Baseball: Boston's chance to lift the curse

From the Irish bars of south Boston to the leafy campuses of Harvard and all across New England, that group of masochists collectively known as Red Sox Nation is holding its breath. Is this the year the curse is lifted, and Boston's star-crossed team finally win the World Series?

The play-offs, which start tonight, feature the usual suspects: the San Francisco Giants, the ever-efficient Atlanta Braves and, of course, the New York Yankees, who have not won the world championship for all of three years.

But to the joy of neutrals, the two most tortured franchises in baseball are there, too - the ever-beguiling, ever-losing Chicago Cubs, and the Sox, burdened with the "Curse of the Bambino".

At the weekend, the Cubs comfortably won the two games of a double-header against Pittsburgh that they would normally have found a dozen ways to lose, and in so doing wrapped up the National League's Central Division.

Boston, by contrast, expect to win but since 1918 they never have. Their fans attribute the bad run to the fact that one year after that last triumph, the owner Harry Frazee offended the gods by selling a Sox player named Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

The $100,000 (£60,000) that Frazee received for Ruth helped finance a Broadway run of the musical "No, No, Nanette", which starred his girlfriend. In New York, Ruth hit 54 homers in his first season, starting a run that turned the Yankees into the richest and most successful franchise in American sport.

Since Ruth moved south, the Yankees have won 26 championships, the Sox none. Their last appearance in the Series was in 1986, when they needed just three outs to beat the New York Mets and clinch the championship, but the Curse struck. The first baseman, Bill Buckner, threw away the game and the Series with a child's fielding error.

But this year, all Boston believes things might be different. The Boston Herald has it on no less an authority than the Babe's granddaughter that the malign spell is about to be broken. "Pretty soon you're going to be asking 'what curse?'," Linda Ruth Tosetti told the newspaper. "I'm telling you, it's coming really fast."

The Sox must beat Oakland Athletics in the division series, and then either the Yankees or the Minnesota Twins in the AL Championship, before reaching the Series. There, if their form holds, they will face the Braves or the Giants.

It is a tall order. Good pitching always beats good hitting, runs the baseball adage, and while Boston have the most fearsome hitting in the major leagues, their pitching (with the exception of their No 1 starter, Pedro Martinez) is fragile in the extreme.

But who knows? The improbable dream of the non-committed is a Cubs-Red Sox Series, a repeat of the 1918 match-up. If that happened, one of baseball's predestined losers would have to win.

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