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ON BASEBALL

Lingering images not pretty

The helmet that he flipped so joyously time and again in anticipation of the celebratory home-plate scrums that became a nightly ritual last fall, this time remained in David Ortiz's giant hand until he dropped it without a glance in front of the Red Sox dugout. His big two-toned bat, however, remained in his other hand, as if Ortiz could not bring himself to accept that the 2005 season had run out of swings for the Red Sox, and there was no place left for him to go but down the dugout steps.

Another season ended for the Olde Towne Team last night with Edgar Renteria hitting a ground ball, but this time no one on the Sox side -- be it Doug Mientkiewicz or Larry Lucchino -- could lay claim to the baseball. Not when Renteria, wearing the red of Boston instead of St. Louis as he was last October, tapped out to second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, who threw to Paul Konerko, the White Sox first baseman whose two-run home run off Tim Wakefield would be the biggest blow on this night of elimination for Boston and ecstasy for Chicago, another team with a memory bank previously programmed with decades of failure.

While the winners sprayed each other with champagne, Bill Mueller, the Sox third baseman who may not be back next season, leaned on the Gatorade jug in the Sox dugout and watched. Tony Graffanino watched for awhile, then ran his hands through his hair and filed out. Over the PA system, Joe Cocker sang ''With a Little Help From My Friends." A Fenway crowd of 35,496 slowly shuffled out, a 5-3 White Sox victory ending a Red Sox season just as the leaves were beginning to turn.

''That's the shocking part," said Wakefield, whose name in the box score would be accompanied by an ''L" just as it was at the end of 2003, when Aaron Boone brought an abrupt end to another season. ''Waking up tomorrow, knowing you don't have to go to work but wanting to."

Yes, Johnny Damon said, he had thought about whether he would ever come back to work in a Red Sox uniform as he went to the plate in the ninth inning.

''I definitely didn't want to end with a strikeout," said Damon, who in his penultimate at-bat of 2005 also had gone down swinging, against Orlando Hernandez, who combined with Jose Contreras to form bookends of Cuban defectors who tormented the Sox.

Contreras, proud and showing none of the uncertainty that had plagued him in his previous starts against Boston, had shut the Red Sox down in a one-sided Game 1 win in Chicago. Hernandez, who had still been auditioning for a roster spot on the final day of the regular season, last night entered in the sixth with the bases loaded and no outs in a one-run game, and relying on every bit of experience of a man his age (35? 40? Methusaleh?), set down the Sox popup (Jason Varitek), popup (Tony Graffanino), whiff (Damon).

''He showed a tremendous amount of guts," said Graffanino, who had fought El Duque through a 10-pitch at-bat before succumbing. ''I don't know how he had the guts to throw a 60-something-mile curveball in that situation. Everything he threw in that at-bat to me was hard, until that pitch."

Varitek had already popped to short, and even though they still needed another out to end the inning, White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski went halfway to the mound, where he was met by an equally amped Hernandez, their fists bumping each other with authority. Were they guilty of tempting fate?

''Maybe," Graffanino said. ''But I know how they feel. They were on the verge of getting out of the inning. I'm not going to fault them for being excited."

Hernandez was not in the clear until he threw a full-count slider to Damon that the Sox leadoff man recognized too late, his bat crossing that imaginary line that separates a checked swing from a strikeout.

''It's still going through my mind," Damon said, ''how my body kept going forward. I know I went [swung], but I know I saw the pitch and tried to hold up."

That would be the last best chance on a night the Sox would have only one more hit, John Olerud's two-out single in the eighth off El Duque.

Theo Epstein, the Sox general manager, leaned against the doorway of Terry Francona's office, talking to reporters as the manager, having shed his uniform jersey, brushed his teeth behind him.

Epstein praised Hernandez (''that was a magnificent relief appearance, stunning . . . as good as it gets") and paid tribute to his own team.

''This is not a day to look forward," Epstein said, deflecting questions about the future of Manny Ramirez, who yesterday hit two home runs in his final act before a winter of trade speculation. ''This is a day to look back and appreciate what they accomplished to put us in position to win in October. This is not a day for looking forward."

The difference in the series, Epstein said, was ''Chicago's ability to get the big hit, a lot of two-out hits. They finished off their rallies. Any time they got two guys on, they got two guys in. We just weren't able to capitalize on the momentum of our rallies."

The abrupt end of the season, he said, comes with the territory.

''It's never shocking," he said. ''You live by the sword, you die by the sword in postseason. You can win it quickly, they can win it quickly. There's a fine line between success and failure in the postseason. One key at-bat here or there can turn a series."

David Wells, who would have pitched the rubber game of this series on short rest had it gone the distance, talked of his plans to have knee surgery this winter, then go hunting with his buddy Kirk Gibson and play some cards. Retirement was a possibility for a guy who once thought being a Yankee was as good as it got, but now had some second thoughts.

''This clubhouse was so good, it was stupid how much fun it was," Wells said. ''This probably was one of the greatest clubhouses I've ever been in.

''I've never seen a 1-2 punch like [Ortiz and Ramirez], ever. To see that, God, it was just stupid."

Wells, with typical candor, left no doubt where he stood on the issue of keeping the two together.

''Do whatever it takes to make them happy," he said. ''Wine and dine the [expletive] out of them."

Meanwhile, Damon, surrounded by TV cameras, spoke with emotion when pondering the possibility he won't be back.

''It was always a privilege to watch Manny and David hit, to hear Kevin Millar across the clubhouse night in and night out, to have a manager like Terry Francona, who was all about being positive and respected the game and knew what players are going through on a nightly basis. Seeing Mike Timlin, getting better with age, like fine wine. Playing with 'Tek, who I always admired in high school, I always hoped someday I'd play with Varitek.

''Tim Wakefield, Trot Nixon."

A cast of characters who have filled our Octobers, night after night, and now the stage is empty.

''Time to go home," Francona said, ''and hug my kids."

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