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High jinks

Sox find postseason glory, from Pesky to Buckner

First of all, it isn't a curse. The Chicago Cubs, who haven't won the pennant in 59 years, are cursed. William Sianis laid the hex on them in 1945 when he and his pet billy goat were thrown out of Wrigley Field during the World Series. "Cubs, they not gonna win any more," Sianis said.

The Red Sox are jinxed. Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 and the Towne Team hasn't won the fall classic since. In 1946, in 1967, in 1975, in 1986, something always happened. Johnny Pesky held the ball (well, sort of). Dick Williams said he was going with "Lonborg, then champagne" in Game 7. Darrell Johnson yanked reliever Jim Willoughby. The ball rolled through Bill Buckner's legs.

But now that the Red Sox have pulled off the greatest comeback in baseball history, tearing out the Yankees' hearts inside the House That Ruth Built, their eternally deceived believers now declare with one voice: "This is the Yeah."

That's what Boston attorney Bob Rodophele told himself in 1986, when the Sox were one strike away from beating the Mets in Game 6. "I had one hand on a bottle of champagne, the other hand on the cork, saying: `This is it,' " he remembers. "When they lost the game I said, `Well, I'll just have to wait until tomorrow night.' "

Tomorrow never happened, and hasn't since. Every season, the chill reality of autumn has dashed what New Yorker writer Roger Angell once called "The wild vernal hopes that leap every year, jonquil-like, in the hearts of [Sox] followers."

But now that the Evil Empire has been overthrown by a bunch of scruffy idiots, anything seems possible in the Fens. Or is the Breakthrough in the Bronx merely the setup for yet another cruel cosmic joke?

With the Red Sox, it's not so much about the losing as it is about the tease. In the 1946 Series with the Cardinals, Boston led, 3-2, going back to St. Louis with ace Boo Ferriss on the mound for Game 7. In 1967, after winning Game 6 by four runs, they lost the clincher at home with their ace (albeit exhausted) on the mound.

In 1975, the Sox were ahead in all seven games and had a 3-0 lead at home in the finale. In 1986, they won the first two games in New York, led Game 6 by two runs in the 10th inning and had a 3-0 lead after five innings of the finale. Every time, they lost.

"Why do they have to break our hearts?" an 83-year-old Sox fan moaned inside a Manhattan saloon after last year's Game 7 loss to the Yankees. "If they're going to lose, why can't they just lose like other teams?"

The Sox weren't always that way. Before the owner traded Ruth and brought down the imagined "Curse of the Bambino" upon them, Boston played in five Series -- in 1903, 1912, 1915, 1916, and 1918 -- and won them all.

"They never did beat us," said right fielder Harry Hooper, who played for the last four champions. "Never. We played four different teams [Giants, Phillies, Dodgers, Cubs] in four different World Series and only one of them [Giants] even came close."

Once Ruth and a procession of other stars were sent to New York, Boston didn't get near the Series for more than a quarter-century. When the Sox finally did in 1946, the jinx began immediately, a confluence of bad luck and bad decisions.

It started with Dom DiMaggio twisting his ankle rounding the bag after knocking in the tying runs during the eighth inning of Game 7 and Leon Culberson replacing him in center field. With two outs and Enos Slaughter on first, Harry Walker came up.

"Dom was on the top step of the dugout, trying to get Culberson to move over [toward left]," recalled Pesky. "Walker hit a quail to left-center and Culberson went after it. He threw a lollipop to me. I looked around and Slaughter was about 15 feet from home plate. I never blamed Culberson. I said it was my play and I screwed it up. I wore a pair of horns for a while after that."

There was no goat in 1967, just delusion. The Sox, who'd come out of ninth place the year before to clinch the pennant on the final day, had been living an Impossible Dream all summer. Why couldn't it end with a Series ring? Why wouldn't it be Lonborg and champagne in the Fens?

"We were not amused," said St. Louis catcher Tim McCarver, whose teammates won three pennants and two Series between 1964-68. "That headline became our rallying cry."

Lonborg, pitching on two days' rest, hung in for six innings before giving up a three-run homer to Julian Javier. Bob Gibson went the full nine, allowing just three hits, striking out 10. "Any apprehension we may have felt was erased when Gibson threw the first pitch," said McCarver.

The disappointment was more wrenching in 1975, especially after Carlton Fisk's fabled foul-pole homer to left in the 12th inning forced a seventh game. This time, Boston was up by three runs in the sixth when lefthander Bill Lee served up an ill-advised "Leephus" pitch to Cincinnati slugger Tony Perez, who cranked the slow, looping curve over the Wall for two runs.

"Lee threw it to the wrong guy," said Reds second baseman Joe Morgan. "He could have thrown it to me, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, anybody. But Perez was the best off-speed hitter on our team."

Lee left with a broken blister in the seventh and Rose knocked in the tying run off Rogelio Moret. In came Jim Willoughby, who'd been Boston's best reliever for two months, to get Bench with the bases loaded and then set down the Reds in order in the eighth.

Then Johnson, desperate for a run, pulled Willoughby for pinch hitter Cecil Cooper, who fouled out to end the inning. In came rookie Jim Burton, who gave up the winning run on a bloop single by Morgan with two outs in the ninth.

"He threw me a slider," remembered Morgan, who dumped it into center. "It was a great pitch -- I have a photo of it at home. But as soon as I hit it, I knew it was a base hit."

How much worse could it get? How about a 2-0 advantage in 1986, a 3-2 edge going back to New York, and a 5-3 lead with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the 10th? "I was sure we had it won," said Roger Clemens, who left after seven innings with a blister.

The Series trophy and 20 cases of champagne had been brought to the visiting clubhouse. "CONGRATULATIONS BOSTON RED SOX", read the Shea Stadium message board, after the operator pushed the wrong button.

"A little roller up along first, behind the bag . . . it gets through Buckner," said TV announcer Vin Scully, after Mookie Wilson's full-count bleeder went into right field and scored Ray Knight with the winner.

The tease continued after a night's rainout. Boston went up, 3-0, fell behind, 6-3, then closed to 6-5 with the tying run on second and nobody out in the eighth. There was nothing more. In came Al Nipper to serve up a two-run shot to Darryl Strawberry and it was gone. "I don't believe in luck," said right fielder Dwight Evans. "I don't believe in history, either, but maybe I'm starting to."

After 86 years, has history become destiny? Are Ruth's red-stockinged successors doomed to fail each October? By now, the eternal hand-wringing, the talk of curses, and the Calvinistic doom is greeted with a horselaugh outside of New England.

Red Sox Nation was like the Confederacy, John Leonard wrote last year in New York magazine, "a lost cause that richly deserved to lose; a bitter superstition masquerading as the one true faith; a morbidity of martyrs, a cult of crybabies, and a woefulness of wounded honor, baroque excess, lugubrious keening, fragrant decay, and sentimental slop."

All of that may have ended at midnight Wednesday when the Red Sox danced on last year's grave in the Bronx. "HISTORY BEGINS TONIGHT," proclaimed a supporter's placard.

Bob Rodophele eventually uncorked and drank the bottle that he never got to open in 1986. "Somewhere along the way," he said, "reality hit."

Now, 18 years after the ball got through Buckner, the wild vernal hopes still bloom after the pumpkin harvest. This time, Rodophele has upgraded the champagne from Korbel to Dom Perignon. 

The Fall Classics
The Fall Classics
Photo Gallery The Fall Classics
1918, 1918, 1918. The year is ingrained in the minds of Red Sox followers. In the 86 years since the Red Sox last World Series title, the tortured history — the curse, if you believe it — has been well chronicled. A series of illustrations and stories depicts the team’s Series travails.
 1903, '12, '15, '16: Tradition
 1918: The last title
 1946: A mad dash
 1967: 'Impossible Dream'
 1975: Epic clash
 1986: One strike away
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