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BOOK REVIEW

'Reversing the Curse' is a winning tale

Like the first Red Sox title in 86 years, Dan Shaughnessy's new book almost didn't happen. After the 2003 season came tantalizingly close to triumph, the veteran Boston Globe sportswriter and author of the 1990 bestseller ''The Curse of the Bambino" began chronicling the 2004 season that many Sox fans believed might finally be ''the year."

The season looked promising as the Red Sox landed in the playoffs , but after they lost the first three games of the American League Championship Series to the Yankees, the last one 19-8 at Fenway Park, it looked as if yet another year of ''1918" taunts was ahead. As the season faced near certain end, Shaughnessy's editor told him: ''There's no book anymore. No one wants to read about these guys now."

Nobody would have disagreed. But then the Red Sox pulled two extra-inning wins out of their caps. The pressure suddenly was on the Yankees, and they choked. The rest is history, though so improbable a tale that a Hollywood writer would have hesitated to submit the story line.

The subsequent World Series sweep salvaged not only Shaughnessy's project but prompted at least two dozen other books (and counting) on the sensational Red Sox season.

After a rash of instant books, the first substantive work out of the chute was the disappointing ''Faithful" by Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan. Cynics awaited Shaughnessy's ''Reversing the Curse" in part because ''The Curse of the Bambino" had so captured the spirit of the Red Sox fan experience that it spawned an entire industry on curse-related hoopla.

That hype built and built, as though it had a life of its own, as though there was no other story in town. But then the improbable did occur. The Red Sox became world champions. Had there ever been a curse, it had been turned around, and in spectacular fashion to boot.

''Reversing the Curse" digs into the 2004 season in a way that is more satisfying than many other efforts. Shaughnessy has the access, the sources, and the touch. And he understands the Red Sox fan base.

''For Red Sox fans," he writes, ''it wasn't always about winning -- that was the province of the Yankees fans. It was about wanting to win." He understands the churlishness of many Sox fans, bred of Yankees disdain.

Shaughnessy has a newsman's nose for seeking out detail: After the league championship shifted back to Yankee Stadium for Games 6 and 7, visiting clubhouse man Tom McLaughlin returned for credit the 10 cases of Great Western champagne he had purchased from Dorr's Liquor Mart in Brighton for the expected Yankee victory that never came.

Shaughnessy is able to suffuse the narrative with drama, retelling a magical season, yet with sufficient economy in his writing that we are not worn down with detail. Even the voracious reader of all things Red Sox will find richness in the portraits of team officials Larry Lucchino, Theo Epstein, and Charles Steinberg, tracing their pedigrees in major league ball.

There are details aplenty on key players --Johnny Damon, Kevin Youkilis, Pokey Reese, and Nomar -- and Shaughnessy doesn't hesitate to admit to becoming part of the story himself on occasion, such as the time Pedro Martinez chewed him out for referring to Pedro's ''tiny butt" in a Globe column.

In the minds of many, ''The Curse of the Bambino" became a curse in itself. The notion of the curse was a ''device," in the words of George Vecsey of The New York Times. But it was a device that took on a life of its own through Shaughnessy's book. There were those who felt Shaughnessy wanted the Red Sox to go down in another last-minute defeat, so the work would keep on selling. Shaughnessy never claimed there was a curse; he simply enjoyed explaining how people might well think one existed.

The curse has now been reversed, and the landscape has been altered. ''In the end," Shaughnessy concludes, ''it was never about digging up the Babe's bones and making a public apology, or exorcisms, or Salem witches, or pianos in ponds, or planting a Sox flag on the top of Mount Everest. . . . The Curse was there only to give some fans a reason for all the bad luck and near misses. It was like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny. But as the 2004 Red Sox proved, what really mattered was having the best pitching and a clubhouse full of players who believed in one another and cared nothing about Boston's baseball past."

Amen.

Which is not to say that Shaughnessy doesn't still have some fun in the process. The book leaps from Chapter 12 to 14; there is no Chapter 13.

The reader learns how Red Sox ownership has handled the initial benefits of success. They adopted a ''share the gold" philosophy, and employees throughout the organization -- even the Fort Myers, Fla., equipment manager and his girlfriend -- were brought to Boston for the World Series, and some 500 employees are reportedly going to receive World Series rings. In another organization, rings might have gone only to the players and higher executives.

The book that was almost canned has a happy ending that will sustain Sox fans for years. ''Reversing the Curse" is a worthy chronicle of the championship season.

Headlining humor


From the Red Sox parody website Call of the Green Monster:

  • Steinbrenner Hires Team of Psychiatrists to Prepare Yankees for First Trip to Fenway Park

  • Johnny Damon Privately Expresses Disappointment with 'Incredibly Cheap' Wedding Gifts from Sox Teammates

  • Playing in Kid's Neighborhood Whiffle Ball League During Off-Season, Bellhorn Leads in Walks and Strikeouts

  • Sox Players Spend Free Time Exploring Museums, Monuments, and Other Historical Sites in Culturally Rich Fort Myers

  • Red Sox Forced to Layoff 75 Employees Who Worked Exclusively for Pedro Martinez

  • Red Sox Plan to Add 2,000 Seats On Top of John Hancock Building

    Bill Nowlin is coauthor of 10 books on the Red Sox, including this year's ''Blood Feud," on the Sox/Yankees rivalry.


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