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The thrill is gone

Sox slide again puts fans in gloomy mood

Whatever happened to Believe?

The Red Sox are leading the American League. They have the best record in baseball. But fans are already predicting disaster. They sound like Sox fans of old, before the team broke the 86-year curse and swept the World Series.

From the Dominican bodegas of Jamaica Plain to the office canyons of downtown Boston to the souvenir shops of Yawkey Way, the mood was grim, edgy, and defensive yesterday. The team's once seemingly insurmountable 14-game lead over the Yankees had dropped to as low as four. Former Cy Young winner Eric Gagné has brought only heartache since arriving last month, blowing two leads in crushing fashion against the Orioles on Friday and Sunday. By yesterday, the Sox had lost five of their last 10 games. Meanwhile, the surging Yankees had gone 24-8 since the All-Star break.

It is only August. There are 44 games to play. But suddenly the demons of history, exorcized in 2004, are rising again, as fans talk about yet another in a long and storied string of late summer tailspins, ending not with a pennant, but with a whimper.

"I'm depressed," said Mike Palm, 56, a pipe fitter from Scituate whose father pitched for the Sox in 1948. As he sat on a park bench eating lunch in Post Office Square yesterday, Palm pointed to the top of the 22-story J.W. McCormack Building, which he has been working on this week.

"I might go up to that roof and just jump off," Palm said.

Johnny Fennessy, 27, a pipe fitter from Quincy, said he could have predicted that the Sox would be struggling come August.

"You knew in your heart that when they were up that many games, something was going to happen, something was going to give way," Fennessy said, dining with Palm on the park bench. "And it always does. It's inevitable."

Rick Bradley, 43, a fan from Harrisburg, Penn., said the Sox are playing like the losing teams he remembered growing up in Rhode Island.

"When late July hit, it was almost a guarantee that they would nosedive," said Bradley, a project manager at IBM, who was outside Fenway yesterday, looking to buy tickets. "It makes for tense games. It makes for tense life. But it just makes me want to watch them more. It's almost like watching a train wreck: no matter what, you have to find out what their score is, what the Yankees score is every night."

Beating New York in 2004, then wining the World Series, was supposed to wash away all talk of doom.

The team that always found a way to lose had found a way to win. And fans were confident. The mantra "Believe" graced bumper stickers and T-shirts across New England.

This year, the Sox seemed to pick up where they left off in 2004, and they jumped to a 14-game lead over the Yankees in May. The psyche of the organization seemed to have changed, the city's with it.

But now the traditional pessimism is crowding out the newfangled optimism. The team is yet again in the midst of a late-summer slide.

Yesterday the recriminations were flowing. Blame Gagné (or "Gag me," as Fennessy called him). Blame J. D. Drew (or Nancy Drew, as his many detractors call him). Blame Francona. Blame Big Papi -- even in Jamaica Plain, where he and Manny Ramírez have acquired hero status among many of the Dominican shopkeepers.

"I think David's got some extra weight," said Francisco Martes, owner of Los Caballeros II Market on Centre Street, who recalled seeing David Ortiz recently at nearby Miami Restaurant. "I saw this guy eating the other day, and he was eating 15 pieces of pork chop. Fifteen pieces! That's too much."

David Hajjar, 11, who was dressed in matching Sox cap and shirt in Post Office Square, said it was "probably old age" that was slowing Ortiz, 31. "He doesn't seem to have that pop," said his father, Joe, a public relations specialist.

Yankees fans are starting to gloat oddly enough, even while still in second place.

"I hear it every day at work," grumbled Greg Thibodeau, 36, a registered nurse and Sox fan who works alongside Yankee fans at Day Kimball Hospital in Putnam, Conn. "They're all saying: 'See? See? See? I told you so.' "

"We can't play consistently," Fennessy said, putting his head in his hands. "We're fluctuating like the Dow Jones."

Of course, not every fan is worried. Optimists, scarce as they may be, pointed out that the Sox are scheduled to play the last-place Devil Rays 12 more times this year, more than a quarter of their remaining games.

"There's no reason to panic," said John Morin, 46, of Claremont, N.H., who was going with his wife, Verna, to see the Sox play the Rays last night. "These are easy wins."

Joe Hajjar, too, said, he was keeping the faith. "We're Boston true and blue," he said, putting his arm around his son. "We're not turning our backs on our team."

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