I hadn’t watched a baseball game on a small, handheld TV set since 1986, when I was stuck in a cab in New York City. That game — complete with snowy fuzz — was an American League championship affair, featuring an unlikely comeback by the star-crossed Boston Red Sox against the California Angels in which the Bosox were one strike away from elimination yet ultimately reached the World Series.

I remember that game so well, because I couldn’t tear myself away from it, not as we crossed the Triborough Bridge, not as we entered Queens, not as a sad-faced guy named Dave Henderson hit that ninth-inning, two-out, two-strike home run. All night long, it was just the little one-inch screen and my bleary eyes, mesmerized by the national pastime.

Since then, baseball has soured for me. Too much money. Too many drug rumors. Too few teams that actually compete. Oh. And the countless losing seasons for the Tigers. That hasn’t helped.

Yet there I was, Wednesday night, 18 years after that October cab ride, and the Red Sox were once again ensnared in a classic, and I was once again stuck far away from the action, in North Carolina, at a benefit for breast cancer. As causes go, it was well worth it. As sports go, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

But thanks again to AA batteries, I was able to see the biggest of games on the smallest of screens, bouncing around in a car, waiting in an airport, and even — sorry, FAA — sneaking the final innings in while sitting on a plane.

What I saw was this: Boston’s Johnny Damon hammering a grand slam and a two-run homer after six games in which his bat was as useless as a twig. Derek Lowe shutting down the mighty Yankees, after not even knowing he would pitch in the playoffs. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and the rest of the modern day Murderers’ Row locked up, bars closed, keys tossed. A comeback to end all comebacks, to end the cliché “nobody ever comes back from a 3-0 deficit.”

It was not just the most amazing baseball series ever. It was also fine medicine for a sport that had grown fat and disconnected. This was not a series about stats or steroids. This was not a series about money. This was a series about hearts and ghosts, and how the former can overcome the latter.

It was enough to make you love baseball again.

The incredible comeback

Like grand theater, first there was the explosion of Yankees offense, 10 runs in Game 1. Then, in Game 2, the dazzle of Yankees pitching, Jon Lieber allowing one run, the bullpen perfect. Then, in Game 3, the thunder drop of Yankees bats, 19 runs in a laughable blowout.

The Red Sox were toast, right? They went to the ninth inning of Game 4, still losing, and were three outs from winter vacation. Mariano Rivera, the best playoff reliever ever, was staring down from the mound. It was your head in a guillotine. Even the Boston faithful were saying, “Kill us already. Don’t prolong the suffering.”

And then they prolonged it. They got to Rivera and forced extra innings. The 10th, the 11th. Five hours after the game had started, David Ortiz won it with a 12th-inning homer. And then, next game, nearly six hours after it started, Ortiz won it again with a 14th-inning single. And then pitcher Curt Schilling had his ankle stitched together and bled through his sock — a red sock for the Red Sox — and won it with guts in Game 6, and suddenly, it was Game 7, at Yankee Stadium, and the Sox were Bill Murray and the Yankees ghosts were green slime.

It was 2-0. It was 6-0. It was 8-1 and 9-3 and 10-3. And then it was over. The Red Sox stormed the field, the Yankees folded their wallets, the Big Apple tabloids set the next morning’s headlines “THE CHOKE’S ON US” and “HELL FREEZES OVER” and the impossible had just been witnessed.

“Finally,” pitcher Mike Timlin told reporters, “we walk off this field with our heads high.”

Now for the World Series

I saw all this on a one-inch tableau. I cheered for the Sox, I admit, because I still cheer for great stories, and this was a great story, but I must have seemed pretty stupid shaking a fist in that car or that airport.

Except it isn’t stupid. It’s sports. It’s sports the way sports is supposed to be, full of surprise, full of drama, full of odds-defying belief. Wasn’t everybody a Red Sox fan Wednesday — except those in New York — the same way everybody was a Pistons fan this summer — except those in L.A.?

“Break out the defibrillators!” Boston pitcher Tim Wakefield yelled in celebration.

Sure. Why not? The World Series awaits.

It’s funny. What I remember most about baseball as a kid is entering the stadium and being overwhelmed with the scale of it, the huge field, the massive green and tan stage. But as an adult, two of my strongest baseball emotions have come while fiddling with an antenna trying to clear a one-inch picture. The game is the thing, someone once said, and when the game is great, everything falls away, even the ice around former fans’ hearts.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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