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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

An old '78 -- played backward

NEW YORK -- A quarter of a century has passed and now it is as if the hardball gods have conspired to settle an old score.

New England church bells are ringing, the skies are crisp and blue, and all the water tastes like wine. It is early September and the Red Sox have the Yankees on the run. How odd to type these words. It is as if Charlie Brown is finally ready to kick that football between the uprights.

The symmetry is downright scary. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the first day of the four-game Boston Massacre of 1978. On that fateful weekend, the Yankees came to Fenway trailing the Red Sox by four games in the American League East. Four days later, after sweeping by an aggregate count of 42-9, the Yanks left Boston tied for first. It was the centerpiece of the cataclysmic Sox collapse of '78, the colossal fall against which all others are measured.

Yesterday the 2003 Red Sox thrashed the first-place Yankees in the venerable Bronx ballyard. On the heels of Friday's 9-3 win, in which they led, 8-0, after three innings, the Sox routed Roger Clemens (how sweet is that?), taking a 7-0 lead in the fourth en route to an 11-0 triumph that moved the Sox within a game and a half of first place. Boston trailed the Yankees by 7 1/2 games Aug. 20.

Yesterday's rout was on national television, and Fox reminded viewers that the Yanks hadn't been the victims of a double-digit shutout loss to the Sox at home since losing to Boston, 10-0, in the Polo Grounds on April 23, 1919. Babe Ruth homered for the Red Sox that day.

Can you stand any more?

Try this: Consider the presence of a man in the Yankees dugout who has looked at life from both sides now. Twenty-five years ago, Sox manager Don Zimmer insisted on going with rookie Bobby Sprowl in the Sunday finale of the Massacre. Zim claimed the kid had "icewater in his veins." Yesterday, Coach Zim sat at the right hand of Joe Torre, watching chunks of a Yankee lead fall off the stadium facade like so many boulders tumbling off the face of the Old Man of the Mountain.

In a corridor of the quiet Yankee clubhouse late yesterday, Zimmer contemplated the frightful past and the uncertain future.

"This is different from then," he said. "We've still got three weeks to play. In '78, they beat us with all singles. These guys are hitting homers against us. We're not hitting and they are. They're playing hard. It's not that we're not playing hard, but when things go bad, sometimes an owner or a GM thinks it looks like you're not trying. Sometimes when you try so hard, it gets worse.

"They're a good team. No doubt about it. They're doing everything right. I know this: This is the biggest group of Red Sox fans I've ever seen in Yankee Stadium."

Red Sox fans have to be pinching themselves this morning. Can this really be happening? Are the Yankees going to be the ones to blow it this time? To the (gulp) Red Sox? It has never happened in the long history of these teams. Through a century of seasons, the Yankees are 35 for 35 when they hold first place Sept. 1. Now they look like a team ready to be overtaken by the Red Sox.

The Sox lineup has proven to be too tough for the Yankees. Nothing stops the Boston mashers. Not Andy Pettitte. Not Clemens, who finally appeared to have reached the "twilight of his career" when he was rocked for seven hits and seven runs (five earned). Nine consecutive batters reached against Clemens before he was mercifully pulled with one out in the fourth. Hard to imagine that's ever happened before. The Red Sox are 9-9 against New York this year but have scored nine or more runs in six of those victories.

It would be a mistake, of course, to bury the Yankees prematurely. They are still in first place and hold a two-game lead in the loss column. But it would be an understatement to say the traditionally cocky/arrogant folks here are nervous. Yankee fans suddenly have little faith in their team. Sox Nation has dug a foothold in the Yankee beach. Meanwhile, the Pinstripers have been seriously dissed by their fans.

The Yankees don't seem capable of making much of a comeback when they get behind in a game. Bernie Williams is playing like Artis Gilmore in his final days and Jason Giambi is clearly hurting. Alfonso Soriano has gone from Hank Aaron to Tommy Aaron, and Aaron Boone flirts with the Mendoza Line. New York's bullpen is clearly worse than Boston's. It is only starting pitching that can carry the Yanks and they're not getting it lately. Today they turn their eyes to portly David Wells, who has made more news with his mouth than his arm.

"We've been erratic, no question," said Torre. "But these are the guys we brought to the dance. If you get beat up, you can't abandon people. We're mentally beat up. We've gotten our tails beat the last couple of days. But I don't think we're fatigued or run out."

Meanwhile, George Steinbrenner is walking around, threatening coaches' jobs, claiming he wanted David Ortiz all along, and referring to Theo Epstein as "Oppenheim." Could this be the fall of the Evil Empire?

Something happened to the Red Sox last week in Philadelphia and Chicago. Toppled by New York last weekend, rattled by the latest Manny Ramirez brain cramp, the Sox came together under their manager-without-a-contract-extension, Grady Little, and decided to forget all the sideshows and make a run for it. The six-run ninth in Philly, while Manny sat, put a new charge into this team and the Sox haven't lost since.

They still could get derailed and blow the whole thing, of course. And history has taught us to beware. But at this hour it truly feels like the Yankees are the ones in second place. A quarter of a century later, the Red Sox are finally paying the Yankees back for all those decades of indignities.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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