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Boston hopes long wait is over
10/02/2004 9:32 PM ET
They are in this not just for themselves, but for their city. There are few sporting cultures where the players feel as connected to their fans as the Red Sox do.

So as the Sox (or as the true natives would say, 'the Sawx') get ready to embark on their second consecutive waltz into the postseason, they do so with some of the most overpowering support a team can have.

Everyone with a sports pulse in Boston thirsts for the Sox to win that first World Championship since 1918. And everyone who inhabits the Red Sox clubhouse is unified in that cause. It begins Tuesday night when they begin the best-of-five Division Series.

Aside from Curt Schilling (2001 Diamondbacks), Mike Timlin (1992-93 Blue Jays) and Ramiro Mendoza (1998-2000 Yankees), nobody who will participate in this postseason for the Sox has tasted championship glory.

AL Wild Card Champions

Second-half highlights
First-half highlights
• The Red Sox's road to the playoffs: 56K | 350K
• The Red Sox clinch the AL Wild Card: 56K | 350K
• Manny homers in his first two at-bats vs Anaheim, 8/31: 56K | 350K

Fan zone

"I would love it," Timlin said of the tantalizing prospect of being part of the team that ends the drought. "I don't want to win it for me, but I would love to win it for everybody else in this room, just to see what Boston would be like. It's hard to explain, the feeling, the euphoria that comes from it."

The prospect of chasing that euphoria in Boston led Schilling out of his comfortable lifestyle in Arizona.

"That's what you play for, is the fans," said Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar. "There's not a guy in this clubhouse who wouldn't want to win it in Boston more than anywhere. That's why Schilling came here. It would be a party for two weeks. I don't think there would be work or school for two weeks."

They played in front of sellout crowds for every one of their 81 home games. Nearly all of their 81 road games were played in front of a large amount of traveling Sox fans. After going 53-28 at Fenway a year ago, the '04 squad went 55-26 at home.

It is an atmosphere that could overwhelm some teams with thin skin. Red Sox fans don't just want success, they demand it.

In 2002, the Red Sox put up a disappointing 42-39 record at home, despite winning 93 games. Following that season, general manager Theo Epstein brought in some players (Millar, Bill Mueller, Timlin, David Ortiz) who could better thrive in the intense environment. That process continued this year with Schilling and Keith Foulke.

And cornerstones remain (Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, Johnny Damon and Alan Embree) who have loved Boston from their first day. Others, such as Manny Ramirez, have warmed to the environment over time.

Varitek, who gauges the pulse of his team better than anyone as the resident leader, notes how important it is for the players to mesh with their fans.

"To gain the respect of what we need to be our 10th player on the field, those things have to mix and match together," said the stalwart catcher.

This could be the team that has the perfect blend of talent and character to bring that title home. Or as Boston fans might say, "Could this be the year?"

Last year was nearly the year, but in Game 7 of the ALCS, that three-run lead against the Yankees with five outs to go disappeared and the season ended in agony.

That tragic end has left the fans more antsy than ever this year.

"It takes a certain player to be able to play here," said Embree. "You've got to be able to have thick skin for the criticism and be able to handle the highs as well, because there's a lot of them. When you play there, it's a playoff atmosphere because the fans are great. When the team is playing well, the fans are outstanding.

"Sometimes you can get too high on that, and when you're not playing well, they get on you a little bit. You've got to be able to have thick enough skin and enough confidence in yourself to get through that and just maintain. That's what this group has. We have a good time. We don't worry about what other people say about us. The main thing is, everybody is pulling for one another and not much fazes us. We don't panic."

That attitude never served the Sox better than after that three-month stretch between the beginning of May and the end of August, when they went 41-41 and the naysayers came out in full force.

"We all believed in each other," said Embree. "We were frustrated the way things were going, but we believed we had a good team. There could have been a point here where we thought we were wrong in that belief, but none of us did that."

While the pressure of playing in Boston is always high, the Red Sox get through it by having one of the loosest clubhouses in the Major Leagues. Their room wasn't much less subdued during their mediocre midseason stretch as it was through the 20-2 stretch through mid-August and early September.

The enthusiasm is best exemplified by the hours the players keep. Most of them don't pay much attention to reporting time. Like the fans, who are lined up when the gates open, the players get there early.

"This team has a lot of fun together," said Millar. "We like being in the clubhouse. We like hanging around each other. Guys get here early every day. It's a family. It's a close-knit group and that's what you want going into the playoffs. I've been on some teams where guys get there at 4:30 [for a 7 p.m. game]. On this team, everybody's here at 2 o'clock, 2:30, 3. That tells you a lot about what's going on here."

Nobody knows Boston better than Wakefield. He is the longest-standing member of the team, arriving back in 1995. He has been through four playoff runs, all of which ended short of the ultimate goal. Last year, Wakefield was reduced to tears when his knuckleball hung up in the zone and Aaron Boone cranked it over the wall at Yankee Stadium to end Boston' season.

He would love nothing more than to reward the loyal fans -- the same ones who gave him a standing ovation on Opening Day -- by washing that bitter memory away.

"Last year was very fun. This year, we still have a little unfinished business to take care of," said the knuckleballer. "It would mean everything. That's why we're playing. We play to win it all. We don't play just to get close."

They play to see what exactly would happen in Boston if the Red Sox finally reached the pinnacle.

"If I have a chance to win a World Series, I want it to be in Boston. I think it would be the most incredible thing," said Embree.

The Red Sox need 11 wins to find out just how incredible it would be.

"It would be the best," said Varitek. "It would be the best place to win a championship."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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