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Why Bostonians at Fenway Cheer For the Out-of-Town Team's Big Bats

Major League Baseball's new interleague play reminds sports fans that, 44 years ago, Beantown was the home of the Braves.

Sure, Boston already had the edge on historic "oldies." It's the home of the oldest public school, the oldest public library, and the oldest public garden.

But this weekend it pulled out another. In a throwback to the first half of the century, Boston's first baseball teams returned as if through the cornstalks in the movie "Field of Dreams." Forsaking spandex for billowy shirts and pants like 1910s legend Shoeless Joe Jackson used to wear, the Atlanta (former Boston) Braves and Boston Red Sox played a three-game series that meant much more to hometown fans than just box scores and batting averages.

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For many tried-and-true Bostonians, the Braves had finally come home. After 44 years of separation, the Braves played its first games in Beantown since leaving for Milwaukee in 1953 and then moving on to Atlanta in 1966.

The three-game series - which the Braves easily swept - was made possible by Major League Baseball's newest experiment to spur falling attendance - interleague play. For the first time, teams from the American and National Leagues are facing each other during the regular season, and baseball's schedule maker saw the golden opportunity to bring the National League Braves back to play the American League Red Sox. So far, the interleague dates have improved attendance on those dates leaguewide, and this long-sold-out series was one of the most eagerly awaited matchups of the season.

It didn't matter that the Atlanta Braves are headed for the post-season in October while the Red Sox will be on vacation. This was a time for celebration. Fans flew "Welcome home Braves" banners over the bleachers. T-shirts and hats stamped with "Braves" were as abundant as those with Red Sox logos. Players congregated collegially in pre-game batting practice, chatting and slapping one another's backs. Team managers - the Braves' Bobby Cox and the Red Sox' Jimy Williams - stood behind the home plate batting cage talking about the days when they played, interleague play, and the differences in the two leagues' rules. Mainly, pitchers in the National League bat themselves, while designated hitters bat for American League pitchers.

"Things come full circle sometimes," Williams muses, referring to both the rules and the Braves returning to Boston.

As the Braves were introduced for the first time Friday in the damp late summer air, fans cheered wildly. And as the bats cracked (mostly those of the Braves), the cheers wafted over the "Green Monster" - that infamous left-field wall.

In fact, the only member of the Red Sox to receive more bravos than the Braves was the team's one bright light this year, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Widely expected to be named American League Rookie of the Year, Garciaparra had a 29-game hitting streak going into this series. He had already passed the American League rookie record set 54 years ago - a 26-game streak. And he was only five games from tying both Dom DiMaggio's Red Sox club record and the Major League record for the longest hitting streak by a rookie.

The pressure was on. As he sauntered out of the dugout Friday afternoon for batting practice, a pack of reporters engulfed him. Like a cornered cub, he fled to the field, pleading he had to get to practice. And the only person to bend his ear had no press credentials at all.

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"Nomar, do you want to play catch?" called Stephen Passen, a grade-schooler who was leaning over the fence next to the dugout.

Nomar turned and flashed a wide smile at Stephen, who had traveled with his dad to his first Major League game from Amherst, N.H. "I can't right now. I gotta stretch, buddy."

"Will you sign my ball, then?" Stephen asked. Nomar complied and posed with Stephen for Dad's camera.

Besides the signing sidetrack, Nomar stuck to his regimen. He refuses to discuss stats, he ascends and climbs the dugout stairs the same way - one foot then the other on each step. In the batting box, he incessantly taps each toe in the dirt until the pitcher delivers the ball. And until this series, he wore the same hat for every game.

"Of all sports, baseball players are the most superstitious of the bunch," quips local sports broadcaster Willie Maye, watching Garciaparra in the batter's box.

Vaunted first baseman Mo Vaughn weighs in. "I hope his streak goes the whole season. But I don't want to talk about it just in case...."

To standing ovations, Garciaparra extended his streak Friday night to 30 games with two hits. But it ended on the next day, when he went 0 for 3, still to standing ovations. Vaughn says it must've been the new "old" cap.

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