The 2005 World Series begins tonight. When either Houston or the White Sox win four more games, the Red Sox reign as world champions officially ends. Unofficially, it ended when the Red Sox were out-pitched, out-fielded and out-hit by the White Sox a couple of Fridays ago. In our hearts, it probably ended when the Red Sox failed to score with nobody out in the sixth inning of that game.

Looking back, because then is so much better than now, 2004 was truly a magical season. And while the future of the team certainly looks promising, will it ever capture our hearts the way it did last year? Maybe the disappointment of the 2005 team or the chill in the air of the approaching winter has me waxing nostalgic, but I feel like something great ended before it should have.

When April 3rd rolls around and the Red Sox take the field in Texas, it is very possible that the only starting players from “the 25” will be Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon and David Ortiz. Look around. At first, Minty is long gone and Millar has also played his final game as a Red Sox. Second base; the Bell is gone and so is Pokey. Third base; Bill Mueller is likely to be replaced by Youk. Shortstop, possibly the most regrettable change, sees Renteria patrolling Orlando Cabrera’s old turf. The outfield is less certain, but Manny and Damon may both be leaving Boston this winter.

The pitching staff has also scattered. Lowe and Pedro gone. Embree…gone. Schilling…who knows? Foulke, in my opinion, will be traded – how could he come back? Even the third base coach has moved on. God, wonderboy Theo isn’t even a certainty.

So we look ahead to the 2006 season. As always, with intense hope and great expectations for what the spring and summer might bring. Who will be picked up as free agents? What will we get in return for the trades we will make? Who will retire? And perhaps most tantalizing, how many of the young guns will we see in 2006?

Whatever names fill the roster, whatever players don the uniforms, they will be hard pressed to match the heart, spirit and undeniable lovableness (nice word, eh?) of the 2004 team. The complicated handshakes, the double finger-points, the bat flips and homerun watching on the field. Giant bobble heads and red plastic bats and spoon-feeding applesauce and push-ups and mugging for the camera in the dugout. Not to mention the championship caliber pitching hitting and defense. It all added up not only to a World Series championship team, but a team that captivated a nation and was cheered by fans everywhere. Well, almost everywhere.

I will watch the games and see a new team crowned champion. I will obsessively follow the off-season moves and count the days until pitchers and catchers report. I will dive headlong into the 2006 season with thoughts of October baseball already on my mind. But I will never forget the 2004 team and what they did for the fans of Boston. I miss them already.