FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mark Prather remembers when Red Sox Nation was a small country, like Luxembourg or Orange County.
"Old-school people like me have been loving them forever," said Prather, decked out in an old-school Carl Yastrzemski jersey as he took in an early spring exhibition game here. "Now you have a second group that are like, 'Let's jump on the bandwagon.' There's a transition."
"Yeah," added fellow fan Dan Gosslin from inside his Carlton Fisk T-shirt. "I've heard people compare it to the Yankees."
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Compare it to the New York Yankees? For 86 years about the only things the Red Sox and Yankees shared were a time zone and Babe Ruth.
The Yankees were a dynasty, winning 26 World Series titles. The Red Sox were a travesty, losing in ways comic -- It gets through Buckner! -- and tragic.
But in recent years that has changed. The Red Sox are now baseball's dominant team, with last fall's World Series sweep of the Colorado Rockies giving them two championships in four seasons. The Yankees haven't won since Bill Clinton was in the White House.
So when Boston opens the season Tuesday against the Oakland Athletics in Tokyo, the location won't be the only unusual thing about the game. Stranger still will be the expectations surrounding the Red Sox, who are favored to repeat as World Series champions for the first time since 1916.
"You hope to put yourself in a position where you have a chance to win and then maybe you can do it again," Manager Terry Francona said. "We're supposed to be proud of what we did last year. [But] it's not this year. You show up and you try to give yourself a chance to be one of the best teams there is."
Such talk still sounds like a foreign language to the residents of Red Sox Nation.
"It feels different because we're not in the losers' bracket anymore," said Sam Sereppa, a Red Sox fan from Maine. "Even I feel strange about it."
It feels different in the clubhouse too, says catcher Jason Varitek. At least it does for players such as Varitek, who has been in Boston long enough to remember when the Red Sox would annually disappoint their fans.
This season that pressure is gone.
"You don't have [to] deal with the piano that was put on your back from all the heartache and everything that our fans have gone through for these last 86 years," he said. "The longer you were here, the more you understood how big that piano was. But the attitude, it can change by winning.
"And the attitude for our fan base changed by winning. Finally they didn't get their hearts broken."
Gone -- or at least lessened -- is the pain of Johnny Pesky holding the ball as the winning run scored for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1946 World Series. And of Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez in for one inning too many in the 2003 American League Championship Series. And of Bucky Dent's division-winning home run for the Yankees in 1978.
Gone too is the Curse of the Bambino, the spell supposedly cast over the Red Sox when they sold Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season.
"When I first got here there was just this sense of what was going to go wrong to not allow us to win a World Series," said catcher Doug Mirabelli, who was released this spring after seven years in Boston, where he played on both Red Sox championship teams. "It was always like a fantasy to talk about what would happen if we ever did win a World Series. But the belief really wasn't there that it could happen."
That changed, Varitek said, in the 2004 playoffs when the Red Sox, down three games to none against the Yankees, rallied behind some inexplicable fortune to win the ALCS before sweeping the Cardinals, baseball's best team in the regular season, in the World Series.
"I think it was God's will," former Red Sox pitcher and current coach Luis Tiant said, offering as believable an explanation as any.
"In 2004, if you had put a gun to my head and told me we were going to win, I'd tell you bull," said Tiant, who won 229 regular-season games and two in the 1975 World Series but never played for a champion. "No way anybody can tell me we're going to beat the Yankees four games in a row and then we're going to go and beat the winningest team in the World Series."
Then came last fall, when the Colorado Rockies arrived in Boston having won 21 of their last 22 games, only to get demolished by the Red Sox in four straight.
In the aftermath, everybody wanted to emigrate to Red Sox Nation. Where once it required character and resilience to live there, now all you need is a cap to declare your citizenship.
Prather, a Cerritos mortgage broker, has been a Red Sox fan for 45 years, meaning he waited 41 seasons to see them win a World Series. His son, he says, started cheering for the team six years ago and already has celebrated two titles.