When the ghosts of October gloom bade the Hub adieu last year, two long-suffering Red Sox fans reveled in their emancipation from a gulag of broken dreams by hoisting a placard that captured the spirit of Boston's great baseball catharsis.
''All is forgiven," read the sign Army Lieutenant Colonel Al Bazzinotti and his pal, Todd Darling, raised as the Sox paraded past millions of karmically cleansed fans after vanquishing an 86-year championship famine fraught with heartache.
No more blather about a curse. No more derisive chants of ''1918." No more sons and daughters burying parents whose lifelong reveries of October glory for their beloved Sox went unrequited.
''We've been to the mountaintop," Bazzinotti said yesterday as the Sox prepared to open the playoffs today in Chicago as the American League wild card. ''We've been freed from all the negative baggage of the past."
But what now, after an ill-fated franchise is forgiven and its fandom freed?
Far-flung inhabitants of Red Sox Nation will enter an uncharted wilderness of emotions and expectations today when their boys of autumn open the playoffs as defending world champions for the first time since Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House and World War I was winding down.
From the Fenway to Fallujah, the coming days will test the theory -- shared by a wide range of fans in recent interviews -- that last year's historic feat generated enough goodwill to shield the Sox from scorn and their followers from an angst-ridden winter should they fail to win it all again. The Sox open a best-of-five Division Series against the White Sox at US Cellular Field at 4 p.m.
''I have the same sort of anxiety and urgency," Ken Burns, the baseball documentarian and Sox diehard, said from his 19th century farmhouse in Walpole, N.H. ''But in the back of my mind, I know that it's all OK because we've done it in our lifetimes."
A similar sense of satisfaction has overswept New England. Even if another Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone looms in the tall grass of a wildly unpredictable postseason, Sox fans have shown few signs of falling captive to the chronic anticipation of misfortune that has afflicted generations of them.
''There's still the same wonderful hope and passion," author and Sox fan David Halberstam said from his home on Nantucket. ''There's also still some sense of fragility. But there's a lot less doom."
By winning the World Series, Halberstam said, the Sox effectively made a relic of the famous credo of October futility coined by former Globe editorial page editor Marty Nolan: ''They killed my father and now they're coming after me."
The cultural shift has spared everyone connected with the Sox from bearing the burden of dashed dreams. Principal owner John W. Henry, for example, said he no longer needs to parry questions about a curse. Instead, he has assumed a permanent place in Sox lore.
''No one says, 'Great job last year,' " Henry said in a recent interview. ''They say, 'Thank you,' and they talk about their families. There's an incredible warmth that has permeated New England since the Red Sox and the Patriots both found ways to win."
A year ago, Mayor Thomas M. Menino took to a sidewalk outside Fenway Park to participate in a prayer service for the Sox. He quickly lapsed from worshipper to prognosticator, issuing a prescient statement with his comically skewed syntax.
''Much like a cookie," Menino declared last October, ''I predict the Yankee dynasty will crumble and the results will be delicious for Red Sox fans."
This year, Menino has rarely missed a Sox home game, even as he has tried to fend off Councilor Maura Hennigan in his bid for reelection.
''I look at it the same as last year," Menino said in a telephone interview. ''This is a team that will not die, and the Yankee empire will crumble again."
Hennigan has tried to capitalize on the Sox championship by distributing business cards adorned with images of Fenway Park and the word ''Believe." She has produced T-shirts with ''Believe" emblazoned across the front. And she has likened herself to last year's ragtag pack of Sox who stunned the Yankees for the AL pennant.
''Dare I say [Menino] is the guy in pinstripes and maybe people see us as kind of like that lovable band of idiots," said Hennigan's campaign manager, Mitch Kates. ''But guess what, we do believe. We believe that this fall a woman will be mayor."
''You can say the mayor does wear pinstriped suits," he said. ''It's part of his natural attire, but he's not a fair-weather fan. I've been a season ticket-holder for 25 years. Maybe they just realized there's a team in Boston."
Sox players themselves have detected few differences since they won the World Series, other than the absence of ''1918" chants and questions about a curse.
''The fans are all crazy about baseball, and that's good," Johnny Damon said. ''The thing I really miss is the days when Pedro [Martinez] was pitching because everyone was sitting in their seats by the time the game started, knowing they were seeing a future Hall of Famer, someone awesome."
With Martinez gone and closer Keith Foulke done for the season, the Sox enter the playoffs lacking some of the strength they enjoyed last year. But players such as Kevin Millar suggested that fans should continue to harbor great expectations.
''What we did last year was awesome in breaking the curse and bringing a championship to the city, but the fans are still antsy," Millar said. ''The media and the talk radio shows still fuel the fires when things aren't going well, which causes unease with the fans. This is my third year seeing this stuff, and I don't think it's ever going to change, no matter how many championships we win."
Burns also blamed sports talk radio for perpetuating a negative image of the team.
''Most of us love our team in sickness and health," Burns said. ''There is such a disconnect between the WEEI crowd and what most people feel. That's where the bloviators like to hear themselves scream."
Glenn Ordway, who hosts the afternoon show on WEEI and recently was nominated for the National Association of Broadcasters'
''I think there's still a feeling that we have to be better than the Yankees, but there's no question that what they did last year has bought them some patience and less anxiety from the fans," Ordway said. ''I don't think people will be really upset if they don't make it again this year."
Sox television analyst Jerry Remy has sensed a similar shift.
''The reason is, the fans believe it can happen again, even in tough times, because of what happened last year," Remy said. ''In the past, that never would have been a belief."
The placard bearers, Bazzinotti and Darling, rank among the satisfied believers.
''All is still forgiven," said Darling, 43, of Charlton. ''There was so much elation and excitement over winning the World Series that it has carried us through this year. We know they did it once and they can do it again. There lies the shimmer of hope for the next thousand years."
Bazzinotti, 43, of Dedham, is scheduled to depart soon for his third tour of duty as a battalion commander in Iraq. But he no longer needs to worry as much about the Sox as he follows them through Stars and Stripes and the Internet.
''Waiting for the other shoe to drop is not the first thing on our minds, like it was for so many years," Bazzinotti said. ''There's a new sense of hope. Red Sox Nation is alive and well."