It was curtains for the Yanks, but it's not final act in rivalry

While Red Sox celebrate breakthrough win, battles with N.Y. off field loom


October 22, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The curse may have died here this week, but the rivalry sure didn't.

Sure, the New York Yankees performed one of the greatest choke jobs in sports history, letting the Boston Red Sox come back from a 3-0 deficit to win Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

Sure, the Red Sox celebrated wildly in the House that Ruth Built on Wednesday, unleashing decades of frustration as they danced and pranced around the hallowed Yankee Stadium grounds.

"I don't have words to describe the disappointment," Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. "It's frustrating because we knew the team that won this game would win the World Series."

That disrespectful slap at the National League aside, this was merely the closing of another chapter in a great rivalry, not the whole book.

The Red Sox, who traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920, thereby beginning the infamous Curse of the Bambino, will try to end that curse officially by winning their first World Series since 1918.

Then, the two bitter AL rivals will go at it again. Keep in mind, some of the greatest battles in this Red Sox/Yankees saga have come off the field.

When New York outbid Boston for Cuban defector Jose Contreras right before Christmas in 2002, the Red Sox president called the Yankees, "The Evil Empire."

Then, after the Yankees dashed Boston's hopes in their amazing 2003 ALCS, both teams pursued trades for Rodriguez and Curt Schilling.

Those two played central roles in this year's drama. Despite his early postseason success, Rodriguez will be haunted for getting one hit - a single - in his final 15 at-bats and ridiculed for his weak attempt to slap the ball from Bronson Arroyo's mitt in Game 6.

Schilling, meanwhile, has reached Paul Revere status in New England after pitching seven brilliant innings in Game 6 on one leg. (OK, that's a myth, but he did have surgery to stitch his right ankle tendons together one day earlier.) Back when Schilling and Rodriguez were on the outside looking in on this rivalry, their pursuits made top headlines in Boston and New York for months.

Get ready for more of the same this winter, because both teams have a lot of work to do.

There's no telling how irrational Yankees owner George Steinbrenner will get after the historic collapse. Heads could roll, but manager Joe Torre had $19 million remaining on a contract that runs through 2007, and he practically owns the town.

General manager Brian Cashman has spent seven years handling Steinbrenner's wrath. A year ago, after the Yankees lost the World Series to the Florida Marlins, Cashman told the New York Post he wanted 2004 to be his final year.

Steinbrenner responded by picking up Cashman's $1 million option for 2005. Cashman earned high marks when he completed the Rodriguez trade, but Steinbrenner singlehandedly negotiated the deal with Gary Sheffield, and the latest pitchers Cashman acquired - Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez and Esteban Loaiza ) were paraded to the mound dubiously in the Yankees' 10-3 loss in Game 7.

Even when his club enjoyed a commanding lead in the ALCS, Cashman was having a hard time pitying the Red Sox's tragic World Series pursuit. The Yankees have 26 world titles, but none since 2000.

"I feel like we haven't won it in 86 years, and it's been three," Cashman said. "I know our fans feel that way. Our attitude in New York is, `There's rust on those trophies.' "

Having spent a record $180 million on payroll this year, Steinbrenner isn't about to get cheap. Almost everyone in baseball expects the Yankees to lure Houston Astros center fielder Carlos Beltran, a potential free agent, for at least $15 million per year.

But the bigger need is pitching. After Mike Mussina, the Yankees' starting rotation has serious questions. Jon Lieber has an $8 million option, which sounds steep even after his brilliant performance in Game 2 of the ALCS.

Vazquez still has three years remaining on his $45 million contract. Brown still has one-year remaining on the $105 million deal he signed (then with the Dodgers) in 1998, but at 39, he's an injury wreck.

So the Yankees will undoubtedly drive the prices up for free-agent pitching, making things difficult for everyone else, including the Orioles. New York and Boston will fight for Connecticut native Carl Pavano, and the Yankees could even enter the bidding for Boston's own Pedro Martinez.

Martinez will be hot-button issue No. 1 for the Red Sox. But their other potential free agents include Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe and Orlando Cabrera.

The Red Sox had a $130 million payroll this year, and GM Theo Epstein said they'll be in the same ballpark next year.

"A lot's been made that we sold our soul to the devil for this, and we didn't," Epstein said. "We didn't go crazy on the free-agent market. We only traded away one of our top pitching prospects this year. Our farm system has improved.

"The goal here is to be a playoff team every year, and we're fairly well positioned to do that."

In other words, get ready for Red Sox/Yankees: Baseball Armageddon, Act III.

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