As darkness fell on the banks of the Muddy River, the Red Sox last night boarded a bus at Fenway Park and set out to seek their destiny. They rode to Logan, flew to LaGuardia, bused to Manhattan, and began their final preparations to play the Yankees tomorrow night in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
Within nine days, the Sox either will have clinched their first World Series berth in 18 years -- and a shot at their first world championship since 1918 -- or have started their winter vacations.
"No one is expecting us to win because of history," Johnny Damon said. "But we feel like we've had the best team since Day 1. We just need to show up and play well. If we can play defense and hit a little bit, we're going to win."
A year after the Sox and Yankees clashed in one of the most memorable series in playoff history, Curt Schilling will renew the ancient rivalry when he faces Mike Mussina in the Bronx. The teams have played 45 times over the last two years, with the Sox going 23-22 but losing the most important showdown, Game 7 of last year's Championship Series on Aaron Boone's 11th-inning homer.
Almost every game since then, it seems, has further stoked the rivalry.
"This is what rivalries are about," Kevin Millar said. "This is two cities that don't like each other and two of the best teams in the American League going at each other. This is exactly the way it should be."
The Sox fell three victories shy of catching the Yankees in the American League East and gaining home-field advantage in the series. Games 1, 2, 6, and 7 are scheduled for the Bronx, with Games 3, 4, and 5 in the Fens.
"I just don't know how much more there is to say about it," Sox principal owner John W. Henry said. "We all know. We played them even for 26 games last year and another 19 this year. It's hard to imagine two more evenly matched teams. We can't ask for more than that in the playoffs."
Some of the Sox welcome the series as an opportunity to overcome the franchise's 86-year championship drought.
"We enjoy the fact that we're going up against history," Damon said. "Nobody is scared of it. Everyone wants to take it. We like the challenge."
The Sox have gone winless in four Championship Series since they lost to the Mets in the 1986 World Series, bowing to the A's in 1988 and '90, and the Yankees in 1999 and 2003. But the franchise's past futility mattered little to the current players.
"We're a good team, they're a good team," Doug Mientkiewicz said. "The past has absolutely nothing to do with it."
Even Sox players who considered the team's history were quick to discount it.
"If you sit there and dwell on it, you're going to worry about the past," Jason Varitek said. "You have to worry about what you can do today."
Nor was general manager Theo Epstein consumed by history.
"It sounds cliche, but this team's success is due in large part to their approach, which is coming to the park every day prepared to do everything under the sun to win that game on that day," he said. "That's what we have to do eight more times. If we do that, history will take care of itself."
Henry was asked if the Yankees might enter the series with a psychological advantage because of their history of postseason success.
"Not at all," he said. "You've been in this clubhouse. Do they appear to be psyched out? No. I think they're ready psychologically, emotionally, and physically, which is really important."
The Sox announced their four-man rotation for the series -- Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Bronson Arroyo, and Tim Wakefield -- but planned to wait until tomorrow to announce their full 25-man roster. They are scheduled to work out today at Yankee Stadium, and they don't expect to see any ghosts.
"I'm not a math major, but I don't think any of them were around [in 1918]," manager Terry Francona said of his players. "There's a lot of interest in everything the Red Sox do around here. They know that. But sometimes I'm not even sure they know how many outs there are in the inning, so I'm not too sure this other stuff is going to be a real factor."
It was all but impossible to find anyone associated with the Sox who would dispute that the current team is better than the club that fell five outs shy of winning last year's Championship Series. The Sox cited the offseason acquisitions of Schilling and Keith Foulke as major difference-makers.
"With the addition of another No. 1 and a closer, we have to be stronger," Henry said. "I feel very good about it."
The Sox also believe their defense and base running have improved since last year.
"Last year, we were a little one-dimensional," Epstein said. "We were really an offensive juggernaut, and run prevention wasn't necessarily our strong suit, although we did pitch really well in the postseason. This year's team is a bit more multidimensional and there's no glaring weakness necessarily when we execute the play right."
The test begins tomorrow night.
"A lot of people are calling this the World Series right here," David Ortiz said. "We'll see."