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Nation about to enter whirl without end

SEATTLE -- They have done it to you again. The region, the entire Red Sox Nation, has once again been swallowed into the cavernous sinkhole of Hub hardball hope. It's going to stay this way for the next three to seven weeks, as your friends and neighbors, wearing all sorts of slogan-drenched Sox garb, walk around with that honey-glazed look in their eyes while mumbling . . .

This is the year.

Many of you swore them off (and swore at them) after He Who Must Not Be Named refused to remove Pedro Martinez in the eighth inning last October. Others gave up after the Alex Rodriguez fiasco, and more than a few lucid souls dismissed this 2004 season when the Fraud Sox played .500 baseball for three months and fell a whopping 10 1/2 games behind the Yankees.

But then Jason Varitek fed A-Rod a leather sandwich, and Theo Epstein engineered the boldest Sox deal since Harry Frazee sold the Babe, and now the Red Sox again are the national rage, playing the best stretch-run baseball in the history of the franchise. You all are on board again -- the midnight train to Georgia if the Sox and Braves make it to the World Series.

Truly, this 86-year Red Sox epic is the greatest sports story ever told, a quest of biblical proportions (the Sox even have a Jesus action figure playing center field), with layer upon layer of history, character, and subplot. The chase transcends sports and is followed, and chronicled, by giants of film, poetry, and music.

As you read this, folks at the venerable New Yorker are crafting a piece, twinning Red Sox vs. Yankees with the Democratic vs. Republican conventions -- no doubt lumping Larry Lucchino with John Kerry, and George Steinbrenner with Dick "Big Time" Cheney. ESPN this week will produce a mock trial, starring Alan Dershowitz, pitting the respective curses of the Sox and Cubs. Stephen King is among the literary legion penning books on this season, the Farrelly Brothers are using Fenway for a feature film ("Fever Pitch"), Jimmy Buffett tonight will play Fenway and again try to break the Curse, the Dropkick Murphys have gone worldwide with "Tessie," Curt Schilling is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Manny Ramirez is featured in GQ.

The Boston baseball bombast is truly boundless. Sox club choreographer Dr. Charles Steinberg expects any day to hear from Steven Spielberg, Mick Jagger, and J.D. Salinger. Only recently we learned that Churchill, Gandhi, and James Dean were Red Sox fans.

The Sox trophy case needs space for an MVP, a Cy Young, an Oscar, a Grammy, a Pulitzer, a Nobel, and an ESPY. This 2004 Boston baseball club could be the first in history to win the World Series and the Cannes Film Festival.

At this hour, Boston is blessed with a reigning Super Bowl champion on track to set the NFL record for consecutive victories, but the Red Sox have a firm grip on the region. For the first time ever, the Sox will go to New York next weekend confident that they can take the division title away from the Yankees. Players, fans, and most of the national media believe that Boston has the better team. The three games in New York, then the three in Boston the following weekend, promise to be as exciting as any regular-season baseball played here since the final days of 1978.

Consider that the Red Sox have won 22 of 25, 25 of 30, and 28 of 34 games since Aug. 7. They are 30-9 since the Nomar trade and have not lost on consecutive days since Orlando Cabrera joined the team. Manny and David Ortiz are hitting like Ruth and Gehrig, and Cy-bound Schilling has not walked a batter in his last five starts. The Sox are six games ahead in the wild-card hunt. They just went 8-1 against the West contenders from Anaheim, Texas, and Oakland. They went 8-1 against the A's this year, outscoring Oakland, 76-40.

Catcher/leader Varitek says this is the best team in the American League. He likes their chances better than he did last year during the feel-good days of Cowboy Up.

The Sox were 10 1/2 games behind the Yankees on the morning of Aug. 16 (the day Babe Ruth died in 1948). The Yankees have never blown a lead of more than 6 1/2 games, but New York's lead is down to 2 1/2 yesterday. The Yankee pitching is imploding and there is panic in the Bronx.

All these years later, we finally figured out that the Boss (Springsteen) was writing about the Boss's (Steinbrenner's) 2004 team when he penned the lyric, "Outside the street's on fire in a real death waltz between flesh and what's fantasy" (in "Jungleland").

In this instance, the poets won't be inclined to "[write] nothing at all" or "just stand back and let it all be."

If you are a veteran Sox watcher, it's a little too good, a little too much. There's simply never been this much confidence in and around the Red Sox at this time of the year. The 2004 Sox are either setting you up for the ultimate mind-bender, or . . .

. . . this really is the year.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist.

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