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A clashing combination

David Ortiz, still champagne-scented, was watching Saturday's decisive playoff game between the Yankees and Twins with a friend. Up stepped Ruben Sierra, who'd been 1 for 20 in the series, to clock a three-run homer and tie the game in the eighth. "Here they come," the Red Sox slugger said. Did anyone from Eastport to Block Island expect anything else?

Did anyone want anybody else? "If we win the World Series and didn't play them, people would say, `Well, they didn't have to face the Yankees,' " mused center fielder Johnny Damon.

These century-old rivals have played each other 1,932 times. Tonight in the Bronx, Boston and New York will meet in a best-of-seven series for the American League pennant for the third time in five years. What we have here, it seems, is historic inevitability.

"The bottom line is, year in, year out, the Yankees are one of the best teams in baseball," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "They're in our division, so we play them 19 times. There's no getting beyond that."

This is a rivalry that is created by geographical proximity, by decades of shared experience, and by a curse that cuts both ways. In Boston, it's all about 1918 and what hasn't happened since. "The Red Sox have a long history of not quite getting there," said reliever Mike Timlin, who won his two Series rings with Toronto.

In New York, it's all about 1923 and 1932 and 1941 and 1950 and 1962 and 1977 and 1996 and 2000 and the other 18 championship seasons. "Playing in this uniform, you always feel the need to win," said manager Joe Torre.

The Curse of the Bambino, which supposedly began when Boston sold Babe Ruth to New York in 1920, may be a gnawing canker for the Sox, who haven't won the Series since. But it's an eternal obligation for the Yankees, whose players are like Macbeth observing the witches' "show of kings," except in reverse.

The procession of crowned heads begins with Ruth, followed by Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly and the rest. The Red Sox retire the numbers of their immortals. The Yankees build monuments. "You're not only playing the Yankees here," Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said during a recent Stadium visit. "You're playing the legends here."

Some of them are still roaming the premises. Jackson, Mr. October himself, frequents the clubhouse. Alex Rodriguez, the latest pinstriped transplant, says his greatest moment wasn't the game-tying double he cranked against the Twins in the 12th inning of Game 2. "When Yogi gave me a hug yesterday," A-Rod said, "it's still my most special day of being a Yankee."

When pitcher Jon Lieber came out of the game in the seventh inning of his playoff debut, he asked Torre if he could keep the ball. "He was thrilled to be out there," the skipper said.

Standard-bearers
Being a Yankee is all about inheriting a legacy, but also the responsibility that comes with it. When Kevin Brown, who arrived from the Dodgers after last season, broke his left hand punching a clubhouse wall after a poor outing against the Orioles and missed a month, he became a pariah within the club. "We were all angry for a short period of time," acknowledged Torre.

Brown was a starting pitcher on the thinnest New York staff in years. How could he jeopardize his teammates' postseason chances with a moment of rash stupidity? When Brown apologized to them later, he was nearly in tears.

In Boston, the season is considered an up-and-down carnival ride, a picaresque journey that may or may not include the playoffs. In New York, the season doesn't begin until the leaves turn. "With the Yankees, everything is always geared to October," said Baltimore manager Lee Mazzilli, who spent the previous four years as a Yankee coach.

The assumption is that the Yankees will get there because they almost always have. "Don't forget, you get a World Series share," a club executive reminded pitcher Jim Bouton, while handing him a modest contract in 1963. "You can always count on that."

In New York, the expectations start with a bejeweled ring and work downward. "I warn you, McCardy [sic], I don't like to finish second," owner Jacob Ruppert told new manager Joe McCarthy in 1931.

The Yankees don't have to win the AL East to make the playoffs, but they almost always have since the wild-card format was created in 1995. When Torre once mentioned the wild card as a possibility, owner George Steinbrenner chewed him out.

And winning the pennant, which New York has done 39 times, is merely the entree to the Series. When the Yankees were beaten in six games by Florida last year, it didn't matter that they'd knocked off Boston.

The club has the highest payroll ($184 million) in baseball, with a dugout full of Jeters and Rodriguezes and Williamses and Sheffields. "Everyone in that clubhouse is my favorite player," said Twins center fielder Torii Hunter. So they're expected to produce championship banners.

Nobody in the Boston clubhouse has ever done that, at least not here. "A bunch of us have no clue what it takes," conceded Damon.

What they have is decades and decades of history dumped on their doorstep every summer, especially when the Yankees are on deck. "When I was with the Cubs, people in Chicago were always talking about what happened in the past," said second baseman Mark Bellhorn. "But I've never been part of anything like this."

Special significance
The Red Sox may have played nearly 2,000 games against New York, but only four seem to be remembered by the citizenry: the two in the Bronx at the end of the 1949 season, the 1978 playoff at Fenway, and last year's ALCS finale at the Stadium.

In 1949, Boston was one game ahead of the Yankees with two to play after coming from 8 1/2 behind. New York won the first meeting of the weekend showdown when Johnny Lindell, who hadn't hit a homer since July, poled one down the line with two out in the eighth.

Johnny Pesky, who was playing third base that day, thought the ball was going foul. "It was fair by this much," he recalled, spreading his hands about a foot apart. The next day, rookie Jerry Coleman blooped a bases-loaded double ("Off the end of his bat," Pesky sighs) and the Yankees had the pennant.

In 1978, the Sox, who'd blown a 14-game lead over New York after the All-Star break, had a 2-0 lead with two outs in the seventh, then watched light-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent loft a pitch from Mike Torrez into the screen over the Monster for a three-run homer. New York went on to win, 5-4, after Boston captain Carl Yastrzemski popped up with the tying run on third to end the game.

"The hardest thing was sitting home the next day watching them play Kansas City, and knowing that it could have been us," said Sox announcer Jerry Remy, who was the second baseman on that team.

Worse still, because the Series was on the line, was last year's Game 7 implosion, with Aaron Boone hitting the winning homer off Tim Wakefield into the left-field stands after Boston had squandered a 4-0 lead. "That's never going to be gone," said Damon. "It's going to live on for a long time."

This is a city that is a connoisseur of defeat, a city whose most prominent landmark -- the Bunker Hill Monument -- memorializes a lost battle, a city addicted to passing on negative history to successive generations, especially as it involves the Towne Team.

This is a city that still talks about Torrez and Bill Buckner, about Pesky supposedly holding the ball as the winning run scored in the 1946 Series, about McCarthy starting Denny Galehouse in the 1948 pennant playoff, about manager Darrell Johnson taking Jim Willoughby out of Game 7 in the 1975 Series. "Now, I understand everything that happened in the past and everything that is happening today," Ortiz was saying, one day after his 10th-inning homer had earned his mates a return trip to the ALCS. "I know 50 years from now, somebody will be talking stuff about me still. Man, they're still talking about Luis Tiant."

Only the casts change
There is no end to history on either side of this rivalry, and that history has created personality. The Evil Empire and the Rebel Alliance may be caricatures of the two teams, but nobody has ever had trouble telling them or their workplaces apart.

Fenway Park, John Updike's lyric bandbox, is an overgrown frat house. Yankee Stadium, as The New York Times observed when it opened, is "a skyscraper among ballparks," one of the grandest and most imposing playgrounds on the planet.

The Sox clubhouse, with its sofas and TV screens and informal ambience, resembles a romper room. The Yankee clubhouse is closer to a boardroom, with replicas of the famous stadium facade above each dressing cubicle. When McCarthy took over as manager, he ordered the card table broken up with an ax and carted off. "This is a clubhouse, not a clubroom," declared McCarthy, who told Gehrig to do his shaving at home.

The Yankees still wear the same pinstripes they've worn for nine decades, still have the same buttoned-down professional bearing, no matter who's wearing the uniform. "They have to be the Yankees," observed Damon.

Their perennial challengers in Boston can adopt any identity they choose, the more unconventional the better. Three years ago, they were the Dirt Dogs. Last year, they were the Cowboys. This year, the scruffy Sox proudly proclaim, they're the Idiots.

"That's why a lot of people can relate to us," said first baseman Kevin Millar, chapter spokesman for Idiots International. "We're just a regular bunch of guys. Everyone's got some kind of hair growing someplace. We're funky, we've got bad bodies . . ."

These Red Sox, only two of whom are original draftees, also have bad memories. "Sometimes, I'm not even sure they know how many outs there are in an inning," cracked manager Terry Francona.

All of them know about 1918 only by hearsay. Some of them -- their top pitcher, their closer, their second baseman, their shortstop, their skipper -- don't even know about last year because they weren't around. "This has nothing to do with last year," said Doug Mientkiewicz, who arrived from Minnesota in midseason. "Last year's over."

Or maybe it never ended. The Red Sox and Yankees never stop playing, not even during the winter, when the front offices jockey for free agents. The record may be lopsided (the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, it has been said, is like the rivalry between the hammer and the nail), but it's all archived now. History starts afresh at 8:15 tonight.

"What happened last year or 100 years ago really doesn't concern me," Francona said. "I just want to win now." 

In Today's Globe
LATEST RESULTS
Wednesday RHE
Red Sox 1 5 0
Yankees 3 7 0
WP: Lieber LP: Martinez
 Box score  Log  Scores
Game 3: Sat., 8:19 p.m.
TV: Fox, Ch. 25 Radio: 850-AM
Starting pitchers:
BOS: Arroyo NYY: Brown
 Fenway forecast
Fan FYI
Friday's postponed Game 3 will be made up Monday, if necessary. Fans with tickets to Friday's game can use those tickets Monday.
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