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IN THE CAVITY OF THE CATHEDRAL, HISTORY SOUNDS LIKE a freight train rumbling through a concrete tunnel. Roger Clemens recognized the rumble. Clemens, his retirement plans not yet amended, had spent the last seven innings of Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series in the home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, nervously wondering if his career and the New York Yankees' season were about to be extinguished by the Boston Red Sox. It was 12:16 a.m. on Oct. 17 when he heard the answer from above.
The clubhouse is carved out among the catacombs and narrow hallways beneath the first base stands. When a moment of excitement--such as the solid thwack of a Louisville Slugger upon a benign knuckleball--brings the fans to their feet, the clatter of thousands of blue plastic seat bottoms snapping upright reverberates through the clubhouse below.
"I knew that sound," Clemens would later say.
This kind of history sounded familiar. The home run ensured that Boston's 1918 World Series championship would remain its most recent, a streak of futility so long and chock-full of so many absurd near misses that it feels organic, as immutable as a law of nature. Boston is 0 for 85 since Babe Ruth pitched them to the '18 title, including four seasons that ended with defeats in Game 7 of the World Series.
Red Sox seasons die the deaths of spaghetti western cowboys: never graceful, but rather writhing, painful and melodramatic. This ending, at the hands of Boone and the Yankees, was true to form. Five outs from the World Series with a three-run lead, no one on base and their best starting pitcher on the mound, the Red Sox lost the lead without ever using their bullpen. Nobody but the Sox could lose a game so spectacularly.
The Cubs' institutional losing dates to 1908, when they last won the World Series. After that they are 0 for 96. Since 1945 they have played six games in which a victory would have sent them to the Series--and lost all of them. That agony includes the preposterous Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins. Like the Red Sox, the Cubs were five outs away from the World Series with a three-run lead, no one on base and their best starting pitcher on the mound.
There have been 1,077 postseason games played in the history of baseball. In only 13 of them did a team lose after it led by at least three runs with no more than five outs to go. But only twice did the losing team blow a lead that big and that late while leaving its starting pitcher in the game: the Cubs in Game 6 with Mark Prior and, two nights later, the Red Sox in Game 7 with Pedro Martinez. Two losses with matching DNA. Two out of 1,077. A .2% match. Crazy.
How the Cubs and the Red Sox invented a new way to lose within 48 hours last October is, prosaically, the story of how fatigue rendered each team's ace incapable of holding a lead. Revisiting the two games with the principal figures involved also reveals that this is a story of how baseball can take on religious properties, when belief in the unseen is as good an explanation as any.