IT’S NOT YET WINTER, but ticket prices are frozen and it’s chillier than normal at Fenway. Limping out of last season and looking ahead to the third season since that happy day, it’s clear that little of the magic lingers. Along with having to endure a parade of turncoat idiots, missed aces, front office shenanigans, oppressive media regimes, squandered promise, and unfulfilled potential, we’ve also had to witness the St. Louis Cardinals win a World Series, which managed to stir up some kind of vague, deeply repressed disappointment – an unsettling flashback from a twisted, parallel dimension.

So when the Sox announce that an unprecedented number of ticket prices will remain unchanged for 2007, it’s not just a team acknowledging that a day at the ballpark shouldn’t require a second mortgage. It’s also a franchise beginning to recognize the limits of the goodwill they earned from a grateful fan base. (Note: I refuse to refer to the fans as “Red Sox Nation” since the organization has managed to mutate that once noble term into a marketing ick-fest, as well.)

But then again, whenever ownership needs to bolster fan sympathies – and open fan wallets – there’s always plan B. Or more accurately, plan NY. In the Boston Globe article, Larry Lucchino says, “Our challenge is to protect those lower prices for fans and families on a tight budget while still improving revenue. We still must compete with those with much deeper pockets, and we still must continue to make improvements to Fenway Park.” He simultaneously acknowledges the financial limits of “regular” fans while also invoking our hatred for the Yankees as if it was a money-making incantation: “Abacadabra! If you still want to beat the Yankees, then sit your butt in those seats, stuff another Fenway Frank in your mouth and don’t complain about how much it all costs.”

In the end, the decision to freeze a majority of the ticket prices is a small gesture. (After all, the “lower prices” Lucchino says he wants to “protect” still help make Fenway the most expensive ballpark in all of Major League Baseball.) And clearly, the overall vibe on Yawkey Way is still one of desperation. This upcoming season could be the first in this ownership’s reign where interest in the hometown team actually drops off. No more victory tours for The Trophy. Even fewer familiar faces to remind us of past glories.

Is this the last shot for the once infallible management to bring back the magic? Is this the year when the fans who were swept up by the euphoria of 2004 finally begin to stray? (Of course, the lingering anxiety for me is the possibility of discovering that my own interest could wane, as well. No one likes to feel passion fade away. . . . )

Sure, leaves are still falling, football’s in full swing, and Mirabelli’s on his sofa testing free agency in preparation for his next emergency police escort. But the stove is stoked with coals and you can already smell the grass at Fort Myers — it’s just that the odor is a little different this time around. And all we can do is save our pennies for a seat at the park and see what fortunes the spring brings.