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Ascend to the sublime

It's time for a Red Sox division win

On the afternoon of October 2, 1978, a day that shall live in infamy, the Observer sat up behind third base at Fenway with Edward F. Jesser and watched Yaz pop up a ball thrown by Goose Gossage that came to reside in the glove of Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles.

Later, Jesser and I drank serial glasses of amber liquid in a dark bar. Neither of us uttered a word. There was nothing to say.

Yaz had ended the game. The Yankees won, 5-4, led by a three-run homer by a nobody whose name does not warrant mention here, and clinched the division title. Baseball Yoda Peter Gammons titled a fine piece he later wrote about the contest for Sports Illustrated, "The greatest game I ever saw." Some bloviated there should be no loser in a game so good. None of them lived in Boston.

(Before the game, Jesser and I had coauthored a document stating that the guy who got us tickets would never pay for a drink in our presence.)

The Sox had famously blown a 14-game lead against the Yankees they owned in mid-July. To be fair, they came back to win the last eight games in the regular season and force this playoff game. But the '78 team will always be remembered for the Great Fade.

It is my belief that anyone who was at that game was forever changed. A light went out. For many like me, what it did was cement in our psyche a Red Sox glass that will forever be half empty. There have been delirious exceptions, like 2004, but the norm is gloomy.

It is important to recognize that this psychosis is clinically different from the storied close-but-no-cigar syndrome that plagued Red Sox fans for most of the last century. What this did was elevate that pain of the also-ran to the agony of abject humiliation. Gammons quoted Nettles after the Fade as follows: "I don't feel sorry for the Red Sox -- I pity them."

Which brings me to this morning. Anyone over room temperature IQ -- even "Yankees Suck" idiots -- knew that the 11 1/2 game lead the Sox enjoyed last month was as solid as Jell-O. The Sox can blow that in the time it takes to get a beer at Fenway. As of this morning, we were in the single digits, with a five-game lead.

I mention all this because it was last week that the stage whispers of concern grew into serious crowd noise. You heard it on the streets and talk radio. You read it in the papers and the blogosphere. Right on schedule, Boston began asking itself in earnest, "Are we in for another fade?"

Most of Red Sox Nation, from baseball savants to the great unwashed, maintain that the Sox will hold on and win the division. They point to our superior pitching, particularly in the bullpen. They point to our softer schedule. They point to the breakouts Manny and Big Papi are bound to have.

I'm a half-empty glass guy, so when they say Manny has been on fire since the All-Star break, I say, sort of. He had nowhere to go but up. When they say Big Papi is batting north of .300, I say he's not hitting homers and he's hurting. J. D. Drew, who was supposed to pick up the slack, is a bust.

(Last spring, Billy Bob Thornton, of all people, predicted this to me about Drew: "He hits .273, 18-20 home runs. Breaks a nail and he's out for 20 games.")

My friend Mark Starr, Newsweek's sports savant, reminds me that winning the division is no longer paramount. It feels good, particularly against the Yankees, but what matters is getting to the playoffs.

Division winner or wild card, it really doesn't matter how.

He informs me that six out of the 10 teams in the last five World Series have been wild card teams. Three of them in a row won: the Angels in 2002, against another wild card team, the Giants; the Marlins in 2003, and Boston in 2004.

The Yankees have won the division for the past nine years but have earned no rings since 2000.

I'm delighted to add that in the past two years, they haven't made it past the first round of the playoffs.

But they're torrid these days. They're hitting everything that moves. If they maintain this pace, and we continue to play so-so ball slightly north of .500, the outlook is unamusing.

On the other hand, we say, the Bronx people can't keep hitting like this for the rest of the season.

For reasons that escape me, I'm with the optimists this time. We will win. But if we don't, how we lose will determine our degree of postseason torture. Should the Yankees continue to hit and we play well, but not quite well enough, there will be no shame. We will have lost to a better team.

There was no shame when the Sox took St. Louis, the Reds, and the Mets to seven games in 1967, 1975, and 1986. They were underdogs who acquitted themselves well. But if they fold this season, as they did in 1978, there will be great shame and hell to pay from the Nation.

Red Sox cognoscenti keep their eyes on the playoffs. Good for them. The rest of us crave the title. We've come in second to New York eight of the last nine years, and it's getting tiresome. We grasp the point about playoffs, but, whatever else happens, to finally win the damned division would be sublime.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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