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Red Sox, fans enter strange, new world

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's a little spooky, living in a world with no curses, no baggage, no ghosts of Bucky Bleeping Dent.

It's a little disorienting, knowing that Life The Way It's Always Been is now permanently defunct, to be replaced by Life After Winning, Whatever That Is.

It's a little scary, staring into a future with a whole new set of mysterious ground rules, built around a concept almost no living human is familiar with:

The Boston Red Sox as your official defending World Series champs.

In actual non-fictionalized life.

Imagine that.

Perhaps you haven't fully contemplated what this means, friends -- not just in a baseball sense, but in a truly cosmic sense. What it means, though, is that the universe has changed, in some dramatic and mysterious way.

What we can't grasp -- what no one can grasp yet -- is exactly how it has changed.

How, after all, COULD we grasp it? We haven't lived in that world. We haven't traveled that highway. We haven't landed on that planet. Until now, that is.

So we wonder, because we can't help it: What lies ahead in this unfamiliar new world?

Too bad that's a question that might be tougher to answer than how the heck this team ever won the ALCS when it was three outs from getting swept with Mariano Rivera on the mound.

"The truth is, we don't know yet," says James Taylor, the great singer-songwriter-philosopher from western Massachusetts, and one of approximately 9.7 trillion New Englanders who have made the journey to this Red Sox spring training camp. "We've just stepped through a new portal into a whole new dynamic, and it's very strange."

Those who look for tangible signs, however, are almost terrified by what they've seen on our planet since the Red Sox won.

"You kind of start to wonder," says centerfielder/teenybopper-idol Johnny Damon. "Tsunamis. All those birds flying over Egypt. Major rainfall in Southern California. So I don't know, man.

"Hopefully," Damon laughs, "this doesn't mean the world is coming to an end."

Yeah, hopefully. But whatever, it does mean that life in New England, as we used to know it, actually HAS come to an end.

And the first tip-off is the T-shirts.

We remind you what the T-shirts of Red Sox spring trainings' past USED to look like. They were angry shirts. Tortured shirts. Misery shirts:

"Aaron Bleeping Boone" shirts. "Bucky Bleeping Dent" shirts. "Yankees [Pick a Verb]" shirts.

Funny, you don't see those shirts anymore.

The new shirts tell it all: "Finally" shirts. "Now I Can Die in Peace" shirts. And hundreds and hundreds of 2004 World Champions shirts, worn by people who almost seem to NEED to wear them, to prove it really happened.

Fred Habib, of Newburyport, stands behind a batting cage, draped in his favorite "Now I Can Die in Peace" shirt, bought for five bucks after the Series, down at the mall.

He still feels the pain of walking home from a friend's house after Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, after Aaron Boone's homer, seeing his 12-year-old son in tears and thinking: "This may NEVER happen. And now I'm putting my kid through this, too."

But a year later, there was a very different Game 7 and a very different feeling: He and his buddies, "sitting there and looking at each other," Fred Habib says, "going: 'Our lives have changed.' "

Ah, but how? For every year of his lifetime, for nearly all of our lifetimes, winter in New England meant waiting for the Red Sox to start another this-will-be-the-year kind of season. But this winter, even here in spring training, we sense a different vibe.

"Now," says first baseman David McCarty, "it's almost like they don't want this season to START."

Not only are these people stuck in a moment and they can't get out of it -- they don't WANT to get out of it.

They'd much rather hold onto a moment they waited for all their lives than move on to the next moment -- because how can that moment possibly feel as good as THIS?

"I've got to admit," says James Taylor, "I feel that way myself a little bit. Can't we just take that one back and run it again in slow motion?"

Well, as a matter of fact, you can. Just maybe a little too literally. There are two DVDs to watch (one from MLB Productions, the other from NESN). And there are at least 10 books, either already on the shelves or coming soon to a Borders near you.

So for those who want to bask in what was, the basking opportunities are almost endless. By cueing up the video. Or turning the pages. Or by descending on Fort Myers, in what feels more like a pilgrimage than a spring training camp.

On the first day of full-squad workouts, an astounding 2,500 people showed up. On a Tuesday in February. Mostly just for the privilege of gawking and worshipping their heroes, even if they weren't doing a whole lot.

In theory, the World Series parade ended four months ago. So how come it feels as if it's still going on? Just substitute the palms of Fort Myers for the street lights of Boston.

"Like watching the gallery at Augusta," says pitcher Bronson Arroyo.

"Looked like the line from Space Mountain," says assistant GM Jed Hoyer.

It literally boggles the mind that a mere baseball team could bring joy this intense to this many people. Have there always been this many Red Sox fans in so many places? Or did winning just suck them out of hiding like a gigantic magnetic force?

"It's incredible," McCarty says. "I live right by Oakland [which was still in California last time we looked]. When I lived in Oakland and PLAYED in Oakland, I used to walk around and not get recognized as much as I do now, playing for the Red Sox."

Was it this way for the Marlins after they won? For the Angels? For the Diamondbacks? Oh, maybe it was for an October hero here and there. But not for everybody -- every pinch hitter, every utility infielder, every long reliever. No matter whom you ask, for every Red Sox player, there is a story.

Damon caused such a mob scene at his son's T-ball game recently.

"I had to sneak off and jump fences, just to get away," he says.

David Ortiz got swarmed at Disney World, where he'd always thought "people don't even pay attention to see if there are famous people."

McCarty had it happen one day on a ski slope at Lake Tahoe -- Red Sox fans materializing out of the snowflakes to say, "Thanks."

You could tell those tales for a month. So if these men didn't sense the power in what they did as they were doing it, they sure sense it now.

Arroyo talks about sitting home one day this winter, watching the HBO special, "Reverse the Curse of the Bambino."

"You listen to these people talk about their heartbreak in '86 and '75 and '03," Arroyo says. "Then you listen to them talk about what '04 meant. It makes you cry."

Ortiz tells of not quite grasping the full impact of it all until he sat his friends and family down to watch the beautifully crafted MLB Productions DVD.

"I got all my people at home [in the Dominican] lined up, and played that DVD," he says. "And everyone -- even the people who don't understand a damn thing -- they were like: 'Papi, you DID it.' And I'm not even going to tell you about what it was like in my country. Everywhere I went, it was like heaven."

Unlike the real heaven, however, this heaven isn't forever.

Sorry to announce this, but the Red Sox will be forced by proper authorities to play another game. Lots of them. And that's when this saga will get really fascinating.

Once the baseball earth starts spinning for real again April 3 in Yankee Stadium, we'll begin to get some answers to the question we posed many paragraphs ago:
How HAS the universe changed?

"I have a feeling these people aren't going to worry about a thing anymore," Damon theorizes. "It'll be tough to get those smiles off their faces. People will be, like: 'It's OK. You lost 20 in a row. Things will be fine.' "

"I think there will definitely be a calm about them now," Arroyo guesses. "Last year, we got into a bad streak for two or three months, and everybody was talking about how mediocre we were. I think it will be easier for people to stick with us now. They'll realize, after last year, there's always a chance. Even if we're down, 3-0 [in a playoff series], they can remember there's always a chance to win."

"It will be so different from here on out," says Fred Habib, the fan in the "Now I Can Die in Peace" shirt. "A game will just be a game now. It won't have all this baggage attached to it."

We listen to these theories. We rattle them around in our brains. They sound pretty close to plausible.

Then we imagine six games against the Yankees in the first 10 days of the season. Does anybody really believe that if the Red Sox lose five of six, these people will still be smiling, saying, "Things will be fine?"

"The way it looks to me," says Kevin Millar, "is that these people want to win again. We're not the lovable losers here. The Cubbies can go out and have a beer and have a good time. But we've gotta WIN."

Oh, maybe they won't have to win in quite the same way they had to win when it hadn't happened in 86 years. But you would have to believe in the Tooth Fairy not to believe there isn't some middle ground between the "what-will-go-wrong-next" paranoia of Life Before Winning and the "don't-wake-us-up" delirium of Life After Winning.

"It's not an easy thing to get over something that people haven't seen in 86 years," Ortiz says. "I think it's something people are going to appreciate for the rest of their lives, even if we come out and win five World Series in a row. They're never going to forget about the first one.

"Maybe if we win 10 World Series in a row, people might be [thinking], 'OK, we want somebody else to win now.' That's what happened with the Yankees. People got tired of seeing them win -- even their own fans."

But the glow from this one -- it's as close to permanent as anything in sports ever gets.

"I bet we'd need to win AT LEAST five in a row," Ortiz chuckles, "for people to forget about 86 years."

We'll never find out, you know. They're not going to win five in a row. Good as they are, they'll practically need divine intervention to win two in a row.

But we will find out many other things, here in The Year After.

Who knows what can be accomplished with all the energy people won't have to waste anymore doing stuff like digging up the Bambino's piano?

Who knows what it could mean for the betterment of mankind now that it's safe for Bill Buckner to leave the house -- and maybe even vacation on the Vineyard?

Now we get to learn all those things, just from studying the citizens of New England as they go about life in a world without curses.

This is where the fun really begins -- with 10 miles behind them, but 10,000 more to go.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.