Heated Sox-Yanks rivalry leaves O's out in the cold

March 12, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Hey, where's our commemorative pin?

The Orioles could have asked that question on their first trip to Red Sox Nation's spring outpost, but everyone knows the score. Only Red Sox games against the New York Yankees can turn a Grapefruit League game into a 26-ring circus.

The Orioles? Well, there was no way they could reprise the overwrought "Game 8" meeting Sunday between the Yankees and Red Sox. You saw the pictures. Alex Rodriguez shaking hands with Nomar Garciaparra. Garciaparra chatting with Derek Jeter, with both shortstops wondering if they'd ever be safe with A-Rod on the prowl.

Yesterday, the Orioles made their first attempt at insinuating themselves into the surreal psychodrama known as the American League East. Who wants to be a six-year afterthought? So the Orioles' revamped lineup smacked Boston's fifth-starter candidate, Bronson Arroyo, for a pair of two-run homers in the first inning en route to eventual victory.

Melvin Mora, Larry Bigbie, Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, Javy Lopez, Jay Gibbons and B.J. Surhoff (along with Mike Fontenot and Darnell McDonald) supplied exactly the kind of firepower one would expect from a team that committed $123 million in free-agent contracts, all on offense except for Sidney Ponson. Thank goodness for Ponson.

It has been a confidence-booster to know that of any team in the AL East, the Orioles made the most significant upgrade of their roster this offseason. They went from young and star-less to veteran and power-packed with the addition of Tejada, Palmeiro and Lopez.

The insta-heart of the order seemed like a tremendous step forward ... until you arrive in Red Sox Nation South and see firsthand that, ultimately, Boston trumped the Orioles and everyone else in the division.

As for the addition of Rodriguez, he would have made more of an impact on the Red Sox, considering the Yankees lost Alfonso Soriano's bat in the Texas deal, making the trade somewhat of a wash - except as a tantalizing subplot of Evil Empire vs. Red Sox Nation rivalry.

The Red Sox were already good. Now they're dangerous, even more than the Yankees at this juncture, considering that Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown aren't Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and David Wells - stalwarts who could handle Extreme Baseball in the Bronx and Fenway.

In case it has yet to sink in, your faithful correspondent is here to remind you that the Red Sox now sport Curt Schilling in the rotation with Pedro Martinez. It's almost enough to make last year's epic Game 7 loss in the ALCS feel like just another ballgame.

"I did whatever possible to win that game. The team did," said Martinez, who was not removed by manager Grady Little from that fateful game until it was too late. "But we had to let it go. I could not sleep that first night we came back from New York. After that, I have no regrets. At first, I wasn't ready to go home, but you adjust to it. You get over it.

"Now it's a new year. Every year's a new year."

As the center of his own universe, Martinez would never admit he needed Schilling in Boston to help carry the load. Martinez said he does what he must do.

"It doesn't change my responsibilities," he said.

Still, it was a daunting sight yesterday: the pair of aces working together on practice mounds outside the Red Sox's clubhouse. Martinez eyed Schilling, and Schilling looked for tips from Martinez.

"It helps me a lot to have someone like him here," Martinez said. "He's got a great release point. He has the most command throwing the fastball in and out. He's better than me. If you want to teach a kid how to release a fastball in a way that keeps a healthy arm, [Schilling] is the one you show."

It only added to a sense of serious stockpiling of arms that Derek Lowe - oh, he with that filthy, Oakland-killing sinker - sat on a nearby bench, watching two of this generation's greatest pitchers work together.

Add to that closer Keith Foulke and the fact that new manager Terry Francona aims to put knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in the second slot behind Martinez and ahead of Schilling and you can sense this Red Sox staff has the potential to keep everyone off balance all summer.

Any speculation that the Red Sox will splinter and fight in the wake of Garciaparra's near-trade to the White Sox and Manny Ramirez's waiver-wire wackiness might be wishful thinking.

Kevin Millar was making mischief and keeping things loose in the clubhouse yesterday. When does this unlikely galvanizing force invent this season's "Cowboy Up" slogan?

Johnny Damon is sporting a beard - teammates say it's straight out of The Passion of the Christ - swearing off the late-night parties and vowing to play in more than 145 games and get on base more.

Pokey Reese is like a kid in a candy store, having told his agent he would take less money for the chance to play in Boston.

"I'm like, `Wow,' I've never been in a locker room with so many All-Stars," said Reese, who takes over at second base for Todd Walker.

As for Garciaparra, he's taking the high road, knowing the organization demeaned him by putting him on the block when Rodriguez made it clear he wanted out of Texas.

"There was a piece of paper out there that said I was traded," he said. "I was gone, contingent upon that trade [for Rodriguez]. What makes you think I'll be here next week?"

But it won't affect the Red Sox shortstop's play.

"We had a team that was good enough to win the World Series last year," Garciaparra said. "We have a team good enough to win the World Series this year. I'm excited."

As previously stated, it's all about the Yankees and Red Sox, even with the Orioles in the house. Not a lot of juice in the Red Sox-Orioles rivalry - yet. Definitely no pins.

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