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Again, a Hub of anxiety

Boston fans, all too familiar with September swoons, were in agony once more as their Red Sox struggled on and on against Baltimore

In the Tunnel Bar & Grill in South Boston a customer is watching Hollywood Squares, his face a boiled dinner of shots and beers. As he downs another Jamieson, he rasps, "Oh, I remember '46, and then '67 when Yaz did it all. A guy'd have to be a little damp in the head not to have pennant fever now. But we got hot twice in the last three years and no wedding, ya know? This time I want to see a marriage license before I kiss the bride."

Over a cut-glass tumbler of Scotch in the Ritz Bar, a Boston advertising executive, Brooks Brothers from nape to sole, holds his head in his hands and cries, "If we can just split with Baltimore, just this time. If, if, if. I can't go on like this!"

Out on the Southeast Expressway the Telesport message sign flashes complicated won-loss statistics about the Red Sox for rush-hour drivers. In the hallway of the Archdiocese business offices, several monsignors discuss Luis Tiant's healed back muscles and his marvelous showing against Detroit five days before. Prayers for his latissimus dorsi go heavenward.

All over Boston the hum of hysteria sounds just under the surface of the city. The town is on a countdown to last Tuesday night's game in Fenway Park with the Orioles. But really the wait has lasted seven weeks—or ever since the Red Sox stopped flirting with the lead in the American League's Eastern Division and got a good grip on it. Since then, the collective anxiety of Boston has been focused on the Sox, who, as harsh facts attest, have won only the two pennants, in 1946 and 1967, since their last World Series triumph, which was in 1918. The suspense has unraveled the town. It may be necessary to have the Goodyear blimp drop a city-size straitjacket over Fenway Park.

Now the last series of the season between Boston and its divisional menace is at hand. By 5:30 the Fenway bleachers are full of silent, brooding fans. Those with newspapers cannot escape the magic number, an instrument of psychological torture devised by the press. Tonight's number—magic or not—is nine; any combination of Red Sox wins and Oriole losses totaling nine sends Boston to the playoffs.

As the game progresses, it is evident that Tiant has the Orioles well in hand. Allowing only five hits, and getting home runs from Rico Petrocelli and Carlton Fisk, he shuts out Jim Palmer and the Orioles 2-0. Tiant's fastball has the salsa brava of last year and his curve catches the corner of the plate.

For a brief two hours the overflow crowd can release its adrenaline in an almost religious attention to El Tiante's pitching, cheering each strike, moaning at each ball, plunging into depression over each Baltimore hit. The spectators sound more like bullfight aficionados than baseball fans. Tiant plays to them, doing small rumba steps when he gets ahead of the batter. By the ninth inning the crowd is on its feet, joyfully chanting "Loo-ese, Loo-ese."

But in the Red Sox locker room one would be hard-pressed to know who has won. It is a subdued and irritated team, made more uncomfortable by the milling presence of 150 newsmen—many from distant cities. "Where'd they all come from?" asks one player. "Where were they all year?"

The next afternoon, before the final game with the Orioles, Carl Yastrzemski answers questions prudently. "I can understand the fans' caution; we've all been burned before," he pronounces. Super rookie Fred Lynn, who has just reached 100 RBIs, as has his super rookie teammate Jim Rice, is hollow-eyed and morose. "I'll just be glad when it's over, however far we get," he says. On this night the Red Sox are stayed 5-2 by a careful Baltimore club. The hum of hysteria rises a few decibels as the team travels to Detroit for a three-game weekend series. Magic number: seven.

Boston circles up with its radios and TV sets Friday night—and is rewarded with a 7-5 squeaker over the Tigers, but Baltimore edges Milwaukee. Saturday is very bad, the Red Sox losing while the Orioles win yet again. And then comes Sunday—a day of torture for Boston fans, exquisite even by their own discriminating standards. Baltimore wins. Boston goes ahead of Detroit 3-1, falls behind 4-3, ties it, falls behind 5-4 and then squeaks through in the ninth on a two-run double by Denny Doyle to win 6-5. Margin: 3½. Magic number: five. O.K. A rough day, but Boston has the win. Then comes the news: Rice has broken his hand and surely is out for the rest of the season. And probably the playoffs...assuming the Sox even make it....

Before Wednesday night's game in Fenway Park an inconspicuous man in $8 stay-press pants and heavy-duty electrician's oxfords had walked along the infield apron, humming. Could it be? Yes, it was. Owner Tom Yawkey. Asked for a comment, he perfectly expressed Boston's emotional discombobulation: "I don't believe in playing taps—or is it reveille?—until after the third out."