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Rallying cry spurs Sox to finish ride

Call it a spur-of-the-moment thing, but it's no bull. Red Sox fans are talking a new brand of talk, pardner, as their team gallops toward a playoff berth and a potential showdown with the black-hatted New York Yankees.

Around Fenway Park, where doubt is the bucking bronco every fan rides toward postseason play, this year's rallying cry is "Cowboy up." Seldom heard around these parts -- or east of Dodge City, anyway -- the expression became popular several weeks ago thanks to Kevin Millar, the first baseman and designated hitter who obviously knows a cutting horse from a cut fastball, and relief pitcher Mike Timlin, a stalwart of the Sox (Brahma) bullpen.

Millar, a key offseason acquisition by a franchise historically lacking in true grit, hails from Beaumont, Texas. Timlin was born in Midland. Texas is rodeo country. In rodeo, to "cowboy up" means to suck it up in times of adversity. No boo-hooing. No namby-pamby fatalism. As one T-shirt slogan puts it, "Are You Gonna Cowboy Up or Just Lay There and Bleed?" John Wayne never said it better. (Although Bruce Willis snarled something similar in the war epic "Tears of the Sun.")

Millar trotted out the phrase last month when cynics (i.e. saddle-sore knights of the keyboard) questioned the team's toughness. "I want to see somebody cowboy up and stand behind this team and quit worrying about all the negative stuff," Millar growled after a loss to the Oakland A's.

Timlin has supplied T-shirts to Sox teammates ("The time is now . . . so cowboy up") to drive home the message. The Red Sox began playing "Cowboy Up," a song by Ryan Reynolds, over the Fenway PA system -- with accompanying video. Giddyap!

"For this team it's perfect," Millar told a reporter from South Florida's Sun-Sentinal last week. "A cowboy is just like your tough guy, the guy that falls off the horse, broken arms and all that kind of stuff." Recalling how he and outfielder Trot Nixon picked up the phrase back in 1995, when the two played winter ball in Mexico together, Millar added, "This team has that kind of makeup . . . a bunch of guys that go out and basically cowboy up."

Insofar as it can be determined, the expression got its biggest boost from the 1994 movie "8 Seconds," a lame Hollywood oater based on the life of bull-riding legend Lane Frost. (Eight seconds is how long a bull rider needs to stay astride to win -- not how long it took the ball to roll through Bill Buckner's legs in 1986.)

Played by "Beverly Hills 90210" hunk Luke Perry, Frost was a legendary tough guy who rode hard and died young. In the film, fellow rider Tuff Hedeman admonishes Frost to climb back aboard after he suffers a bad spill. By "cowboy up," Hedeman explains, he means carry on "when you are injured or down and the prospect of doing whatever you're about to try is so bleak that the best you can hope for is to live through it."

Not unlike the Red Sox bullpen this season, come to think of it.

Notwithstanding the fact that "8 Seconds" rode straight to video, more or less, "cowboy up" has managed to buck the odds and hit linguistic pay dirt, having been branded onto everything from clothing lines and bumper stickers to bull-riding documentaries and coffee-table tomes about the Wild West. Kiefer Sutherland starred in a rodeo-themed movie titled "Cowboy Up" that was released in 2001. Alas, in terms of box-office staying power, it was a lot closer to "8 Seconds" than "24," his hit TV series. (Sutherland would be perfect as Millar in "The Kevin Millar Story," though.)

"Cowboy Up" is also the title of a novel, a country band from Tacoma, Wash., a line-dance, a marketing campaign by the state of Wyoming, and at least two songs, the chorus to one of which goes:

Oh, come what may, it's all a rodeo Hang on and try to be toughAnd when you draw the worst oneYou get thrown and it hurts, son

Dust off and cowboy up

Millar is clearly onto something here, since Red Sox fans claim the most bruised backsides of any fans in baseball. Now they're hoping another rodeo expression applies as the team tries to throw off the Seattle Mariners and lasso a wild-card slot. Bull riders use it to describe the space between a cowboy's rear end and a hard-bucking animal. "Seein' daylight," they call it.

Saddles cinched, Sox fans?

Yee haw.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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