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Seeing it for themselves made it even worse

A young Sox fan in Baltimore needed consolation after learning that the Rays had beaten the Yankees. A young Sox fan in Baltimore needed consolation after learning that the Rays had beaten the Yankees. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / September 29, 2011

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BALTIMORE - Like drivers who slow down to look at traffic crashes, some Red Sox fans had to be here. They had to watch with their own eyes in Camden Yards as their team faced epic collapse on the last day of the season.

They rejected the luxury of being able to turn off the television, mute the radio, or leave the bar if things went badly. They came to bear witness. And they suffered more for it, enduring an excruciating, seesaw game; braving a rain delay; and ultimately watching the Sox blow a late lead and lose. A thousand miles away in Tampa, the Rays staged an extraordinary seven-run comeback and ended Boston’s season.

“They made me cry for my birthday,’’ said Michaela Metcalf, 16, whose grandparents drove her 7 1/2 hours to the game from Coventry, R.I., as a present.

As the Orioles’ winning run crossed the plate at the stroke of midnight, Chris Laythe’s entire body sagged with despair, folding into his seat in left field.

“Wow,’’ said Laythe, 36, who drove from Worcester with his fiancee, Amy Beth Polonsky, 35, to watch the Sox’ last game of the season, a for-the-history-books affair. She buried her head in her hands.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,’’ she said.

As fans gasped at the conclusion of the 4-3 game here, they grasped the thinnest reed of hope imaginable: that their chief nemesis, the Yankees, could somehow salvage Boston’s season by defeating Tampa in extra innings. If that had happened, the Sox and Rays would have faced each other in a game today to decide the American League wild card.

“We were one strike away,’’ said Ryan Clapp, 32, originally from Brunswick, Maine, who had traveled from Arizona. “It’s heartbreaking. It was rough to see it.’’

But longtime fans know such pain can be a badge of honor.

“I was at Fenway in ’78 for Bucky Dent’s home run, and I got a very clear view of it settling into the net,’’ said Stefan Pagacik, 55, of Plymouth, who flew to Baltimore yesterday for the game. “In ’78 we were this close,’’ said Pagacik as he held his index finger and thumb an inch apart.

“This is different.’’

The schadenfreude in Baltimore was palpable. Hours before the game, Charm City radio personality Jeremy Conn told listeners he wanted to make Red Sox Nation cry. He wanted the intruders to go back to New England, and watch the playoffs the same place as the Orioles, at home.

The Birds, after all, have not had a winning season since 1997. The Red Sox actually have a better all-time record in Baltimore than the home team.

“Couldn’t happen to a more deserving fan base - who played the ‘longsufferingSawxfan’ card for sympathy for how many decades,’’ one commenter wrote on a Baltimore Sun online forum. “Then after they won it all took about 30 nanoseconds to out-Yankee the Yankees followers in self-importance & arrogance.’’

As bad as Yankees’ fans? The Orioles faithful in Camden Yards would not go that far. Nothing, they said, could be as bad as the blowhards from the Bronx.

“They swear in front of kids,’’ said Ginny Fitchett, 31, a lifelong Orioles fan from Millersville, Md. Fitchett may have a bias: She married a man from Chatham. Husband and wife sat in the bleachers, she wearing Orioles’ orange, he in Red Sox red.

“This is like the playoffs,’’ said her husband, Brendan Fitchett.

Orioles’ fans once felt a kinship with the long-suffering New Englanders and their scrappy baseball team. But that was before the Red Sox won two World Series. That was before Red Sox Nation began to travel.

“It’s almost like Fenway south,’’ said Marc Bastarache, 54, of Millbury, Mass., who wore his mesh Red Sox shirt yesterday as he lugged his Red Sox duffel bag onto Jet Blue Flight 1325 bound for his 12th Sox game in Baltimore. “Games there can be cheaper than Boston.’’

A few rows back, in seat 23C, a father playing hooky from work and his two daughters were also headed to the game. Tickets were reasonable. Priceline.com found an inexpensive hotel. Credit card points covered the flight.

Like every other time Boston plays here, Sox fans flooded Baltimore. They tied up traffic and made their presence know at Camden Yards. In the third inning, as the Red Sox rallied for the game’s first run, the familiar Fenway chant erupted: “Let’s Go Red Sox! Let’s Go Red Sox!’’

The hometown fans drowned out their guests with boos.

Behind home plate, Jaxon Matheny stood wearing a head-to-toe, full-body Spandex suit that even covered his face. The Spandex “Root Suit’’ was half light blue, half dark blue, perfectly matching his Tampa Rays Evan Longoria jersey. He taunted the Sox batters, haunting the team as a specter of the surging Rays.

“In the 2012 Webster’s dictionary,’’ said Matheny, 23, from Seminole, Fla., “a picture of the 2011 Red Sox will be under the definition of ‘Choke.’ ’’

The antidote may be found in the optimism of a child.

Caroline Niland, a 14-year-old, spent the summer listening to the Red Sox on the radio as she lay in bed in Belmont. The balls and strikes called by announcer Joe Castiglione served as a lullaby as she drifted off to sleep.

But this week, with a playoff spot fading, Niland got little sleep. Yesterday, she came to breakfast with an idea: fly to Baltimore for the last game. Her father, Bill, 50, couldn’t resist.

For $300, father and daughter were there, smelling the goodness of Boog’s BBQ on Eutaw Street in Camden Yards. Caroline Niland stood on her tiptoes, peering out at the field.

“She’s such a big fan,’’ said her father.

Caroline Niland blushed.

“I always have to keep the faith,’’ she said.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.

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