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JACKIE MACMULLAN

More ugliness gives teams, game black eye

Why must it always come down to this? Why must every Red Sox-Yankees showdown turn into an angry, unseemly, and ultimately undignified clash?

It happened again yesterday afternoon. When it mattered the most, the Red Sox lost their composure, the game, and, perhaps, the series.

It all came undone at the top of the fourth inning, when Boston's ace, Pedro Martinez, frustrated after giving up a walk to Jorge Posada, and back-to-back hits to Nick Johnson and Hideki Matsui (who was 0 for 12 lifetime against Pedro), sailed a high fastball behind the head of New York right fielder Karim Garcia, hitting him in the shoulder. That one action set off a stream of ugly incidents that added up to another sad and bizarre chapter in this bitter and emotionally charged rivarly.

Head-hunting, benches clearing, coaches fighting, players jawing, Yankee relievers skirmishing with Red Sox employees in the bullpen. All that was missing were the elephants and the clowns.

Martinez said he wasn't trying to throw at Garcia. Those words rang hollow in the Yankees' clubhouse.

"The guy can throw pitches wherever he wants, and all of a sudden he's throwing behind my head?" said Garcia. "If you need to hit a guy, then go for the shoulder, or the back. Don't go for the head. That's messing with someone's career. I don't appreciate that."

Baseball's unwritten code of retaliation immediately went into play. As Martinez coaxed Alfonso Soriano into a double play (which brought yet another New York run across), Garcia went hard into second baseman Todd Walker, prompting more words, more threats.

"Walker was upset," Garcia said. "He didn't like what I did. But once someone hits me, I've got to hit somebody back."

The madness, predictably, spilled over to the next inning. Roger Clemens tacked two strikes on Manny Ramirez before firing a high fastball. It was hardly a menacing pitch; in fact, it was almost a strike, but Ramirez, reacting to the tension in the ballpark, started toward Clemens, as the Yankees pitcher glared back at him.

Asked if he was throwing at Ramirez, Clemens shot back, "You guys are doing a disservice by even asking that question. I was trying to strike him out. I was OK with it until he came out and started mouthing me. I don't know if he was trying to get me thrown out, or not."

Both benches immediately cleared, and as Martinez stood off to the side of home plate, nearest to his own dugout, watching players from both teams flood the field, he turned and witnessed a stunning and truly ludicrous sight: Don Zimmer, the 72-year-old former Red Sox skipper, charging toward him.

Martinez grabbed Zimmer by the neck and threw him to the ground. Zimmer landed headfirst in the dirt, and Martinez immediately backed away, choosing not to continue the confrontation. When the Yankees discovered what had transpired, they ran at Martinez.

"All I saw was the bald head go down," said shortstop Derek Jeter. "I wasn't sure if it was Zimm or Boomer [David Wells]. Hey, Zimm is intense. That's the only way you can stay in this game all these years."

The sight of an airborne Zimmer was nothing short of surreal. Think of ex-Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy holding on to ex-Miami center Alonzo Mourning's leg.

Here's another. As Posada and Martinez continued a war of words, Martinez pointed to his Red Sox cap and told Posada, "Next time, I'll hit you in the head."

It was a low moment for the best pitcher in baseball.

The irony of yesterday's series of events was that all the speculation leading up to Game 3 was whether Clemens, notorious for intimidating batters, would throw a little too close to Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon, who was in the lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion on a horrific collision with teammate Damian Jackson in the deciding game of the American League Division Series against Oakland.

It wasn't close to being an issue. Clemens was too busy trying to win the game. There's a twist for you. Clemens, who, while wearing a Red Sox uniform in the 1995 postseason tried to attack umpire Terry Cooney in a beef over balls and strikes, was the one who maintained his poise throughout last night.

"That was the big key," said Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. "We were ahead when all of that happened. We kept saying we had to keep our composure. They lost it."

The insanity continued into the ninth inning, when a Red Sox employee in the Yankees bullpen, waving a towel and cheering for Boston, got into it with reliever Jeff Nelson, prompting Garcia to run over from right field, jump into the bullpen, and join the fray. Garcia was forced to leave the game with a gash over his left knuckle. The employee was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Yankees president Randy Levine, who mistakenly thought the employee jumped into the Yankees bullpen, popped off at Red Sox management following the game. "We take the security of our stadium very, very seriously," Levine said. "If something like this happened [at our park], if I was John Henry, I'd be on the phone apologizing to George Steinbrenner. To have an employee jump into the bulllpen is beyond belief. If that was our employee, he'd be gone, or in jail."

Martinez, the man who put this all in motion, suffered the first postseason defeat of his career.

But Martinez wasn't the only loser. The game of baseball took a hit yesterday. The fourth-inning scrum may have been great theater, but it was an all-too-sad, all-too-familiar refrain for these two storied franchises.

Martinez was out of line for throwing at Garcia. Zimmer was certifiably crazy to try to be Rocky Balboa at his age. Ramirez overreacted to Clemens's pitch, and looked all the worse for it after he struck out on the same at-bat. No Red Sox employee should be waving towels in the Yankees bullpen. No New York relievers should be punching anybody for waving a towel.

It's the same old story. The Red Sox behaved badly, and lost. The Yankees behaved badly, and won.

Which team would you rather be?

Jackie MacMullan's e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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