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Red Sox's slow start has New England in state of Mass. Hysteria

When his team plays at home, the Red Sox manager holds press conferences in front of a red brick wall that lends an unintentional air of comedy or tragedy to his every utterance, the brick-wall backdrop being synonymous with stand-up comedy and firing squads and official announcements from the Boston Red Sox, for whom April has alternated between farce and doom.

Fenway's masonry went unmentioned on Monday in a Boston Globe online poll about who or what is most responsible for the "local nine's early demise." After only 16 games, 10 of them losses, the team was evidently being pronounced dead, from what would appear -- to people not from New England -- to be a displeasing but decidedly non-fatal affliction. (Diagnosis: Halitosis?)

All of this conjured visions of a deceased ballclub being dragged around the American League for 146 more games, turning the Sox 2012 season into the longest-ever Weekend at Bernie's.

But the Red Sox are emphatically not dead. Not literally so, anyway. Monday night in Minnesota, Sox reliever Alfredo Aceves gave up a bomb to Trevor Plouffe in the bottom of the ninth that would have lost the game had the fly not abruptly died at the warning track. It fell from the sky suddenly, like a shot seagull, after which manager Bobby Valentine went to the mound with one out remaining to ask Aceves if he was actively trying to kill his own manager. To which Aceves unambiguously answered no.

Of course, Valentine had good reason to suspect his bullpen might be trying to kill him, on the evidence of last Saturday afternoon, when the Sox blew a 9-1 lead on national TV against the Yankees and lost 15-9. At every pitching change, Valentine emerged from the dugout reluctantly, as if ducking out of a transportation shelter on a winter day to check on the progress of the T.

He was booed so loudly on each of those trips that he might have wondered where he'd put his old disguise, the one he wore with the Mets, with the black mustache and the Foster Grants.

Never mind the illogic of the booing. Tempting though it may be, booing the manager as he walks to the mound to remove an ineffective pitcher is a little like booing the dentist as he approaches the chair to remove your impacted molar, a fact that Valentine seemed to recognize, tipping his cap to the crowd, or at least pinching the bill in what now passes for cap-tipping.

When Sox fans weren't being unduly negative, they were being unduly positive, called out for singing Sweet Caroline as Saturday's game fell apart in sections, as in the controlled implosion of an old building.

But their old building is very much intact, and the 2012 Red Sox are likewise not dead, despite having so many causes of death ascribed to them. The Globe poll offered a click-through menu of 13 possible ones -- including Injuries, a Chaotic Bullpen, Distracted Ownership, a Lack of Leadership and (in a self-aware if self-fulfilling prophesy) Negative Media Coverage -- and served as a reminder in the third week of the baseball season that there is no mass hysteria quite like Mass. hysteria.

It's a congenital condition in New England, this hysteria (from the Greek hysterikos, "suffering in the womb"). The word has an alternate meaning of "extremely funny," making "hysterical" -- a mashup of misery and hilarity -- perfect for Red Sox fans. It is the adjectival equivalent of Fenway's brick-wall backdrop, with Dunkin' Donuts logos where the comedy-and-tragedy masks should hang.

All of this is intensified by New England's status as a self-contained small town. If everyone doesn't know each other and their business, it frequently feels that way. Kevin Youkilis married Tom Brady's sister Julie last week, making the Sox third baseman and the Patriots quarterback brothers-in-law. It's not just the buckled pilgrim hats on the Mass Pike signs that make this place feel, for better and worse, like one giant Thanksgiving table.

And so Fenway's centennial celebration last Friday was part 100th birthday, part alumni gathering -- Willard Scott meets George (Boomer) Scott. But it was also a family reunion. Estranged uncles embraced. ("I got booed outta this joint," Dennis Eckersley said of his previous forays onto the field at Fenway, as an active player.) Terry Francona came in from the cold. So did Bill Buckner.

And though -- or maybe because -- the Red Sox would dutifully lose to the Yankees that afternoon, New England never felt smaller, more bound together by baseball.

When teammates Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr emerged into the sunshine -- in wheelchairs pushed by Tim Wakefield, David Ortiz and Jason Varitek -- Sox fans seemed to find a third way, neither comedy nor tragedy but something close to serenity. In that fleeting moment, all of New England was goosebumped by a familiar baseball sight: A pair of slow rollers to second base.

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