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TELEVISION REVIEW

HBO takes a powerful swing at explaining Sox' sad history

The Curse of the Bambino
On: HBO
Time: tonight, 10-11

About halfway through its hourlong tour of the travails of Red Sox Nation, "The Curse of the Bambino" hits a home run by moving from an orgy of woe into a shrewd dissection of baseball's most star-crossed franchise. The Curse of the Bambino is the official parable of the unofficial religion of New England: Red Sox baseball. It holds that the Red Sox have been deprived of a World Series victory ever since owner Harry Frazee sold the game's greatest player, Babe Ruth, to the hated New York Yankees, who went on to become the sport's most successful and haughtiest franchise.

The Curse of the Bambino is a very useful piece of mythology. It explains the inexplicable -- the team's failure to win a World Series since 1918. And it nourishes the chosen-people status of Sox fans by positing a cosmic theory, suggesting that only something as potent as a curse descending from the baseball heavens could be responsible for their unending suffering. Opening the film, veteran Boston sports radio talker Eddie Andelman quips that he wants the words "He never lived long enough to see the Red Sox win it all" on his tombstone, while still acknowledging "that there is something mystical about this franchise." The Curse provides the bridge that somehow manages to connect futility with magic.

The HBO film itself is loaded with the tortured recollections of a range of Sox fans, Boston sportswriters, and celebs such as actors Denis Leary and Michael Chiklis, comedians Lenny Clarke and Steven Wright, and author Robert Parker. It is narrated by designated Red Sox celebrity fan Ben Affleck, who is apparently nursing another kind of wound of the heart these days.

The "Curse" covers the familiar milestones of mourning, including Bucky "Bleepin' " Dent's homer that catapulted the Yankees to victory in the 1978 playoff game and Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when victory turned into hideously cruel defeat as a ground ball slithered through the legs of Bill Buckner. But the documentary ultimately succeeds by challenging some of the conventional wisdom about the Curse. Baseball historian Glenn Stout,

for example, explains that Ruth was actually a carousing malcontent whose departure was welcomed by the Boston baseball

intelligentsia at the time. Equally valuable is a section suggesting that the Curse is a cover story for far more earthbound Red Sox deficiencies. One of them was a team traditionally tailored for quaint and quirky Fenway Park with its inviting Green Monster in left field. What that means, in the words of WEEI-AM talk host Glenn Ordway, is that the Sox often fielded a "big, slow, lumbering type of team" that eschwed pitching and fundamentals. (This year's promising edition of Fenway bashers is typically heavy on offensive thump.)

"The Curse" also ventures into a delicate area by examining what it calls the team's "shameful scorecard on race relations," a problem placed at the doorstep of the Sox' longtime owner, the late Tom Yawkey. It's bad enough that Boston was the last Major League team to racially integrate in 1959. But the mind-set that led management to reject ballplayers such as Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays damaged the franchise's reputation and hindered its progress on the field.

Having tackled the meaty issues, the documentary reaches its emotional apex with a re-creation of the fateful sequence of events in Game 6 of the '86 World Series. Interspersed with agonizing footage of the Mets' improbable rally are fans recalling still-searing memories of exactly what they were doing as tragedy struck. (Several of them recite verbatim television announcer Vin Scully's 17-year-old words: "There's a little roller up along first . . . it gets through Buckner!") Filled with pathos, pain, and gritty gallows humor, this is Red Sox Nation at its most vulnerable and admirable.

It was almost enough to make this diehard Yankees fan regret joining those derisive "Nine-teen Eight-teen," chants that beneficiaries of the Curse occasionally rain down upon the long-suffering Fenway faithful.

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