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Former Red Sox felt a kinship seeing team finally win

Legends of previous clubs remembered by new champions

There was a lovely and fitting symmetry to it, a cosmic closing of the circle that began nearly nine decades ago and proceeded along a continuum of unfulfilled Octobers. Johnny Pesky, a white-haired octogenarian now, standing in the visitors’ clubhouse inside Busch Stadium last Wednesday night with rivulets of Great Western streaming down his cheeks.

”The champagne was great,” said the former Red Sox shortstop, after his irrepressibly idiotic successors had produced the first world championship since 1918. “We all came out of there with wet heads. But they broke an 86-year curse.”

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Pesky was the stand-in for all of the Towne Teamers who’d gotten to the World Series and fell short. For teammate Ted Williams, who wept in the clubhouse after batting .200 in 1946. For Jim Lonborg, who won two games with brilliant pitching in 1967 but was battered on two days’ rest in the finale. For Carl Yastrzemski, who played on two teams that lost the Series in the seventh game. And for Bill Buckner, who had the grounder go between his legs in 1986.

”I’m happy for Billy,” said Dalton Jones, who played third base for the 1967 club. “I think that in some way this released him from something.”

If the unlikeliest of all Series triumphs unchained four generations of New Englanders from a Calvinist curse, it was sweet redemption for the former Sox players who’d been the actors in all those autumnal tragedies, especially those from the 1946 and 1967 clubs that lost to St. Louis.

”You know what I’m happiest for?” said pitcher Curt Schilling, after his teammates had swept the best team in baseball on its own diamond. “I’m happiest for Bill Buckner, Calvin Schiraldi, Bob Stanley, Johnny Pesky. Ted Williams. All of the Red Sox that played before us will now be remembered for the great players and great people they were, instead of all the other crap.”

Many of them had enjoyed fabulous careers. Williams, Yastrzemski, Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr, and Carlton Fisk had their numbers retired and are in the Hall of Fame. But they never won a championship ring. “This bunch took a monkey off a lot of peoples’ backs,” said Jones.

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There was a kinship among those clubs that never got the ring. “The camaraderie, with the disappointment, too,” said Rico Petrocelli, who played shortstop for the 1967 club. “Even these guys who experienced it last year, to go on and win it, it’s fabulous.”

The way that these Sox did it, coming from three games down to shock the Yankees, then sweeping the Cardinals, astounded the old-timers. “I don’t think anyone anywhere, no matter how drunk they were, would have said they were going to win eight straight games,” said Gary Waslewski, who pitched twice in the 1967 Series.

Ever since Babe Ruth decamped for New York, the Series always had ended in a loss, always in a seventh game. In 1946, there was Enos Slaughter making his mad dash from first ahead of Pesky’s throw. In 1967, there was Julian Javier jacking a three-run homer off a tired Lonborg in the Fens. “I would have loved to play them if Lonnie had one more day’s rest,” mused Russ Gibson, a catcher on that club.

In 1975, there was Joe Morgan blooping a slider off the end of his bat for the winning run. In 1986, there was Buckner in Game 6 and a 3-0 lead lost in the finale. “I never believed in the curse,” said Pesky. “I know how baseball is. You can have the best players in the world and you may not win.”

So when the Sox rose up and smacked down the Yankees twice in extra innings to bring their pennant showdown back to the Bronx, their predecessors sensed a reversal might be in the stars. “The whole time, right from the Yankee series, I was thinking, wow, is this really happening?” said Petrocelli, who hit two homers to help force a seventh game in 1967.

When Boston finished off New York in the Bambino’s own playpen, anything seemed possible. “For them to get past the Yankees was such a huge hurdle for them,” Lonborg said.

After that, it seemed destined that the Sox would meet St. Louis, their conquerors in 1946 and 1967, in the Series. “People were saying, how about Houston, with Roger coming back?” said Petrocelli. “But I was thinking, St. Louis beat us twice. Wouldn’t it be nice for us to beat them?”

But none of the old-timers dreamed it would be a sweep. “I was surprised at how quickly they were able to subdue the Cardinals,” said Lonborg. “I predicted it would take seven games.”

No former player ever had known anything else, ever had had fortune go his way. “You think the Babe is going to jump up and bite us somehow,” said Waslewski.

So when Edgar Renteria, wearing Ruth’s old number, hit the final pitch back to the mound, all of Red Sox Nation held its breath. “As [Keith] Foulke was underhanding the ball to first,” said Waslewski, “I thought, I hope it doesn’t stick in his fingers and flip over Mientkiewicz’s head.”

This time, there was no place for lunacy in the script. This time, after a 58-year hold, Pesky got his champagne shampoo in Missouri.

”The beauty of the Red Sox is that every year is like a different chapter and this year is one of the greatest chapters ever written,” said Lonborg. “And there’s still more to this book.”

After 86 years of unhappy endings, the Fenway faithful finally got to read a fairy tale last week. “The question I have for the fans who experienced 1946 and 1967 and the other years is this: Was it all worth it?” asked Petrocelli. “Would you have gone through all of that just for this moment?”

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