As the beautiful autumn afternoon lengthened and the outcome on the field became less in doubt, folks in the Fenway Park stands and those at home watching on television tried to diagram playoff possibilities. They'd have had more luck memorizing ''Ulysses" or learning to play Rachmaninoff's piano concerto No. 2 -- without sheet music.
At 4:27 p.m., a couple of things finally became clear. Johnny Damon grounded feebly to Mariano Rivera and the New York Yankees, 8-4 winners over the Red Sox in Game No. 161, were champions of the American League East for the eighth consecutive season. But because the staggering Indians had lost again to the White Sox, the Red Sox somehow clinched at least a playoff for the wild-card berth.
Happy day. Sort of.
With one more to play against the Yankees today, the Sox can secure the wild-card spot by winning. They also qualify if the Indians lose again. However, if the Sox lose today while the Indians win, the Tribe will be in Boston tomorrow afternoon for a one-game joust. If the Red Sox win, they play at Chicago Tuesday in the Division Series. If the Indians win, they will play either the Yankees or the Angels.
And if you figured out all that early yesterday, you probably had no trouble with the linear algebra problem Matt Damon solved in ''Good Will Hunting."
Matt's pal, Ben Affleck, was on hand to see the Yanks clinch yesterday. He was there along with Jennifer Garner, Renee Zellweger, Spike Lee, George Mitchell, Tim Russert, Alan Dershowitz, Yo Yo Ma, Joseph Abboud, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Senator Chris Dodd, Joe O'Donnell, and anybody else with enough juice to procure tickets for the most anticipated regular-season series in Boston since the final two games against the Twins in 1967.
The Red Sox are very much alive in their quest to win back-to-back World Series, but it was a downer to see the soldiers of the Evil Empire dancing on the Fenway lawn.
''They can celebrate any way they want," said Boston manager Terry Francona. ''They've earned that right. Our energies are for tomorrow's game. We have a chance to get to where we want to be."
Curt Schilling, a bust in 2005 after his Lindberghesque heroics of last year, gets the ball today. We can only hope the good folks in Medfield have the supportive signage. The Yankees pledge to play hard, even though they've already substituted Jaret Wright for Mike Mussina as their starting pitcher.
Randy Johnson started for New York yesterday and beat the Red Sox to finish 5-0 against Boston in 2005. The Big Unit was staked to an early lead (the Yanks hit three homers off Tim Wakefield) and dazzled the Sox in the afternoon shadows. He gave up a monstrous two-run homer to Manny Ramirez in the first, but yielded only three runs on five hits over 7 1/3 innings.
''That's why they went out and got him," said Boston center fielder Johnny Damon. ''He was supposed to be someone who'd stop the Red Sox and he's done that."
Wakefield, who pitched sensationally for the Sox in September, including a 1-0 loss to Johnson in Yankee Stadium three weeks ago, was ineffective in his final regular-season start. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez opened the game with singles and after a run scored on a fielder's choice, Gary Sheffield made it 3-0 with a two-run homer to left.
Ramirez got a pair back for the Sox with the first of his two titanic blasts, but the Yankees put two more on the board in the second and a homer by Hideki Matsui (always a Sox killer in the fall) in the third made it 6-2. A-Rod threatened drivers on the Mass Pike East with a solo shot in the fifth, and Mike Stanton, Jeremi Gonzalez, Lenny DiNardo, Chad Bradford, and Craig Hansen paraded to the hill while smart fans turned their eyes toward events at Jacobs Field in Cleveland. Francona needed to save Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Timlin for today.
When Chicago's immortal Tadahito Iguchi hit a three-run homer in Cleveland, everything changed in Boston. Suddenly, the Yankees were in position to clinch the AL East on Fenway soil. The White Sox secured their victory at 4:13, and 14 minutes later the Yankees were popping the corks on Great Western champagne that had been purchased at the redoubtable Dorr's Liquor Mart in Brighton.
Much as we hate to admit it, this was quite an accomplishment for the George Steinbrenner Athletic Club. The team with the first $200 million payroll staggered mightily early in the season, falling nine games under .500 on May 6. They trailed the Sox almost all year and were still 5 1/2 behind Aug. 10. But they've won 16 of their last 20.
''This is what we play baseball for," said Rodriguez, New York's top MVP candidate and a dartboard ornament in many a Hub pub. ''We still feel bad about what happened against the Red Sox last year. It's very satisfying to do this in Boston, against a team we respect so much. A lot of smart people wrote us off."
''They desereve it," said Damon. ''They've won more games than us to this point. We definitely wanted to change history, but right now it doesn't matter as long as we make the playoffs."
Historically, this has not been a friendly day for the Red Sox. On Oct. 2, 1978, Bucky Dent's three-run pop fly home run sank Boston in a one-game playoff against the Yankees. On the same date in 1949, the Yankees beat the Sox in the House That Ruth Built in a winner-take-all final regular-season game.
The Sox pledge that today will be different. If they win, they are in. They would be off to Chicago, which, ironically, is probably a better draw than New York's date with the Angels.
Late yesterday afternoon, the new message on the eraserboard next to the Sox clubhouse door was short and to the point:
''Tomorrow. Pack for three day trip."