At 4:06 p.m., a magic number in franchise history, Red Sox owner John Henry stood up and started shaking hands with folks near his seat by the corner of the Boston dugout. It was only the bottom of the fifth inning at Fenway, but Grady (a magic name in Sox history) Sizemore had just grounded out in Chicago, drawing the curtain on Cleveland's epic collapse, and the Red Sox were going back to the playoffs.
Your defending World Champions open their best-of-five Division Series in Chicago tomorrow afternoon at 4.
''We're representing Beantown again!" champagne-soaked Sox Most Valuable Player candidate David Ortiz told the Fenway legions who stuck around after a 10-1 win that put the Sox in a tie atop the American League East.
The mega-hyped final weekend of the regular season didn't unfold exactly the way New England hoped. The Red Sox beat the Yankees two times in three tries, qualified for the playoffs, stripped the Yankees of home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and finished with the exact same record as the Evil Empire . . . but a rarely invoked tiebreaker rule and the implosion of the Indians made the Sox the wild-card playoff team and sucked the drama out of the final two games.
Confusion reigned when the Yankees broke out champagne Saturday after their 8-4 victory guaranteed a top spot in the AL East and assured them of a higher playoff seed because of their superior record in head-to-head competition with the Sox.
Yesterday, it was Boston's turn to spray the bubbly. Manager Terry Francona lifted his stars midway through a thoroughly lifeless drubbing of the Bronx Bombers and there were thousands of empty seats in the ancient yard when Mike Timlin punched out the immortal Bubba Crosby to end it at 5:47. Some of those who left early no doubt spent hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars anticipating that Game 162 might have been a winner-take-all classic played on the same date between the same teams 27 Bucky Dent years ago.
Not now. This is the wild-card era and for the third straight season, the Sox and Yankees are both going to the playoffs. They have met 71 times over the last three seasons (36-35, Boston) each winning one American League pennant at the other's expense, and the possibility exists that we'll get Ali-Frazier III starting a week from tomorrow in Yankee Stadium. This is the first time in club history the Sox have made the playoffs in three straight seasons.
There's already plenty of debate about the Yankees claiming they were division champs after they beat the Sox Saturday. New York's record against the Sox gives them a higher playoff seed, but the Sox are contesting the Bronx Bombers' contention that they've now won eight straight AL East titles.
''We are co-champions," said Sox vice president Charles Steinberg. ''The rule is in place only for playoff seeding."
Consistent with that remark, Sox scoreboard operators flipped the Yankees and Red Sox in the standing on the Green Monster scoreboard less than 10 minutes after the completion of the finale. While ''Tessie" blared over the Fenway sound system, the ''Boston" placard was placed atop the ''New York" sign. However, the Red Sox' celebration garb made no reference to the word ''champion." The hats read ''Division Series" while the T-shirts broadcast ''Wild Card."
''I'm not going to get into that debate," said Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. ''What this means is that we are postseason participants. October baseball was our goal and I think we should focus on that imagery."
Wunderkind general manager Theo Epstein said, ''The rule says we're wild-card champs, so we're wild-card champs."
The playoff draw probably favors Boston. The Angels played much better baseball than the White Sox down the stretch and are considered to be built for the postseason. The Yankees went 4-6 against Los Angeles while the Red Sox were 4-3 vs. Chicago in 2005. Former Chicago Cub Matt Clement will pitch for the Red Sox in Game 1. Jose Contreras will start for the White Sox, who have not won a home playoff game since 1959 and have not won a playoff series since 1917. David Wells gets the ball for Boston in Game 2.
''Every postseason is wide open," said math czar Henry. ''When you have eight teams get in, no one team can have even a 20-percent chance of winning."
''The White Sox are capable of beating us, but we don't worry about too much," said Sox center fielder Johnny Damon.
Ortiz got all the MVP hype, but Manny Ramirez is on a tear as he enters the playoffs. Ramirez hit his 45th home run yesterday, his ninth in the last 12 games. Meanwhile, Sox fans were buoyed by a strong performance from Curt Schilling, who went six innings, allowing eight hits and one run while improving his record to 8-8.
Kevin Millar and Damon were among Sox players who wore goggles for the wild-card celebration. In 2003 and again last year, the Sox were criticized by some for overdoing their wild-card clinch parties.
''Both teams had their celebrations this weekend," said Damon. ''We respect each other a lot and it's not out of control in here like it has been in the past. It's like Barry Sanders said about being in the end zone after a touchdown -- act like you're been there before."
These Red Sox have been there before. We all remember. And now they are back on the stage where they do their best work.