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Red Sox Nation set for Game 1

Boston tries to undo years of heartbreak

Game on. Go time. The World Series returns to ancient Fenway Park tonight for the first time since 1986 when the Red Sox host the St. Louis Cardinals. With the region still hung over from the Sox' epic comeback against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, Boston will be attempting to win the fall classic for the first time since 1918.

A new generation of local fans has been born since the last time the Sox were in a World Series. These young citizens of the Nation know about Bill Buckner, Carlton Fisk, Bob Gibson, and Enos Slaughter only from what they've been told by parents or read in books. For them, the Sox's checkered postseason past is no more relevant than the Battle of Hastings or the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. The only history they care about is what they witnessed this week when the 2004 Sox pulled off the greatest of baseball comebacks, beating the Yankees four straight times after losing the first three games of the ALCS.

Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said the series win over the Yankees "gave us a collective, cathartic exhale. The region dumped all its collective baggage at once. We made history, but our goal has always been to win a World Series, and we won't be satisfied until we do."

"We're playing in Sox Nation in October," added Boston first baseman Kevin Millar. "This is where we want to be. Now we have a chance to be that team that wins it here. This is when you write history."

With the Red Sox it's always about history, and that is why New England is focused on and fixated with the eternal quest of its intrepid team. In the early years of the 20th century, Boston's upstart American League franchise won five of the first 15 World Series, but triggered 8 1/2 decades of bad luck when it dealt the best player of all time, Babe Ruth, to the Yankees. Since then the Sox have been to four World Series, losing in the seventh game each time, most famously when they let what looked like certain victory slip away at Shea Stadium in 1986. But this group is different, fans believe. The raggedy men of baseball's Delta House overthrew the Yankees on the very soil of the Evil Empire. Hub fans are convinced that these Red Sox are destined to win it all, perhaps a week from tomorrow in Game 7 on Halloween night at Fenway Park. Boo.

"For all their personality, this bunch of guys is pretty single-minded," said Epstein, who was a 12-year-old Brookline middle schooler when the Sox blew the 1986 Series. "I don't think we carry history. That implies a burden. But we know that everything we do has more meaning. When we accomplish something it's quickly put into historical perspective."

Veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield will start tonight for the Red Sox, with righthander Woody Williams getting the ball for the Cardinals. Curt Schilling is scheduled to have the tendon in his right ankle surgically tightened again before starting Game 2 tomorrow night. The Cardinals have not announced a Game 2 starter.

St. Louis clinched the National League pennant late Thursday night, beating Houston in the seventh game of the NLCS. The Cardinals flew to Boston yesterday and arrived at Fenway Park for a workout just after 5 p.m. The Red Sox worked out at 1 p.m.

The matchup features two of the more traditional major league franchises, playing in cities where baseball is the No. 1 sport. The Cardinals have been in 16 World Series, trailing only the Yankees (39), Dodgers (18), and Giants (17) in appearances. It is the 10th World Series for the Red Sox.

The Sox and Cardinals met in the 1946 World Series when heavily favored Boston was upset in seven games. Ted Williams hit .200 (all singles) in his only World Series and the Cardinals scored the winning run when Country Slaughter scored from first on a double by Harry Walker. In 1967, the Cardinals again beat the Red Sox in seven games with Gibson winning three games, including a Game 7 decision over Jim Lonborg (who was pitching with only two days of rest) in the final game at Fenway.

Current St. Louis manager Tony La Russa has no sympathy for the plight of long-suffering Red Sox fans.

"I come from St. Louis," said the esteemed Cardinal skipper. "We haven't been here in 17 years. We lost a chance for the Series three times. This is a time for fans of both teams to be selfish. We have a clubhouse full of guys that have never won a championship ring, so we're going to be greedy and selfish just like they are."

Forgive the Cardinals if they come to town with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. Bally's in Las Vegas set the Red Sox as 8-5 favorites to win the Series. The NLCS took a back seat to Sox-Yankees in every way, and there's some sentiment in St. Louis that the NL champions have been disrespected. Epstein, insisting he did not want to diss the Cardinals, said, "Time to beat Finland," -- a comparison to the 1980 US Olympic hockey team winning the gold medal by beating Finland after the dramatic upset of the Soviet Union.

"There's a lot of good players in that [visitors'] clubhouse over there," warned Schilling, a National League guy for most of his career. "This isn't the time for us to be thinking about history. If we get three wins and 26 outs into the fourth win, I'm pretty sure it will hit us."

A year ago, Red Sox ground crew members foolishly stenciled the 2003 World Series logo into the turf behind home plate at Fenway. The job was done in the hours before the Sox and Yankees squared off in the seventh game of the ALCS, and a photo of the decal found its way to New York before the game. A day later, it was covered by a black tarp, as the sad Sox packed up for the winter after their hideous loss in the Big Apple.

They waited this year. Fenway ground crew members were still spraying paint onto the logo before the Cardinals took batting practice yesterday.

Never mind history. Everything at Fenway this year is different.

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