Boston gets sweet taste of how other half lives

Baseball

October 09, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

NEW YORK - Ordinary. That's what the 26-time World Series champion Yankees looked like for six long innings last night. Ordinary ol' Yanks, which is almost unimaginable, even for the perennially downtrodden Red Sox.

Eighty-five years of losing makes for deep psychological conditioning that's hard to shake, but the way the Yankees looked - lackluster, overmatched, out-pitched by a knuckleballer - it's little wonder George Steinbrenner has been quaking in his turtleneck all year.

Other than a two-run rally in the seventh, the Yankees did not look like the Yankees who won 17 of their last 22 regular-season games and dispatched the Minnesota Twins in four games.

Bernie Williams is getting older by the inning. Derek Jeter's shoulder injury from Opening Day makes it tough for the shortstop to make diving stops. Designated hitter Jason Giambi can be snuffed out with a simple infield shift. The bullpen has been a revolving door of trouble, and what if Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and David Wells suffer the same fate as Mike Mussina, who gave up three homers and the 5-2 loss in the opener of the American League Championship Series?

The Evil Empire is officially under siege.

Is sport's greatest rivalry about to take on an unusual new twist?

You never know. Hatred is a pretty strong feeling. Hate is not a very nice word. Still, Jeter found a way to smile like a Cheshire cat as he recounted the way in which he's received in a great, old northeastern city he often visits on business?

"They hate me in Boston! Come with me sometime. Walk around with me for 30 minutes. What they say, you can't print," Jeter said.

When is hatred a good thing? How about when the Yankees and Red Sox square off, like they did last night to start an ALCS that seemed inevitable the minute Steinbrenner and Boston president Larry Lucchino upped the ante on the bitter rivalry.

Celtics-Lakers. Bird-Magic. Dodgers-Giants. These are a few of the analogies participants like Boston first baseman Kevin Millar and New York manager Joe Torre have used to describe the rivalry, but do they really fit the bill?

Yankees-Red Sox is really Hatfield-McCoy.

Or it's this taunt sprawled in red ink across the front of a Yankees fan's T-shirt last night:

1918

Babe

Bucky

Buckner

Any questions?

Well, there might be a question or two now that the Red Sox have served notice. They extended their postseason winning streak to four games.

Ask them what's more satisfying, their three do-or-die wins over the choking Oakland A's or last night's win over the Yankees. No one would be surprised to learn that beating the Yankees in the House That Ruth Built for a 1-0 lead in this contentious ALCS was the big ticket for the Sox.

We'd hate to see any of this time-honored tradition go out the window. In this sporting era of expansion, realignment, contraction threats and relocation, it's usually up to marketing gurus to juice fan interest and boost ticket sales. Most rivalries are a figment of the imagination.

That's because NHL teams transplant from Canada to the Sunbelt; football teams jump from the AFC to the NFC. Baseball, too, has gratefully accepted millions from new-money owners for the right to sprout major league teams in the Arizona desert rubble and sandy, infertile soil of South Florida.

In fact, the nouveau Marlins - a whole decade old - are playing the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series. Outside the novelty factor of the Marlins' surprise wild-card win and the stunning presence and performance of the resurgent Ivan Rodriguez, there's not a trace of history or context in that series.

That's why traditionalist baseball fans are said to be pining for a "meaningful" World Series showdown featuring the Cubs and Red Sox, setting up a rematch of the 1918 Series - the last one the Red Sox won.

But what if "The Fish" get in the way?

From where the ALCS kicked off in a Big Apple that prefers to think of itself as the center of the universe, the market for historic rivalries is not only cornered on authenticity, it's saturated.

The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is so old, so visceral, you can taste and smell it - and not because the Yankee Stadium bleacher creatures haven't laundered their Jeter or Alfonso Soriano jerseys since May.

"Well, you've got the East Coast energy. ... I think this rivalry is better than any rivalry that's going on right now," Torre said.

"The only thing that would come close to this rivalry for me is when I grew up in the '50s and having the Dodgers-Giants rivalry was incredible."

With their AL East Division title this season, the Yankees recorded their 42nd first-place finish. It's the most of any professional sports franchise. Pretty impressive when you consider the reign of the Montreal Canadiens (32 first-place finishes), Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers (27), Boston Celtics and Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves (both with 24).

This is the Yankees supremacy that infuses the age-old psychology of this rivalry. The Red Sox came into this series striving to gain some modicum of equality, let alone the upper hand.

"Until you win one [an ALCS or World Series], the Yankee fans are going to taunt you. Winning creates confidence. They don't panic. They don't put too much pressure on themselves. Unless you win every year, you can question yourself," Boston pitcher Derek Lowe said.

Well, is this the year?

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