In chills, thrills department, these AL rivals wrote book

Commentary

Baseball

October 21, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

NEW YORK - To get to the Game of the Century, you need two teams up to the task. Say what you want about the Evil Empire and the Curse of the Bambino Team from Boston:

They know how to put on a postseason party.

From Aaron Boone's homer in Game 7 one year ago to David Ortiz's game-winning hits this October, the Yankees and Red Sox have played in a realm not recommended for the faint of heart.

"For me to say everybody's blasM-i about it and not have some anxiety [would be wrong]," Yankees manager Joe Torre said last night.

"I think the secret in dealing with this is just to have that anxiety or tension or whatever it is work for you."

Over the course of the past five years, when their rivalry has taken on epic proportions, the Yankees and Red Sox have exemplified resiliency and a never-say-die attitude. They're instructive for any other baseball franchise that would like to experience this level of competition.

The Yankees beat the Orioles, 4-1, in the 1996 ALCS. We have not heard from the franchise known as the Orioles much since then.

To this day, the Orioles' Game 1 stumble in '96 has been blamed partly on a kid named Jeffrey Maier, who reached down and interfered with Derek Jeter's fly ball.

The Orioles took it as a sign: The baseball gods, not to mention the umpires at Yankee Stadium, were against them.

Somehow, in the annals of Orioles' lore, Maier's glove work is equated with that of Steve Bartman, the bespectacled dork who did what most anyone of us would have done: Stick your hand out for a foul ball falling right in front of your face.

The Cubs, perennially downtrodden as they are, found the incident to be a mortal blow to their immortal quest to play in the World Series.

Maybe if they had a rival like the Yankees by which to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, they could overcome their futility. It works for the Red Sox to have the Yankees and it doesn't hurt the Yankees to have the Red Sox nipping at their heels.

The two AL East teams have taken the concept of rivalry to a place few of us can completely fathom - perhaps not without the analytical assistance of someone like Stephen Hawking.

The farther the Yankees and Red Sox go on in their intergalactic quest for supremacy, the closer they get to a black hole of the unreal, the surreal.

One thing we have learned from the Yankees and Red Sox, though: No amount of adversity or weirdness or ghosts of curses past have been enough to submarine their competitive and emotional strengths.

"We have to make sure we don't get caught up in a lot of stuff about Game 7, like is our purpose to keep the Red Sox from getting to the World Series or is it us trying to get to the World Series ourselves," Torre said.

In other words, despite all the strange events and twists, the Yankees and Red Sox have not been derailed by one bad call or one "sign from above." The rivals stay on course, like locomotives barreling down the tracks toward a head-on collision.

That is where we found ourselves last night: On the edge of our seats, wide-eyed and amazed.

Can these two franchises really keep delivering reality that surpasses our fantasy of what the greatest rivalry in baseball would look like if neither team gave an inch?

For the Yankees, last night was a matter of avoiding the worst collapse in playoff history.

For the Red Sox, it was a matter of wrapping up the most dramatic comeback, series win in history.

For everyone else, it was must-see TV - the ultimate reality show that had everything all over Donald Trump, Survivor and My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss - and we don't mean George Steinbrenner.

In fact, the sporting world, including the Red Sox, owes "The Boss" a word of thanks, much as we're loathe to admit it.

The Yankees might be the Evil Empire, but where else would the fantastic galaxy called October come up with this plot:

Two of the East Coast's most populous cities field American League franchises that are compelled to spend upward of $190 million in order to beat the brains out of each other.

It is Steinbrenner's check-writing and free-agent buying and otherwise market-busting way in which he conducts his baseball business that directly led us to the heart of last night's finale - a finale bigger than Friends, more compelling than the presidential debates.

Game 7 of the American League Championship Series was called the most anticipated game in the history of baseball. Someone must have called it that because, when it comes to Yankees vs. Red Sox, no hyperbole is ever left unturned.

But there's hype, then there's the real thing - and if the Yankees and Red Sox have taught us anything, it's that huge payrolls and Hall of Fame talent are only two ingredients in such an amazing souffle; of postseason, one-upsmanship baseball.

If the rest of the world was not up to the task of observing such intensity, the Red Sox and Yankees showed no mercy. They have been built and bred to handle exactly this kind of moment.

Game of the Century? For the Yankees and Red Sox, it's always the Game of the Century. It's called destiny.

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