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Triumphant return

World champions were sky-high after win, but tired and reflective on flight home

ST. LOUIS - Everybody hates the dreaded center seat on an airplane. But not if that seat contains the 30-pound, $15,000 World Championship Trophy.

Pedro Martinez didn't let the ultimate prize of his 13-year career out of his sight during the two-hour charter flight from St. Louis to Boston in which most of his teammates and their families napped. Champagne for the most part remained corked.

The Red Sox' victory ride was low key, perhaps because they left it all on the field at Busch Stadium in winning the World Series over the Cardinals in four straight games. The flight departed at 3:22 a.m., and these players are not idiots - they know when it's time to sleep.

Sox president Larry Lucchino thinks the Cardinals had a hand in assigning the farthest possible gate at Lambert St. Louis International Airport to the Red Sox.

``Hey, Theo, this is what the Cards gave us,'' he said to general manager Theo Epstein after a 15-minute walk to an obscure gate. On the long, deserted walk, an airport worker asks David Ortiz for an autograph.

``Sure. Why not?''` said the designated hitter.

Red Sox charters, operated by Delta, are different than flying commercial. The cabin door is not locked. Nobody tells you to turn off electrical devices. The captain has Sox autographs all over his uniform. In midflight, after a bit of turbulence, the master of wind current - knuckleballer Tim Wakefield - comes strolling out of the cockpit with a smile.

The first announcement on board comes not from a flight attendant but from pitcher Curt Schilling. The now legendary righthander thanks the 50 players, coaches, and front-office people for their support, and asks management for 50 Harley-Davidsons for spring training.

Then Schilling reflects upon his mantra. ``I keep coming back to the question, `Why not us?' '' he said over the loudspeaker. ``Well, no one had an answer for that question . . . not the Cardinals. Nobody.'' His teammates applaud.

Later Schilling, who limped slightly, said he was glad the Series ended in four straight games. ``I couldn't have pitched,'' he said. ``But the guys would've done it for me.''

Schilling downplayed comparisons to Willis Reed, the injured Knicks center who limped on the court just prior to game time against the Lakers and gave his team a pyschological lift for the NBA Finals in 1970. ``I was just 1/25th piece of a puzzle.'' he said.

Nor does he rate the 2004 Sox championship above his World Series victory with the Diamondbacks in 2001.

``It was different,'' he said. ``It was very emotional because of 9/11 and we beat the Yankees.''

The Sox are also on the mind of presidential candidate John Kerry, who left a message of congratulations for Sox owner John W. Henry.

Red Sox executive vice president Dr. Charles Steinberg is getting ready for tomorrow's parade. Johnny Damon will be appearing on the ``Late Show with David Letterman'' Monday, and Jay Leno has booked Damon for next week as well, and now wants the whole team to appear with the bearded wonder.

Steinberg is also huddling with Sox president Larry Lucchino for a tour that would take the trophy all across Red Sox Nation, including Sox bars in Santa Monica, Calif., and a visit to the Dominican Republic.

``This is the greatest achievement in the history of baseball and we want to share it with our fans,'' he said. The Red Sox are also considering inviting Bill Buckner for tomorrow's parade as part of the healing process.

In the players' cabin, the cabin lights are shut off shortly after takeoff. Jason Varitek, Gabe Kapler, Mark Bellhorn, and Mike Myers play cards with a makeshift table (a blanket stretched across the top of two rows).

Kevin Youkilis, who was added to the World Series roster, has a permanent grin. ``It could not have been scripted any better,'' he said.

Damon poses with flight attendants Michelle Wickerham, Barbara Keenan, and Tracey Endicke in the rear galley. He is modest about his leadoff home run in Game 4. ``When I hit it, I just thought, `OK, we're up, 1-0,' that's all.''

Alan Embree said he felt bad for the Super Bowl champion Patriots. ``The Pats have 20-plus wins and that's being taken for granted because we are in the playoffs. Boston's a baseball town.''

Embree said the season has taken its toll, and all the players are physically and emotionally drained.

``It's been a long year,'' he said. ``I can't wait to do a little hunting and fishing and golfing.''

Embree doesn't think the Cardinals folded. ``We just put pressure on them and that was unfamilar territory,'' he said. But Embree also gives an assist to former teammate and Cardinal pitcher Jeff Suppan, whose failure to run home on a grounder to second helped Pedro Martinez escape a jam in Game 3.

``I have to give an assist to Suppan for that,'' he said. ``He could've walked home.''

Embree cherished taking pictures of his 7-year-old son, Alan, on the mound at Busch Stadium after the sweep. ``It was awesome,'' he said. ``My son said, `Dad, you just won the Super Bowl. He'll look back at that some day and say, `Dad was good at one point.' ''

Sox outfielder Trot Nixon tries to sleep but is too excited. ``It's been a difficult year for me physically,'' he said. ``Winning the world championship hasn't quite sunken in yet, but it will. We'll get the full extent of it at the parade. Now we can call ourselves champions and the fans can, too. Red Sox fans are awesome, they deserve it as much as we do. It's hard to put into words what I'm feeling. I had my wife come down with the my two sons. I got three hits. One for each of them.''

As the plane approaches Logan, dawn is rising over the Boston Harbor islands. There's a nearly full moon behind Fenway. On the runway are about 100 Massport workers, state troopers, and firefighters to greet the conquering heroes. The players are given an ovation. Ellis Burks, the veteran who rehabbed in vain all year to come back from a knee injury, carries the trophy off the plane.

``This is better than that standing ovation they gave me at Fenway,'' Burks said. ``Better than anything.''

Manny Ramirez tells people that the championship ``only took 86 years, but it's great.''

Pedro Martinez sits in the front seat of the bus and honks the horn. A truck driver in East Boston from Hudson General climbs on top of his rig and bows repeatedly from head to toe.

Nixon and Burks crack beers. It's 7:20 a.m., and they toast the fans who shower them with thumbs-ups and waves.

``We could get endorsements,'' Nixon said giddily. ``We could win an Academy Award, this story is so good.''

When the buses, escorted by police motorcycles, round the bend on Van Ness Street, the crowd roars.

``Oh my God,'' said Martinez. ``Everybody's on the street. Look at those helicopters. Nobody's going to work. The Sox are here. Blow them kisses. I could die now. I'm at peace.''

Just don't tell us you'll sign with the Yankees.

``I promise,'' he said. ``I'm not going to the Yankees. I want to stay right here.''

David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report. 

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