By Bill Simmons
Page 2

    She cuts you once, she cuts you twice
    But still you believe
    The wound is so fresh you can taste the blood
    But you don't have strength to leave
    -- Billy Joel

You can only feel so involved in a pennant race when you're 3,000 miles away.

Here in Southern California, some Sox fans frequent Sonny McLean's, a neighborhood bar in Santa Monica that shows every Boston game. It's the kind of place that makes you feel like you're home again, if only for a few hours. Almost like one of those "Total Recall" experiences that Quade had. Maybe I don't stop by Sonny's that often, but I like knowing it's there. You never know when you might need a Boston fix.

Red Sox
The air is lighter and so is the mood in New England when the Sox are in the hunt.

Then again, there's a difference between being in a Boston bar in September and actually being in Boston. During the tail end of a pennant race, there's an extra surge of energy, a sense of purpose, a common ground. The weather makes you feel like you closed your eyes, spun around a few times and landed in San Diego. The city crawls with college kids and grad students, all of them hoping to make their mark. The girls look better than ever, squeezing those last few weeks out of their summer outfits and tans. On Saturdays, with everyone savoring those last few gorgeous days outdoors, it seems like 20 million people are crammed downtown.

The Red Sox dominate everything. You can't walk 10 feet without seeing a Sox hat, can't step into a bar without seeing baseball players on a TV, can't have a conversation without the topic turning towards the team. The collective mood of the city ebbs and flows with the fortunes of the team, like an oversized college campus, everyone riding the same daily roller coaster. When the Yankees come to town, you can feel it. It's like an invasion. The Yankees are coming.

Sure, you can follow the Sox on the West Coast. You just miss the little things. Walking into a bar and knowing that there's a 100 percent chance the game is showing. Seeing Sox hats and jerseys no matter where you are (Store 24, Dunkin' Donuts, Citizen's Bank, wherever). Loitering outside Fenway before game time, sipping on a beer and watching hordes of diehards happily filing through the turnstiles. Singing the "Bah-da-dah!" part of "Sweet Caroline," along with 35,000 other fans, as the Fenway P.A. system blasts the song between innings. You can't get these things from DirecTV and message boards. You just can't.

And so I spent the past two weeks back East, learning a few lessons along the way. For instance ...

1. The torch has been passed: Pedro to Schilling.

At dinner last Sunday, my father mentioned that he liked our chances in October because we had "two aces." I patiently explained to him that Pedro wasn't an ace anymore; Dad vehemently disagreed. That led to this exchange:

ME: Dad, when Schilling pitched against the Yankees today, you knew he was going to win, right? And when Pedro was pitching on Friday, you didn't know if he would win, right? See, that's why Schilling is the ace."

DAD (thinking about it): "I guess I keep waiting for the old Pedro to come back."

He's not alone. It's just not happening. Classic Pedro had another gear on his fastball. Aging Pedro rarely makes guys swing and miss in big spots. Against the Yankees in Game 7 and last Friday, both nail-in-the-coffin singles came on dink hits, mainly because Pedro can't fall back on that 97-mph heater to save his ass anymore. He's just a different pitcher, a No. 2 starter with a B-plus ceiling. He's certainly no Schilling.

My first Schilling/Fenway experience coincided with his 20th victory, which came against Tampa, a team we played 78 times this season. Of every development this season, the connection between Schilling and the Fenway fans has been the happiest. He's one of us. There's no other way to say it. If he wasn't a professional athlete, you can imagine him posting on message boards, calling radio stations and gulping down flat beer at games. For that reason, he resonates with the locals in a "Bird and Neely" kind of way.

(Quick story: When WEEI's Butch Stearns fanned the flames of a possible Pedro-Schilling feud last week -- just another Boston media guy trying to create something from nothing -- someone named "Curt from the Car" called in and gave him the Ralphie Treatment. It was Schilling. He had been driving around, stumbled across the show and felt obligated to defend himself. Many have called it the greatest WEEI moment since Pitino's "Larry Bird isn't walking through that door" tirade -- Schilling just savaging Stearns and his co-hosts, then hanging up on them like an angry girlfriend. Now this was a guy meant to play in Boston.)

All of Schilling's Fenway starts have a certain rhythm: He doesn't waste time between pitches, always throws strikes, saves that extra oomph on his fastball for special at-bats. The crowd supports him from the first strike, lifting him when necessary. And he hates leaving games, to the neverending delight of the fans. It feels like a performance from beginning to end. For instance, during the Tampa game, the Sox staked him to a 10-run lead before Schilling tired in the eighth. As Francona strode to the mound, the infuriated ace hollered obscenities at himself, ultimately handing the ball to Francona and stomping off the mound as the crowd erupted.

Pedro Martinez
Who are you looking for? Oh, I'm sorry ... the '99 Pedro doesn't work here anymore.

These things come across on TV, to an extent, but nothing like being there, when the noise jolts through you like a stiff breeze. This sounded different from the old Pedro ovations. Not better, just different. At his peak, Pedro made you feel like you were watching an obscenely talented musician who didn't need anyone else; he was simply on a higher plane than everyone else. Those Pedro ovations always carried a tinge of reverence, as if we couldn't believe someone could be that gifted. And like all great artists, he always remained a little detached, somewhat of an enigma, so you never quite knew if we were getting through.

With Schilling, since he's one of us -- and more importantly, since he thinks like a fan -- we know we're getting through. So we bring it up a notch. It's just been a wonderful match: right player, right city, right time of his career. You win a title in Arizona, you won a title in Arizona. You win a title in Boston, an entire region remembers you forever. He gets it. He understands. There are a million reasons I would want him pitching the clincher in a World Series, but that's the biggest one. He gets it.

One more thing: Say what you want about Francona, but without Francona, we probably wouldn't have gotten Schilling: It was a package deal, warts and all. And since this team wouldn't have made the playoffs without Schilling -- who could have won 25 games with a little luck -- I guess you take that package.

I guess.

(Speaking of the manager ... )

2. For the umpteenth straight playoffs, we're going into battle in October with a shaky manager.

Three years ago, I wrote an extended column on Joe Torre, unveiling my "managing a team is like driving a boat" hypothesis. Because that's the job. You're handling a small group of people, making sure everyone's happy, juggling some egos and trying not to hit anything. Unfortunately, most managers make the job infinitely more complicated, which explains why so many of them get canned.

I'm not sure what to make of Francona. He stuck with third-base coach Dale Sveum all season, who was so incompetent I actually asked a friend this summer if Sveum had a depth-perception problem (like vertigo or something). Francona's Pete Carroll "Rah rah" routine grew stale by May; you're almost better off playing dumb in Boston (like Grady or Jimy) than trying that crap. He clearly caters to his stars (especially Schilling and Manny). There just isn't much that seems "managerial" about him. Like everyone else, I often find myself wondering why he's here.

Then again, this team has an outside chance to win 100 games.

(Confused? Me, too.)

Regardless, I can't imagine anyone forgetting what happened with Tito over a three-day stretch last week. A quick recap:

Thursday: During a tie game, Francona allows lefty specialist Mike "I Shot Him 6 Times!" Myers to pitch against Baltimore batters who are definitely not left-handed. They end up scoring two go-ahead runs. Just to make sure we lose, Francona replaces Myers with Byung-Hyun Kim, the embattled reliever who looks ready to start crying at any moment. Yup ... two more runs. After the game, Tito admits that he screwed up, explaining that he was saving his better bullpen guys (Timlin and Foulke) for the Yankee series. Apparently he forgot that the Orioles game counted in the standings.

Friday: Leading 4-3, Francona sends Pedro out for the eighth -- when it's been established, about as dramatically as possible, that Pedro has evolved into a "7 innings or 100 pitches, whatever comes first" guy -- and doesn't tap that aforementioned rested bullpen. It's one thing to stink at your job. It's another thing to willingly recreate one of the most catastrophic innings in baseball history. Tito was booed so badly in this game, I actually felt bad for him until I remembered that he was screwing up the season. Then I joined in.

Saturday: Tito tries to get himself thrown out of the game and can't even do that. If there was ever a time for a shirtless William Ligue Jr. and his son to sprint onto the field and start inexplicably pummeling someone, just to put them out of their misery, this was it. Eventually, the ump tossed Tito out with more than a little disdain, like a neighbor shooing an annoying kid off his property. This may have been the three most awkward minutes of my life.

Terry Francona
"Come on, throw me out. Please? I know a guy that can get you Monster seats."

(Of course, my father was delighted: "This is like watching that scene in Hoosiers when Hackman's telling the guy to throw him out, only the guy won't throw him out!")

Here's the point: Examine the wreckage of every Boston playoff collapse and there's always a crappy manager lurking somewhere. I don't see much difference between Francona, Grady, Zim, Mac ... in many ways, they're all the same guy, slightly overmatched, face frozen, reacting instead of acting. Let's just move on before I kill someone with my bare hands.

3. Fenway is a happier place.

(A minor detail, but something worth mentioning ... )

Here was the team's attitude towards ticketholders as recently as three years ago: "Stop complaining, you're lucky to be here."

Here's the team's attitude now: "We're happy you're here, and we're going to do everything possible to make sure you want to come back."

We have Monster seats now. Picnic tables in right field. Special field seats hugging the Sox dugout. A concourse outside where fans can linger before games, maybe even have a beer and toss down a sausage. If you're hungry during a game, there are infinite concession options other than "hot dogs, rubber cheeseburgers and cardboard pizza." The bathrooms are actually clean. Heck, these current owners (Henry, Lucchino and Werner) are like proud homeowners who can't stop working on their house. They want to preserve Fenway while rebuilding it for the current century, something none of us imagined was even possible.

There's no way to measure it, no scientific way to prove it, but the atmosphere feels different these days -- a little cheerier, a little more festive, just a happier place. In the old days, Fenway was like an aging restaurant surviving on reputation alone; they never changed anything, didn't remember your name and rushed you out of there as soon as you finished eating. Now it's like one of those places where they call you by your name, shake your hands, kiss your wife and bring you a free round of appetizers, just because they're happy you showed up again.

Does this stuff help you win a World Series? Maybe a little. Every edge counts. Especially when Game 7 of the 2004 World Series takes place at an AL stadium this year.

(Which reminds me: That game is scheduled for Halloween night. Seriously. I'm not sure what chain of events would need to happen here -- it would be extensive -- but the thought of Mike Myers coming out of the Red Sox bullpen, on Halloween night, to pitch in the deciding game of a World Series at Fenway ... I mean ... wouldn't that be the most unbelievable scenario in the history of sports? And what if he won the game? Would there be rioting in Boston and Haddonfield? I can't stop thinking about this. Red Sox pitcher Mike Myers enters Game 7 of the World Series at Fenway on Halloween night ... this could actually happen. My God.)

4. There isn't anything like a pennant race.

Up, down, up, down ... it never stops. After Schilling won his 20th, I watched Friday's game at the Red Hat in Beacon Hill -- the night at Yankee Stadium when they toppled Rivera in the ninth (thanks to Cabrera's seeing-eye single). The bar patrons were screaming in delight. Strangers were high-fiving and spilling drinks on one another. My friends and I ended up staying out until 2 a.m., totally wired from the game.

"We have Rivera's number," my buddy J-Bug kept saying, eyes bulging, almost like even he couldn't believe it. "I'm telling you, he's PSYCHED OUT by us!"

One game back in the loss column, we were all feeling that way. The following morning, the local papers practically awarded the AL East to the Sox; even career curmudgeon Dan Shaughnessy managed to sound somewhat magnanimous. My father was convinced that we were headed for a sweep, and this was a guy who gave up on the season 38 different times already.

Naturally, the Yankees demolished them that afternoon. I caught bits and pieces of the debacle at my friend Richard's wedding reception, which showed the first few innings on the TV at the bar. With the score 11-1, I spent a good 10 minutes watching guests squinting in vain for an update, then heading over to the TV for a closer look. Their shoulders sagged every time they saw the score. Every time. Not a good running subplot for a wedding. Finally, they turned the TV off. Probably the right move. In Boston, you can't even get away from the Sox when you're getting married.

Mariano Rivera
The Sox aren't always going to get to Mariano. But it sure is fun when they do.

Sunday was more of the same: Another Yankees blowout, followed by Baltimore ekeing out a win the following night. Everyone in Boston was officially depressed; it was palpable. We all wanted to catch the Yanks. It was like climbing a mountain, seeing the top, then losing your footing and tumbling down 200 feet.

Of course, the roller-coaster ride was reaching that part where you're suddenly upside down feeling like your lungs might come flying out of your body. First, there were two walkoff wins against the O's (one on Bellhorn's dramatic two-out double, the other on Cabrera's 12th-inning home run), coupled with two "Just when I thought I was out, they pullllllll me back in" Yankee losses. Thursday featured the inexplicable Myers-Kim tag-team, then Ortiz belting the final out within 5 feet of the Red Sox bullpen (a classic "Yeaaaa-OOOOHHHH!" moment). On Deja Vu Friday, the Yankees officially slipped away ... at least until the Sox rallied back for consecutive wins, then two more wins in Tampa (including the wild-card clincher).

You couldn't ask for a more insane week. Now they're only two and a half behind the Yanks. Who knows? And yet, with October looming ... I mean ...

I'm just not sure that I'm ready to go through this again.

Nobody is. And that's the rub. It's the best Red Sox team of my lifetime, a well-rounded machine with quality pitchers and big bats, a good defensive squad with a deep bench, a likable group of guys who care about one another. They deserve the benefit of the doubt, a clean slate with a fan base that won't panic every time something goes wrong. It's just that we can't help it. Last October nearly broke us. You can only heal so much.

During that Deja Vu game against the Yanks on Friday, even before the gut-wrenching eighth, you needed Leatherface's chainsaw to cut the tension at Fenway. Ever attended a wedding where the best man was hammered beyond belief? Remember that peculiar tension after he grabs the microphone and starts rambling, when everyone pretends to enjoy the speech -- a seemingly captive audience -- but deep down, they're dreading the eventual F-bomb or inappropriate story about the bride, so they're hanging on every word?

That was Fenway on Friday night. When Pedro yielded that bullpen shot to Matsui in the eighth, it was like the best man dropping that F-bomb. The place went silent, save for a few brave Yankee fans, everyone else paralyzed by the moment -- even the manager, who inexplicably left Pedro out there for a few more batters, losing every Red Sox fan for life.

This wasn't just another loss. People were crushed. Everyone filed out of Fenway like we were leaving a wake, and maybe we were. It was happening again. My Dad and I had tickets for Saturday night's game ... I'm ashamed to admit this, but we gave them away. Neither of us wanted to go. We just weren't ready to go back to Fenway. It was too soon. We ended up seeing the Shawshank Redemption -- which was playing downtown, a limited two-week re-release -- the cinematic equivalent of Keith Richards having his blood changed. Three hours later, Andy and Red were hugging in Mexico and we were ready to continue following the 2004 Red Sox. You know, because hope is a good thing. And no good thing ever dies.

(Well, unless that good thing is being managed by Terry Francona.)

Maybe enough time hasn't passed yet. I still remember everything about last October, those twelve playoff games unfolding like rounds in a classic boxing match, so many twists and turns that even Harold Lederman couldn't have scored it. I still remember the minutes and hours after that fateful Game 7 in the Bronx, when I called Dad just to make sure he was still breathing. I still remember the following afternoon, when everything hit me at once -- the residual emotions of the past three weeks swelling up like a killer wave, knocking me right on my back -- and I actually had to leave work early. It was too much. Baseball shouldn't mean this much.

A few months passed. I thought I was okay. Last Friday brought everything back. This isn't about a curse, it's about baggage, the way an accumulation of experiences alters your innate reactions. Like every Red Sox fan, I have baggage. Tons of it. Now we're heading into October with another dicey manager. My guard is up. I can't help it. At the same time, I'm going to spend my entire afternoon monitoring that Yankees doubleheader against Minnesota today. Because you never know.

Everything has changed. Nothing has changed. I don't want to go through this again. I can't live without it. I'm not sure I can handle it. I couldn't imagine any other way.

And if none of this makes sense ... well, you obviously aren't a Red Sox fan.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.