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Red Sox nation takes the plunge

Team captured hearts as well as playoff berth

It is a franchise that over the years has showcased more than its share of moody prima donnas, swollen egos, head cases, and prickly underachievers. But the current edition of the Boston Red Sox is . . . well, let Preston K. Jones explain. "You want to know what it is?" the 45-year-old utility lineman from Brockton said yesterday. "They're sociable. And that is very nice. There's a bond between the players and the general public that is beautiful."

Whether or not that bond survives the chill winds of autumn, it appears that these sociable Sox have captured the hearts of a fandom wary of giving those hearts to a team that has broken them so often. As the Olde Towne Team prepares to compete in the playoffs for the first time in this young century, many fans have embraced the team's jovial extroverts not just as players but as people. So if fan support is the wild card in any sports equation, Red Sox followers may be the team's ace in the hole. If Sox first baseman Kevin Millar wants them to "cowboy up," a region of tenderfoots is prepared to do so.

"I think this team is really The One," said David Duarte, a 20-year-old student at UMass-Boston. "Their mentality of not giving up, their whole attitude. It just seems that everybody on this team just clicks. With past teams, it was kind of hard to get behind them, with all the internal problems. But this team doesn't really have any internal conflicts."

The salutary turn of events Thursday night, when the team clinched a wild-card playoff berth and then joined spectators in an uproarious celebration at Fenway Park, got some fans thinking about history, both ancient and recent. "The Curse is gone. This whole new crop of players eliminated the Curse," proclaimed David Campbell, 33, of Dorchester. "You remember when the Patriots won the Super Bowl, they said we won as a team. That's what the situation is with the Sox: We're going to win as a team."

All of Greater Boston felt like part of the team yesterday. At the Baseball Tavern on Boylston Street, where five Sox players stormed the bar after Thursday's game, a half-dozen fans sat around, throwing back a few brews and dissecting the events of the night before.

"It was . . . it was . . . incredible," recalled one breathless patron, Bill Hartmann. "All of a sudden, there was this commotion at the door, there was this wave of people, and you couldn't see who was in the center of it."

Hartmann, who cooks sausages at a Fenway Park concession, was sitting at the bar late Thursday when, he said, Millar ran up and jumped behind it. Millar reached into a cooler and started handing out bottles of beer, stopping to shake a few up and spray them at Tavern patrons. Millar and Derek Lowe, Lou Merloni, Todd Walker, and Gabe Kapler stayed for about 10 minutes, shaking hands and giving high-fives. "They were hugging everybody!" Hartmann said.

On Yawkey Way, Red Sox T-shirts flew off the shelves by the hundreds yesterday at the Souvenir Store. "It's been steady since 9 a.m.," sales clerk Howard Berman said, as he flipped through the day's receipts, while another worker folded heaping stacks of the new cream-colored and navy "wild card" jerseys on the counter.

Iris Diaz, a 34-year-old homemaker from Roslindale, said the team's likability "makes all the difference" to the level of fervor she brings to rooting for them. "If someone is smiling, it makes a big difference," she said. To Lamont Bullock, a 30-year-old barber from Stoneham who still winces at the memory of the Sox's World Series loss in 1986, the extension of the baseball season is a kind of gift. "I'm looking forward to having something to do in the fall," said Bullock. "Even when the Patriots are winning, that's not enough."

For longtime fans haunted by both history and the memory of sourpuss stars, the good-natured tenor of the current team is an extra dividend. "It used to be `25 players, 25 cabs.' I don't think that's true for this team," said 44-year-old Mike Maloney of Quincy. "It's more than the talent they have. They're good teammates. If you don't like the players, I don't think that you get drawn in as much as a fan, if they don't have identities."

Certain identities in particular seem to have branded themselves indelibly into the imaginations of Red Sox Nation. Traditional fan favorites such as Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez retain fervent support, and Manny Ramirez is respected for his slugging (though personally he remains an enigma to many fans), but the true cult favorites seem to be the previously unsung Millar and David Ortiz, as much due to their sheer ebullience as to their reliable bats.

"I love Ortiz because he's really coming through for the team," said 49-year-old nurse practitioner Bonnie Sosis of Milton. "He's not showboaty; he does what he has to do."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a season ticket holder who was at Thursday night's game, said he has been impressed by how visible stars like Garciaparra have been in the community and how cohesive the team has been in the ballpark. "You notice when you watch the game how they're all pulling for each other," he said. Menino promised a party outside City Hall if the Sox "do well," but declined to be more specific.

Though some may scoff -- after all it's only a wildcard berth -- many fans seem ready for a party now. "They've got everybody behind them," said Carmen DeMatino, 58, as he sat on an overturned milk crate in the North End. "That's part of what makes them the best team in baseball."

Bold words. Let's turn to a voice of even deeper experience. At 83, John Xenos of Roslindale has lived through innumerable episodes of Sox euphoria that sputtered out into despair. But he doggedly believes this time -- and this team -- is different.

"Their personality's perfect," Xenos said in a tone that brooked no rebuttal. "And they're going all the way."

Bella English of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Sasha Talcott, and Rhonda Stewart contributed to this story.

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