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Judgement day

Latest chapter may be most gut-wrenching

The World Series logo had already been painted on the Fenway grass and champagne was chilling in the visitor's clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. Pedro Martinez was on the mound, Roger Clemens in the shower, and the Red Sox were ahead by three runs with just five outs to make. "Looks like the Curse of the Bambino boomeranged this year," the New York Post conceded in an editorial, which went to press as the Sox were on the verge of winning the American League pennant.

This, finally, was The Yeah for Boston's long-suffering baseball fans. Until Babe Ruth's spectral hand stopped Tim Wakefield's knuckleball from dancing and deposited it into the left-field stands 16 minutes past witching hour yesterday morning, and the damn Yankees had yet another October horse laugh at the expense of their forever fall guys.

"Go back to Boston, boys, goodbye," New York owner George Steinbrenner cackled to a Daily News reporter, as the Sox buses left the stadium parking lot after Aaron (The Boonebino) Boone's 11th-inning home run had given his pinstriped teammates a 6-5 victory and handed their archrivals their most devastating defeat.

Of all the autumnal losses since Boston's last world championship in 1918, this was by far the most painful. Worse than 1946, when Enos Slaughter scored the Series-winning run for St. Louis from first base as Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky held the ball.

Worse than 1949, when the Sox lost the last two games of the season at New York. Worse than 1967, when the Cardinals battered arm-weary pitcher Jim Lonborg in the Series finale in the Fens. Worse than 1975, when the Reds' Joe Morgan blooped in the winning run off Jim Burton in the Series clincher. Worse than 1978, when the Yankees' Bucky Dent lofted a weak fly over Fenway's Wall to win the pennant playoff.

Worse, even, than 1986, when the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs at Shea Stadium in the 10th inning of the sixth game and gave the all-but-dead Mets another life.

"It wasn't supposed to end this way," said Wakefield, who wept at his locker after the game.

Not after Boston went up, 4-0, after four innings. Not with Clemens out of the game. Not with the Sox leading, 5-2, with one out in the bottom of the eighth. Not with a bullpen that had allowed just one run in six games in the late innings. If the Curse of the Bambino was far crueler this time, it was because victory went from being possible to likely to inevitable to questionable to doubtful to extinct, and because it took an agonizing four hours to play out.

"Why do they have to break our hearts?" groaned an 83-year-old man in a Red Sox cap, drinking a consolation cocktail next to his son at Rosie O'Grady's Saloon in Manhattan, after the town team had continued its teasing 85-year lap dance with its fans. "If they're going to lose, why can't they just lose like other teams?"

Even the oldest of the faithful understand that with the Red Sox, nothing is certain until the final out. Which is why Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' winning pitcher in the finale, was astounded when he saw a TV shot of the Series logo from Fenway before the game.

"You're kidding me," said Rivera, who'd blown the save in the final game of the 2001 Series against Arizona with his team leading in the ninth. "People are nuts. They're crazy. It's silly . . . Maybe they want to believe they won."

For seven innings, Sox fans from Eastport to Block Island and beyond thought they'd finally found deliverance at the hands of a bunch of renegade cowboys who'd never read a history book.

Trot Nixon, the Rawjah killah, had smacked a two-run homer in the second. Kevin Millar had whacked a solo shot in the fourth. Now, here came Joe Torre, asking Clemens for the ball. "We're trying to win a ballgame," the Yankee manager said. "You know the leash is very short when it comes to Game 7."

In came Mike Mussina, whom Boston already had beaten twice and who hadn't pitched an inning of relief since high school. But he'd told Torre that he'd be ready on two days' rest, just in case. "In case happened," Mussina said.

The Yankees, who hadn't lost an American League Championship Series since 1980, were on the verge of instant winter, trailing by four runs with Bawstins on first and third and nobody out. One swing of the bat by Jason Varitek and it would be 7-0, and the Marlins, waiting in Chicago until their Series partner was determined, could board a jet for Logan.

But Mussina struck out Varitek and got Johnny Damon to ground into a double play and thus did the evening begin turning. The Red Sox put two on with one out in the fifth and got nothing. Nothing in the sixth, either. Felix Heredia came in for Mussina in the seventh, Jeff Nelson (the alleged Game 3 bullpen bullyboy) came in for Heredia. Still nothing.

The Yankees, meanwhile, were chipping away at Martinez. Jason Giambi, who'd been stuck in a monster traffic jam on the Cross-Bronx Expressway after a water main burst in Manny Ramirez's old neighborhood but had arrived in time (thanks to a police escort), hit a leadoff homer in the fifth. Now, Giambi clocked another with two outs in the seventh.

"I'd never seen Joe look so tense," Giambi would say. "You could see him on the bench. After I hit the second home run, it was the only time I saw him laugh."

When Enrique Wilson, the Pedro pest, followed with an infield single and Karim Garcia ripped another to right, it seemed likely Red Sox manager Grady Little would pull Martinez with the lead run at the plate. He did not. And after David Ortiz crashed a homer off a distraught David Wells to make it 5-2, Martinez came out for the eighth.

But for how long? In the final game in Oakland, Martinez had taken a 4-2 lead into the eighth, given up a run, and was pulled for lefty Alan Embree. Now, he quickly found himself in a another jam with one out.

Derek Jeter lofted a double to deep right. Bernie Williams followed with a single to center, 5-3 now. With Hideki Matsui up, Little came out of the dugout, surely to ask for the ball. Embree and Mike Timlin, who had perfect earned run averages in the series, were both warmed up, looking out from the bullpen for the signal that never came. "Pedro Martinez has been our man all year long," Little said.

Even if he'd asked for the ball, the Sox skipper might have had to pry it out of Martinez's right hand. "I said yes," Martinez affirmed, after Little asked him whether he had enough left in his tank. "I never say no. I always want to stay in there. I did what I could. I will refuse to give the ball if you ask me."

That decision -- or non-decision -- will rank with the others in the Second-Guessers Hall of Shame reserved for Boston managers. Joe McCarthy starting Denny Galehouse instead of Mel Parnell in the 1948 pennant playoff with the Indians. Darrell Johnson taking out Jim Willoughby in the seventh game of the 1975 Series with the Reds. John McNamara taking Clemens out of the sixth game of the 1986 Series with the Mets.

Torre, who'd already run through five pitchers by then, said he understood why Little wouldn't use the hook on his future Hall of Famer. "Obviously, he wanted to stay in," the Yankee manager observed. "It would be tough for any manager to say no . . . when it's Pedro Martinez."

So Martinez kept the ball -- and watched Matsui, who'd cranked a double off him in Game 3 at Fenway and had doubled off him again in the fourth, hit a ground-ruler down the right-field line. Little stayed in the dugout. Up came Jorge Posada, with men on second and third, and he blooped a ball that dropped just in front of center fielder Damon. "There's nothing we can do about that," shrugged Little.

It was 5-5 now, with the melodrama continuing for another hour. Enter Embree, too late, to get Giambi. Enter Timlin, who labored until the 10th, when Little summoned Wakefield, the butterfly man who'd baffled New York in Games 1 and 4, to set the Yankees down in order.

By the bottom of the 11th, the fates seemed to be looking Boston's way. Rivera, New York's closer, had pitched three innings and could go no more. "Rivera's coming out," pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre informed Andy Pettitte, whom the Red Sox had banged around in Game 6 Wednesday night. "We're putting [Jose] Contreras in there. Why not put your spikes on and go up to the clubhouse and get loose?"

Up stepped Aaron Boone, who'd come in to play defense at third base in the ninth after Wilson was pulled. Boone, who hadn't joined the club until the end of July and was batting only .125 for the series, seemed the man least likely to end it. "Magical things happen here in the Stadium," Jeter whispered to Boone as Wakefield warmed up. "Ghosts come out in October."

In floated Wakefield's first offering, and Boone lashed it high to left. "Gone," thought Boone. "Gone," knew Wakefield, who began walking to the dugout, where Martinez was peering plaintively up at the heavens and Little staring blankly ahead. Fortune's fools once again -- 85 years and counting. "DESTINY", proclaimed a New York banner hanging from the grandstand.

"I feel like I let everybody down," said Wakefield, who almost certainly would have been the playoff Most Valuable Player (instead of Rivera) had Boston won. "I'm disappointed in the outcome. It hurts, and all I can say is, I'm sorry."

After the champagne bottles had been emptied ("Cowboy this!" the jubilant Yankees shouted in their clubhouse), Clemens and Wells, the men who might have been goats, walked out to the monuments beyond center field and paid homage at the plaque of Babe Ruth, whose arrival began it all in the Bronx and suspended it all in the Fens. "The Curse still lives," crowed Steinbrenner. "I sure do [believe] it now."

Ed Barrow, the old Sox manager, believed it as soon as owner Harry Frazee told him he was selling the Big Fella to New York. "Let me tell you this," Barrow prophesied. "You're going to ruin yourself and the Red Sox in Boston for a long time to come."

Wasn't the rest of the century time enough? Did it have to continue into the next millennium? Will baseball's Rebel Alliance ever conquer the Evil Empire? "1918," read the banner hanging above Steinbrenner's private Stadium box: "What's one more year?"

Gordon Edes, Bob Hohler, Dan Shaughnessy, Kevin Paul Dupont, Jackie MacMullan, Peter May, and Joanna Weiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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