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For Hub fans, a showdown of slogans

These are strange playoff times, when Boston's mood tilts wildly between hope and despair. When fans at Fenway Park shift between cursing their lot and shouting the "So good!" refrain from "Sweet Caroline," even after the song stops playing on the loudspeakers.

It's optimism versus pessimism, and nothing represents that battle like the dueling slogans of the hometown team. On the one hand, "Cowboy Up," this season's mantra of happy thoughts. And on the other, that age-old chant of bad blood and frustration, suggesting, more succinctly than can be printed here, that the Yankees behave like a vacuum cleaner does.

It's worth asking whether there's room, in this town, for both ideas. Whether we're ready, as a city, to be positive for good. Or whether, in times of great joy and pain, that primal Yankees-you-know-what is what makes us who we are.

Judging by sheer numbers these days, "Cowboy Up" is in the lead. What started as a first baseman's rant now graces T-shirts galore and inspires more brimmed hats than Boston has seen since the Pilgrim days. Outside Fenway this weekend, unofficial hucksters said they were selling three times more "Cowboy Up" than anti-Yankee shirts, until city inspectors told them to desist, because a company from Jackson, Wyo., holds the trademark to the phrase.

Yep, Wyoming West Designs has a "Cowboy Up" line of Western wear and recently made a deal with Major League Baseball to license the phrase temporarily, for an undisclosed sum.

"Let's just say I think it's a good thing for both parties involved," Wyoming West partner Ray Domecq said yesterday, on his cellphone, as he headed to the game.

And yet, for all of this happy East-West dealmaking, a quiet backlash could be brewing. Some Sox fans are rolling their eyes at this yee-haw business, and pondering some of the deeper questions "Cowboy Up" invokes. Such as, when was the last time anyone saw a bucking bronco north of Connecticut? Does an out-of-state slogan, coupled with rally towels, feel too Midwest-generic for an East Coast baseball town?

And is Boston hard-wired for this sort of positive thinking?

Harvey Ludwin, 52, a Red Sox fan from New City, N.Y., sat in the right-field bleacher seats on Saturday afternoon and, in between rants about the Red Sox' performance, grumbled that this cowboy thing had gone too far.

"This is the Northeast; it's not Texas," he said. "If the Red Sox fans want to sell their culture down the wind just to try to desperately win, it's kind of pathetic."

Besides, he reported, New Yorkers are making fun of us for this. "They say, `Hey, you rooting for the Dallas Red Sox today?' " Ludwin said.

Ryan Garvey, 32, had to wince last weekend when he heard a soccer mom type yell "Cowboy up" to fellow patrons in a camera store. "It's a little too mainstream," the Newton resident said on Saturday, sitting behind home plate in his Yankee-hating gear. "It's almost gotten cheesy."

Of course, "Cowboy Up" has its backers, those who view it as good karma, if nothing else. Negativity, the theory goes, has failed us in the past. It's time to give optimism a try.

"We were always worried about the Yankees," said Paul Merlino, a standing-room regular of the playoff games. "Now, it's up to us."

But even Merlino admits that there's something a little off-key about Boston's new cowboy ways. The land of duck boots and Louis Boston is clearly not accustomed to Western wear: he spied one fan who who overshot, geographically, and showed up at Fenway in a sombrero.

Still, good things can be said about these happy, cowboy thoughts. When Seth Harmon, 24, spray-painted a quartet of straw hats red the other day -- they had been purchased on a family vacation to Wyoming -- they thought about scribbling Yankee hatred on the back, but decided it wouldn't be good for the children.

That's right: "Cowboy Up" has made some Bostonians sensitive to youth. And tolerant of others. "We could walk down the street wearing red cowboy hats, and people won't laugh at us," marveled Chris Downe, Harmon's friend.

Some also contend that "Cowboy Up" has brought Red Sox fans in step, at last, with reality.

"It also shows that Boston's getting smarter," said Aaron Bloomfield, 18, who did good business in the shirts outside the park this weekend, before the city's code enforcers told him to stop.

"The Yankees don't" act like vacuum cleaners, Bloomfield explained. "As much as you want them to."

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