder man was right. So yesterday, the crowd was back. And it was hard to find a more instantly tight-knit crew than the folks in standing room behind the plate, who were shoved into intimate contact with near-strangers and mustard and beer, with something wet occasionally dripping from the ceiling, and a cast of characters all their own.

There was Merlino, deputized by the nearby usher to give directions and keep the peace. His nephew Paul, 28, and his Uncle Paul, 47, who watched the game clutching the shoulders of his stepson and muttering every thought, good and bad.

There were Jackie Ryan, 22, and Jason Saphire, 28, who lost their voices screaming on Saturday night and made their way to the same spot again, for good luck. There were Paul Hannigan, 29, and Brian Bradbury, 32, who hadn't had tickets to yesterday's game until they ran into someone walking out of the park on Saturday night. He wanted to go to the football game, and was selling his Red Sox tickets. "Follow us to the ATM," Hannigan told him, and suddenly they were in again.

There were newcomers to this patch of Fenway, too, such as the diehards Annie and Mike Ferreira, 29 and 31, who met in the right-field bleachers as Northeastern students. Now, they have two children, 4 months and 2 years old, whose hospital pictures were taken in tiny Red Sox outfits.

This had to be the year, Mike Ferreira said: The 4-month-old was holding up her fingers in a V.

It was clear that there were good signs from the start. An entire locker room full of Bruins filed by, here to watch their fellow hometown boys. (And here was Merlino, wearing a Red Sox hockey jersey!) A happy coincidence was discovered: Not only had some of these folks cheered together Saturday night, but they had sat near each other back in May, insulting Yankees together from behind the visitors' dugout.

But what did that matter as yesterday's game went on, inning after inning of missed opportunities?

No, this was the sort of game that wasn't easy. This was an up-and-down experience. At happy moments, any little boy who squeezed up the aisle on his way to the bathroom got his hair mussed by one of the standing-room fans.

At relaxed moments, there were side games: Who would step on the unopened mustard package that had fallen on one of the stairs? And what did it mean? There were discussions of ballpark ethics: If someone spills beer on a guy's wife's head, is it OK to spill beer on him in return?

At tense moments, everyone seemed to be squinting and frowning and mumbling at once.

Merlino, the mayor, tried to keep spirits up. "A whole lotta baseball to be played," he was saying in the fourth, even though the Sox were down, 4-2. By the seventh, it was time to take control.

"A little rally time," he announced, after Trot Nixon's single. He put his cap on inside out. Almost immediately, Bill Mueller hit into a double play, and Merlino put his hat back on right.

"Where's your rally cap?" Ryan asked him a few minutes later.

He swung it over backward.

Something had to work. They were running out of time. No one was really calm now, except for Ed and Sue Palmer, 67 and 64, visiting from Avon Park, Fla., packed in front of the Ferreiras.

"You know what happened last night," Sue Palmer said, reassuringly. "It'll be all right."

And so it went, until the bottom of the eighth. Nomar was on third, Manny on first, Ortiz at the plate. Merlino, leaning down, shouted, "Give it to me here!" Ryan made a tense, groaning sound. And then, everyone around them was chanting, "MVP! MVP!" willing the man to hit the ball, please, hit the ball, just this once.

And he did.

And Mike Ferreira, a prime candidate for coronary stress, suddenly relaxed, as if this were what he had expected all along. "We're used to it," he said. "It's like every other year."

A few high-fives and bear hugs later, it was over. Another day of this to live through, at least. Ryan and Saphire made plans to catch an overnight flight to Oakland. Hannigan and Bradbury ruminated about Sox demographics: How many children would be born nine months from this weekend? And how many of them would be named Todd, David, or Manny?

Merlino wasn't thinking that far ahead. Just a few more days. And that pole would be waiting.

"You come back here next weekend," he said. "I'm gonna be here. Same shirt and everything."

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