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BOB RYAN

Words can't do rivalry justice

Red Auerbach once punched the owner of the St. Louis Hawks. You'd have to say he considered Ben Kerner to be a rival, all right.

John Henry and George Steinbrenner are not at that stage -- yet.

But there is no doubt the man who has the most money tied up in the Boston Red Sox and the famed "principal owner" of the New York Yankees have ratchetted up the rivalry between their respective teams to an unprecedented level, which, in the case of these two, says quite a lot.

We have never seen anything like what's going on now. I have lived here for 39 years, and I honestly believe that since John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino assumed control of the Red Sox there has been more intensity in the rivalry with the Yankees in the last two years than in the first 37 put together, and, no, I haven't forgotten Bucky Dent, the Fisk-Munson-Nettles-Lee brawl, or anything else. It just seems that all those things were mere appetizers in anticipation of what's been going on lately. Wouldn't you agree?

It is a rivalry, for sure, but it is the strangest of its type imaginable. Think of all the great professional or college rivalries. Army beats Navy, and vice versa. Ohio State beats Michigan, and vice versa. UCLA beats USC, and vice versa. The Dodgers have beaten the Giants, and vice versa. The Lakers finally beat the Celtics, not once, but twice. But in terms of direct head-to-head competition in the games and series that have mattered, the Red Sox have not beaten the Yankees in the past 85 years.

As Chris Moore of ESPN Radio once astutely observed, "How can you call the Yankees and Red Sox a rivalry? Do you call the hammer and the nail a rivalry?"

It's not that simple, of course.

This rivalry has a unique texture. It's not just the Yankees and the Red Sox. It's New York and Boston, whose rivalry goes back to colonial times. It's also about a fan intensity that is simply not present in many other areas of the country.

"It's the whole Northeast," says Yankee general manager Brian Cashman. "Philadelphia, Boston, New York . . . The rest of the country isn't like this. There is a special passion for sport. People live and die with it."

He's right. If you're old enough to remember the great Celtics-Philadelphia rivalries (both the Warriors and the 76ers), you know why Philadelphia is an equal player in this general story. It didn't hardly get any better than Wilt vs. Russell in sold-out, cozy (10,000-seat) Convention Hall or before the frenzied 13,909 in the Boston Garden, unless it was Dr. J vs. Larry a decade later.

But there was a limit. It involved the players and the fans, but aside from occasional flare-ups between Red and Alex Hannum, it didn't usually transfer to the coaches, and once Walter Brown died and Eddie Gottlieb sold the Philly club, fans on both sides couldn't even identify the rival owner.

We have something entirely new going on here.

"It's been taken to new heights," Cashman was saying at the Alex Rodriguez press conference Tuesday. "Now it's getting more vocal. You've got celebrities like Ben Affleck piling on, and even the owners are slinging mud."

And that was before John Henry and George Steinbrenner got into their little public hissy-fit yesterday.

I can't say that I researched for hours, but I think it's safe to say that what went on between these two somethingaires yesterday was as unseemly an executive exchange as baseball has seen in a hundred years. There may have been some salty broadsides issued back in the rough-and-ready days of the 19th century, but civility has prevailed ever since. For George Steinbrenner to suggest that, "It is understandable, but wrong that he [i.e. John Henry] would try to deflect the accountability for his mistakes onto others and to a system for which he voted in favor," and to further state that "it is time to get on with life and forget the sour grapes" is simply as scathing a denunciation of a rival owner as we have witnessed in our lifetime.

It is impossible to imagine Tom Yawkey or John Harrington ever being the target of such a rip job. It reflects Steinbrenner's deep antipathy toward all things Red Sox at this stage of his life and career.

Look at it from a Steinbrennerian point of view. He can accept the Red Sox as an artistic and business rival as long as they can be controlled and contained. Let them fill his stadium nine times a year. No problem. His rational self understands that the Red Sox might even win a championship one of these years (decades?). But he just wants to make very sure that it never happens on his watch.

He also sees the essential nonsensical hypocrisy of the No. 2 spender whining about the resources available to the No. 1 spender, particularly since the No. 1 spender is playing by the rules. Until there is a salary cap, George can spend his money as he sees fit.

But do understand how bothersome the Red Sox have become. They gave him some of his most uncomfortable days ever last season, and he fully understands how close Boston came to winning the American League Championship Series (five outs, as I recall). And his own manager has proclaimed the Red Sox to be a) the best team he's been forced to play in his eight years on the job, and b) clearly better this year. George does not need to hear this whining coming from Boston when they may already have a better club, anyway. What exactly are they crying about?

This Red Sox regime is pushing George Steinbrenner as he has never been pushed. And guess what? He loves it. In his mind, it makes beating them even more satisfying. The nail is bigger, but it's still a nail. George has no problem upgrading to a sledgehammer.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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