No panic ... yet: As the Red Sox cling to a narrow division lead, fans are beginning to get worried

Lane Lambert

HINGHAM - The day after the Red Sox lost yet another game to the Blue Jays, Martha Alderman of Hingham was in the Pro Sports shop on Route 3A, buying a sherbet-green Red Sox cap to send to her daughter at Trinity College in Hartford.

 No, Alderman said, it wasn’t meant to be a good-luck charm - and no, she and her daughter aren’t panicked that the team’s commanding lead midseason lead over the Yankees had shrunk to a nerve-wracking 2-1/2 games.

 “Just a little worried,” Alderman said.

 With only nine games left in the regular season, “worried” is the way most fans in the South Shore province of Red Sox Nation are describing their frame of mind this week. If they don’t have their rosary beads out yet, some have begun to think about it.

 “If they lose a few more games, that might change things,” said Hingham High senior Brendan Welch, the clerk who rang up Alderman’s purchase.

 That’s how parking-lot attendant Mike Callahan of Quincy was feeling, too, as he took drivers’ tickets and cash at the Hancock Lot toll booth in Quincy Center.

 “They’re still in the lead, and they’ll make the playoffs,” said Callahan, who was sporting a blue and red Red Sox cap. “But if the Yankees pass us in the division, then I’ll start panicking.”

 As religious as the devotion to the Red Sox is, in bad years and good, South Shore Mental Health Center psychologist Phil Quinn said it’s not surprising that fans are beginning to feel alarmed.

 Though it’s sport and not war, he said the drama of a narrowing race taps into our primordial panic mechanism - the “fight or flight” response that once saved our ancestors from wild beasts and hostile cavemen.

 “The brain is saying, wake up and pay attention,” Quinn said. “Once we’ve personalized something like the Red Sox, a threat to them is a threat to us. It’s the same as something sneaking up behind you.”

 Like the Yankees, sneaking up from second place.

 Sports commentator and Curry College English professor Bill Littlefield isn’t too worried, either. While the Sox are giving their fans plenty of cause for post-season anxiety, he said they need not wonder if they’re about to the relive the heartbreak of 1986 and other seasons.

 “The quality of the panic and collapse will never be the same as it was before 2004. They’ve won the World Series,” said Littlefield, who hosts the WBUR program “Only A Game.”

 “What’s the worst that could happen this year?” he said. “The Yankees keep winning and the Red Sox end up as the wild card - and they won the World Series from the wild card.”

 At the Fours sports bar in Quincy, patron George Devlin and bartender Mike Nee shared pretty much the same view.

 “We’re used to this,” Devlin shrugged, as he glanced at the TV over the bar, where a replay of Tuesday night’s Sox-Blue Jays game was on.

 Still, he added, “I’d feel better if the Red Sox won tonight and the Yankees lost.”

Lane Lambert of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at llambert@ledger.com.