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ON BASEBALL

Excitement overflowing in all corners

He shook hands with Mayor Menino, who had made his way down to the front-row box seats now known as Henrytown in the eighth inning, then with his partners, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner. Then a security guard opened a gate and he walked onto the field to see the Olde Towne Team, his team, celebrate the clinching of the wild-card spot in the American League playoffs.

"Crazy, no?" Sox owner John W. Henry said with a look of pleasure mixed with bemusement, as Manny Ramirez wildly waved a Red Sox flag behind him. "Can you imagine if we actually won something?"

This was Fenway Park Thursday night, Sept. 25, 2003, in the delicious moments after 10:05 p.m., when heretofore forlorn Red Sox reliever Ramiro Mendoza ("Imagine that -- just what we got him for, Ramiro Mendoza closing out the playoff clincher," cracked one Sox official) struck out Brian Roberts of the Baltimore Orioles to extend a sweet New England baseball season into October.

. . .

Reliever Todd Jones, champagne bottle in hand, walked across the outfield grass to the Sox bullpen and sprayed the fans. As he walked back to the clubhouse, Jones pointed at himself, shook his head no, and crossed his arms like a football referee signaling incomplete pass, then pointed at the fans, while mouthing, "You, you," over and over.

"I told 'em we were sorry," joked Jones, a reference to the bullpen's struggles this season.

"But how could I not go out there and thank them? They were with us all year. There were times they could have shot us and they didn't.

"Hey, what has been a weakness of this team could be a strength. All we have to do is get hot. We're hoping we can do it."

. . .

General manager Theo Epstein, as is his custom, was sitting in the scouts' seats behind home plate during the game. What was it like for this Brookline homeboy to be among the Nation when the playoff berth was clinched?

Epstein, drenched in champagne with a wild-card cap worn backward, smiled broadly.

"Instead of telling me, 'You suck,' they were telling me, 'Good job,' which is always nice."

. . .

While champagne and beer flowed and cigar smoke filtered to the clubhouse ceiling, Sox pitching coach Tony Cloninger sat alone on a sofa in the manager's office.

He was there to greet Grady Little when the Red Sox manager came in from the field.

"When he came in the door, I had big tears in my eyes," said Cloninger, a longtime friend of Little who was diagnosed with bladder cancer in spring training, missed long months of the season while undergoing chemotherapy, but returned just last week to be with the team.

"We couldn't say anything," said Cloninger, who speaks with the same North Carolina drawl as Little. "We grabbed each other and hugged each other. I was happy I could be here."

Cloninger knows what it's like to win a World Series. He was with the Yankees as bullpen coach during their recent run of titles.

"This team could do it," he said. "I don't think they know what the word 'quit' means."

. . .

Sox CEO Lucchino, champagne glass in hand, drank in the view from the field.

"Eleven more," he said, noting how many wins separate the Sox from their first World Series title since 1918. "It feels good, though."

Did he need 11 more wins before he could celebrate?

"No, no, no," he said. "There's a great ride to be had, and I'm one of the guys who will enjoy the ride, too."

. . .

Shortly after 11:30 p.m., Kevin Millar, Todd Walker, Derek Lowe, Lou Merloni, and Gabe Kapler, their newly minted wild-card T-shirts worn over their street clothes, sprinted down Yawkey Way to the Baseball Tavern at the corner of Boylston Street. Accompanied by several bodyguards, they burst into the bar, high-fiving and embracing delighted patrons, then were gone as quickly as they came.

"They were drenched in sweat, champagne, and beer," said Sue Desgrossielliers of Manchester, N.H. "You could smell it all."

Her friend, Staci Hicks of Pembroke, N.H., laughed.

"You probably can smell it on me," Hicks said. "I hugged all of them."

Joey Thomas, from Allenstown, N.H., said he wasn't jealous of the attention the players got.

"Are you kidding?" he said. "I had the biggest drool of all."

. . .

As he rode up the elevator back to his office, Larry Cancro, the team's senior vice president of Fenway affairs, was reminded of the photograph he has of the parade that followed the 1986 World Series. "And that was a parade for losing," he said, "We had a million two on the streets. Unbelievable. What will happen if this team ever wins?"

. . .

Pedro Martinez, who is scheduled to pitch tonight against the Devil Rays, had flown ahead of the team and was already in St. Petersburg, Fla., when the Sox clinched. Martinez called Chris Correnti, the team's physical therapist, after the game.

"Chris said Pedro told him he wanted to pitch Games 1, 2, 3, and 4," Cloninger said.

. . .

Henry momentarily disappeared in the middle of the clubhouse under a cascade of champagne and beer dumped on him by a half-dozen players.

"Let's get our owner a towel," said Jones, one of the players who had soaked the owner. "Here you are, sir. It's all in fun. We love you."

Henry had walked down the clubhouse runway with Ramirez.

Henry put his arm around his slugger's shoulders, his face inches from Ramirez.

"Thank you so much," Henry said, both men beaming.

Said Ramirez, who later doused everyone in sight with a water hose in the clubhouse: "This is unbelievable. This is great. I've been in the World Series with Cleveland two times. Now we're going to win it."

. . .

Johnny Pesky, who turns 84 tomorrow, left after the sixth inning.

"I didn't want to stay out too late," Pesky said. "I told Joe Flanagan [the clubhouse security guard], 'I'm leaving you with a good lead -- don't mess it up.' Joe Flanagan said, 'Well, I did the job tonight.' "

Pesky watched the party on TV. "They're having a hell of a celebration there. I have a good feeling about this team. They played so well in September, let's see what happens. I'm so happy for these guys, especially Grady Little. I hope when they get back from Oakland he gets a two-year extension and a big raise, he deserves it."

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