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Grave Concerns

Thirty minutes north of New York City is another vast metropolis--a vast necropolis--comprising four contiguous cemeteries. Among the permanent residents of this gated community are icons of villainy (James Cagney) and valor (Billie Burke, who played Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz). Dorothy Kilgallen, if she weren't already here, could have filled her gossip column with the boldfaced names inscribed on these headstones: Danny Kaye, Tommy Dorsey, Rube Goldberg, David Sarnoff. This is where Rachmaninoff stopped composing and started decomposing.

And yet the most prominent citizens of these cemeteries--the most enduring names by far--remain New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. In the Gate of Heaven cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y., magazine baron Condé Nast is interred next to Billy Martin, so that the former Yankees manager appears hounded by the press even unto eternity. On Martin's grave last week were faded Yankees and Indians caps, a pair of the signature sunglasses the skipper wore in the 1970s and a weather-beaten wiener, smothered in sauerkraut.

In the adjacent Kensico Cemetery, Eleanor Gehrig's headstone encases the ashes of her husband, Lou. Nearby lies Harry H. Frazee, the Red Sox owner who sold Babe Ruth to Col. Jacob Ruppert. That Yankees owner is alsohere, in a massive, two-columned mausoleum that suggests you really can take it with you.

And then there is Ruth himself. Fifty yards down a gentle slope from Billy Martin lie the Babe and his second wife, Claire. On Ruth's headstone Jesus holds the hand of a boy in a baseball uniform. Step over the Budweiser bottle cap on his grave, on the day the Red Sox and the Yankees played Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, and you'd find a riot of other tokens: two pumpkins, three Yankees caps, three baseballs, one bat and a stuffed bear--in Yankees uniform--holding a baseball inscribed, in a shaky hand, take care of the boys, babe.

Balanced on Ruth's headstone was an orange gourd, the size of a rattle, on which was written: 1918. The hearse of the Bambino stopped here 56 years ago. But the curse of the Bambino lived on.

And so, when you drive farther north to Boston, do not believe the sentiment expressed by that classy gentleman, walking arm-in-arm with his wife down Lansdowne Street, who is wearing the f--- 1918 Tshirt. The Red Sox' fans and players still identify more with their demons (Bill Buckner, Stephen King) than with their Damons (Johnny, Matt). Why else was the Fenway P.A. playing Tubular Bells--the theme from The Exorcist--before every game against the Yankees?

If they don't believe in the supernatural, why have the Sox co-opted so many lucky charms, selling loads of kelly-green Sox jerseys and kelly-green caps adorned with shamrocks? How long before their general manager repunctuates his name to The O'Epstein? Indeed, every loss to the Yankees is an Irish wake, awash in beer, gallows humor (chants of "Let's Go, Pats") and flowery tributes to the deceased. "Write a nice eulogy," Brian Fenley, a twentysomething Sox fan in the rightfield bleachers, shouted to me as the Yankees were scoring an LCS record 19 runs against Boston last Saturday night.

Was this Boston, Mass., or Funeral, Mass.? Prayer cards were distributed in Boston last week asking for the intercession of St. Sebastian, patron saint of athletes--though Jude, patron of desperate cases, seemed more appropriate.

With Boston down three games to none, a deficit from which no team had ever recovered, fans were chanting "Sox in seven." But then, even the late Ted Williams won't concede defeat, working on his own unprecedented comeback, from a cryonics lab outside (aptly enough) Phoenix.

Pity, because death becomes the Sox. They wear misery well. Last Friday night, 45-year-old Jon Duane came to Fenway with three of his six children and his wife, Cathy. It was the couple's 16th wedding anniversary, and the Cape Cod native had flown the family to Boston--on a whim--from their home near San Francisco. They arrived on the red-eye at 6:30 on the morning of Game 3 and had to return at 6 a.m. the next morning for the kids' baseball and football games. So when Game 3 was officially rained out, rendering useless his broker-bought tickets, Jon Duane made like John Wayne and put on a brave face in the bleachers. "Just another Red Sox torture," he said. "At least we can go to Legal Sea Foods."

On Monday morning, when the Sox finally did beat the Yankees, fans filing out of Fenway at 1:45 a.m. spotted--and thanked profusely--Nelson de la Rosa, the 28-inch actor who has become the talisman of Pedro Martinez. The danger is that all these superstitions create a self-fulfilling prophesy. Sox fans, finding omens in everything, are responsible for the Hub's October famine.

Speaking of The Hub's October Famine, it's an anagram. Did you notice? For "The Curse of the Bambino."

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Red Sox fans still identify more with their demons (Bill Buckner, Stephen King) than with their Damons (Johnny, Matt).