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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Now the tears are of joy

ST. LOUIS -- In a matter of 11 days, they turned the baseball world upside down. The Boston Red Sox, a franchise that had cornered the market on hardball heartache, that had shed too many tears and endured too many disappointments, vowed this time to alter history.

The 2004 version of New England's most valued treasure, a happy bunch of idiots with flowing manes and sturdy bats, refused to buy into the myths that had burdened their predecessors.

Instead, they found a way to write a new chapter in Red Sox lore, transforming themselves from frustrated losers on the brink of elimination to the finest of champions, laying claim to the most coveted prize in all of sports.

A World Series ring.

Go ahead. Say it. The Boston Red Sox have won the World Series. Let it roll off your tongue, washing away the bitter taste of 1948 and 1978 and 1986 and 2003. Let Bill Buckner and Mike Torrez and Grady Little go gracefully into the night. Let go of all the angst and anger and agony that has been simmering for 86 years.

Revel in this unorthodox group of athletes, who danced to their own beat, purists be damned. Marvel at their uncanny ability to rise from the ashes, and resurrect themselves in the most improbable of situations. No baseball team had come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series until the Red Sox pinned that indignity on their most hated rivals, the New York Yankees.

Last night, seven days later, they completed a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, a team they dominated from the first pitch to the last, with a 3-0 victory in Game 4. After so many years of waiting, this Boston team made it look easy. Its pitcher, Derek Lowe, was superb. Its quirky center fielder, Johnny Damon, hit a leadoff homer last night to knock the Cardinals to where they had been from the beginning: on their heels. The Red Sox' defense, constructed with care at the cost of a former All-Star shortstop, was again reliable and comforting in the late innings.

There were times this ball club was infuriating, inconsistent, and undisciplined. The Sox were often questioned about their loose rules and long hair, but when it mattered most, they locked arms, banded together, and fulfilled the dreams of generations of crusty New Englanders.

"We did it, man," said Manny Ramirez, who nearly a year ago had so disheartened his employers he was put on waivers and went unclaimed. "I wish I was in Boston right now to celebrate with everyone." The unfamiliar surroundings of St. Louis did nothing to dampen the mood. There was first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, skipping across the top of the Sox' dugout, celebrating with close to 1,000 Red Sox fans who refused to leave Busch Stadium. There was Curt Schilling, the most significant acquisition of the season, grabbing Jason Varitek by the shoulders and announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the leader of the 2004 Boston Red Sox." He then doused his catcher liberally with a double dose of Bud Light.

Varitek, so used to maintaining his businesslike visage, finally allowed himself to exhale and enjoy a moment he has been trying to orchestrate his entire career.

"I've been waiting seven years for this, but there are people in Boston who have been waiting a lot longer," he said. "It's such a relief for this to finally happen. As passionate as our fans are, they deserve this so much."

The fantasy that New Englanders had been hoping for officially went into the books at 11:40 last night, when Keith Foulke fielded Edgar Renteria's ground ball and gingerly tossed it to Mientkiewicz at first base. The Red Sox' dugout immediately emptied, with the players gathering at home plate and jumping up and down in unison, a victory scrum for a team that overcame nearly impossible odds.

"I'm still kind of in a daze," acknowledged right fielder Trot Nixon, who submitted three doubles in the clincher. "Did this really happen? I can only imagine what's going on back home right now."

More than one hour after the championship had been won, fans remained in this visiting ballpark, chanting "Thank You, Red Sox!" and "Papi, Papi!" in honor of the latest folk hero, David Ortiz. The Nation truly does extend across this country, as children as young as 2 years old wearing Red Sox garb toddled into the outfield as midnight approached. One woman, wearing the now signature "I believe!" jersey, admitted she was "over 82, that's all you need to know." She has been a Red Sox fan, she said, since she was old enough to have a paper route to pay for tickets.

She grew to love this ragtag group for who they were: a freewheeling group that did not sweat the small stuff, and never took themselves too seriously. As Ramirez explained last night, "We always knew who we were. We never doubted who we were.

"Baseball is supposed to be fun. When you play that way, the game is easy. We found a way to make baseball easy."

Hard to imagine that 11 days ago, Kevin Millar would be filming his own home video version of "the greatest comeback in baseball history." Hard to imagine 11 days ago that Lowe -- how do you let this guy walk now? -- was banished from the rotation, a lame-duck pitcher with no future in this town. Hard to imagine 11 days ago, Pedro Martinez's season, and perhaps his career with the Sox, was about to end in despair -- again -- against the Yankees.

Last night, Pedro hugged his manager, his teammates, his pitching coach, his trainer, his friend Ortiz. He doused his jeri curls with champagne and tears, only this time they were tears of satisfaction, and joy.

This time, the history of the Boston Red Sox had the very happiest of endings.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com. 

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