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A rivalry that borders on obsession

From the book, "The Rivals" by the baseball writers of the Boston Globe and New York Times, published by St. Martin's Press.

Rivalry. It's an interesting word. Here in Boston, the Hub of the Hardball Universe, we think that the "rivalry" between the Red Sox and Yankees is the greatest rivalry in all of sports -- better than Dodgers-Giants, Cardinals-Cubs, Celtics-Lakers, Cowboys-Redskins, Ali-Frazier, Texas-Oklahoma, Russell-Chamberlain, Michigan-Ohio State, Seabiscuit-War Admiral, and even Harvard-Yale.

But it's a little provincial of us to think this way. I'm not sure who first said it, but the "rivalry" between the Yankees and the Red Sox could best be likened to the eternal contest between the hammer and the nail. Since 1918, when the Red Sox won their fifth and thus far final World Series, the Yankees have won 26 baseball championships to Boston's none. That's 26-0.

The rivalry, therefore, is more about tradition than competition. It's not so much a match of equals as it is Boston's obsession with all things New York. New Englanders grow up trained to hate pinstripes. The Yankees are bullies, buying championships and steamrolling everything in their way. They don't play fair, they always win, and we spend our lives thinking about how to conquer this team that stole Babe Ruth from under our noses.

Like many regions of America, my hometown has a self-contained Little League with teams of 11- and 12-year-old boys playing for teams named after big-league ball clubs. The Newton North Little League plays its games at Murphy Field and annually features the Orioles, Cardinals, Indians, and Yankees. The kids wear replica uniforms. One of my neighbors has a son who played for the Yankees and she admitted, "I just have a hard time looking at him sitting there in the kitchen before games, eating his cereal, wearing that uniform with the pinstripes."

In New England, we are obsessed with the Yanks. We like to think that the feeling is mutual, and that the Yankees live in fear of their rivals from Boston, but truthfully, that hasn't been the case most of the time. There's an arrogance to the Yankees, a smug contentment owed to decades of dominance. The Yankees in most years have merely thought of the Red Sox as another team they'd beat en route to the World Series. It's maddening for us. New Englanders carry all the frustrations and near misses, blaming the hated Yankees for every slight while the Yankees sit back and dismiss the Bostonians, secure in the knowledge that the Sox will fold in the fall and the Yankees will win another baseball championship. It is the natural world (Series) order.

When I think of the emotional disparity of this regional baseball rivalry, I am always reminded of a favorite scene from "Casablanca," a famous flick which has taken on new meaning in Red Sox Nation. The movie was written by one of the Epstein twins, Philip and Julius, and one of their better lines comes when a nervous Peter Lorre sits across a table from Humphrey Bogart and says, "You despise me, don't you?" Bogey's response: "If I gave you any thought, I probably would."

In many ways, this exchange demonstrates more than eight decades of the alleged Red Sox-Yankee rivalry. And who could have known that in 2002, Philip Epstein's grandson, 28-year-old Theo, would take over the Red Sox as the youngest general manager in baseball?

Young Theo was at the controls in 2003 when this century-old rivalry reached new levels of intensity. On and off the field, the Sox and Yankees battled as never before and going into 2004 the Red Sox think they're finally ready to overtake the Yankees and win their first World Series since 1918.

1918. It is the Yankee answer to any taunt a Sox fan can muster. The Red Sox can sweep the Yankees in a five-game series, winning every game by 10 or more runs, and the Yankee fan can diffuse all the Boston bravado by whispering "1918." Just as Bogey and Bergman will always have Paris (there go those Epstein twins again), the Yankee fans feel they'll always have 1918.

George Herman Ruth was the Red Sox ace lefthanded pitcher in 1918, and he was a pretty fair hitter as well. He set a record, pitching 29 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, and was on three of Boston's World Series championship teams. A charter franchise of the upstart American League in 1901, the Red Sox won the first World Series and five of the first 15 that were played. The Yankees, who came to New York from Baltimore and were originally known as the Highlanders, were regularly buffeted by the Bostons in those first two decades of the American League. For Boston, all the trouble started when the Sox were owned by a Broadway producer and theater owner named Harry H. Frazee. It was Frazee who colluded with fellow New Yorker Jacob Ruppert in the transaction that changed the course of baseball history and permanently altered the fortunes of both the Red Sox and the Yankees.

The transfer of Ruth was only the beginning. Ruppert hired Edward Barrow, who was the field manager of the 1918 Red Sox, and made him general manager of the Yankees. Barrow proceeded to strip the Boston franchise of all its talent and Frazee was only too happy to stock the Yankees with players in exchange for more cash. Frazee, remember, was the carpetbagger who bragged that the best thing about Boston was the train to New York. After Ruth, the Sox sent Waite Hoyt, Harry Harper, Wally Schang, and Mike McNally to New York. Everett Scott, Sam Jones, and Joe Bush were next. When the Yankees won their first World Series, in 1923, in the shiny new house that Ruth built, 11 of the 24 New York players were former Red Sox.

There was another aspect to the Ruth deal which played to the deep-seated fears of all Yankee-hating New Englanders. When Frazee collected his cash for the Babe, he borrowed another $300,000 from the Yankees in the form of a mortgage on Fenway Park. For the ensuing 15 seasons, as the Yankee dynasty took over the American League, the Yankees actually owned Fenway Park. It wasn't until millionaire Thomas Yawkey bought the Sox in 1933 that the note was finally paid. And Yawkey didn't fork over the entire sum until Jake Ruppert demanded to be paid after his Yankees were uncharacteristically swept by the Red Sox.

While the Yankees went about winning championships, the Red Sox bottomed out in the 1920s and '30s and didn't start to challenge New York again until a young man named Ted Williams came along in 1939. Striving to be "the greatest hitter who ever lived," a goal he may have realized, young Ted went about his work, winning batting titles and triple crowns. By the time Ted arrived in Boston, the Yankees already had his counterpart -- a graceful outfielder who could do it all. Patrolling center field in Yankee Stadium was Joltin' Joe, a man known to Ernest Hemingway's Santiago as "The Great DiMaggio."

Ted and Joe. They were the centerpiece players in the Boston-New York rivalry from 1939 until 1951. They inspired debate at both ends of the Boston-New York corridor. Which one is better? Who would you take first if you were starting a team? What would have happened if Ted had played in New York and Joe in Boston? The individual rivalry was hottest in the summer of 1941 when DiMaggio captured the nation with his 56-game hitting streak. Ted's answer was to hit .406. Williams would be the last man ever to crack the .400 barrier, but in that magical summer it would be DiMaggio who'd walk away with the MVP award.

In 1999, when I called Ted Williams to ask him about Pedro Martinez getting robbed in the MVP election (a New York Post scribe was one of only two writers who failed to place Pedro anywhere in the top 10), Ted said, "Hell, I hit .400 one year. I thought that was pretty good, but I didn't win it."

Joe and Ted. In April of 1947, Yawkey and Yankee owner Dan Topping toasted one another long into the night and agreed to swap superstars. In the light of the morning, Yawkey realized this was a bad deal (Williams was in his prime while DiMaggio was breaking down) and the deal was off. "Scotched" might be a better word.

The personal rivalry between the two never waned. In old age, Williams -- who had battled with the media throughout his career -- became the outgoing, generous ambassador for the game. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post called Ted the "Father Christmas" of baseball. DiMaggio, who had been cool but cooperative with the press during his playing days, became a virtual recluse. But the fierce pride remained. Joltin' Joe insisted on being announced as "baseball's greatest living ballplayer," any time he made an appearance. This no doubt annoyed Ted Williams and Willie Mays (to name a couple of contenders), but DiMaggio would have it no other way. The Ted-Joe controversy and competition carried over after their deaths. Both were estranged from specified family members and postmortems stripped much of their dignity, particularly in the case of Williams, whose remains were frozen in a lab in Arizona.

Dominic DiMaggio perhaps had the best look at the Yankee-Red Sox dynamic during the golden years of Ted and Joe. Young Dom, dubbed "The Little Professor" because of his glasses and scholarly demeanor, was in a unique position. He got to be Ted's outfield partner for 11 years and Joe's brother for life. It must have made for interesting Christmas conversations at the DiMaggios' family home in the North Beach section of San Francisco. Ever dignified, Dom played second banana to Ted in the Boston lineup and went through a lifetime of being Joe's little brother. To this day, he has tremendous regard for both.

Playing in the shadow of Joe was tough enough, but playing for the Red Sox in the long shadow of the Yankees broke the spirit of many a ballplayer. Dominic played in only one World Series. He played on teams that rarely finished ahead of his brother's Yankees. He was, alas, a Red Sox. "I feel privileged," Dominic said in December of 2003. "My brother was, in my opinion, the greatest all-around player I've ever seen and my friend, Teddy Williams, was the greatest hitter. Even Joe knew that. They usually finished ahead of us, but he didn't rub it in. But in 1948 we knocked them out of the race and still had to win the last day to make the playoff. I was getting married then and the whole family was there. We got in the car after we beat the Yankees and there was silence for two-thirds of the drive to Wellesley Hills. Then Joe said, `You guys beat us today, but I will personally take care of you tomorrow.' "

Joe DiMaggio cracked four hits the next day at Fenway and even his mom wondered, "Why is Joe doing this to Dominic?" Dom hit a homer and the Sox won, but Boston lost the next day's playoff against Cleveland. Some blamed Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper's tour-de-force had forced Boston manager Joe McCarthy to wear out his pitching staff with pitchers warming up in the bullpen. There wasn't much of a rivalry in the two decades after the 1949 pennant race. The Yankees kept winning pennants and World Series and the Red Sox annually finished near the bottom of the American League. When the Red Sox returned to respectability in the late 1960s, the Yankees were free-falling and it wasn't until the 1970s that both teams were good at the same time. We saw a surge in fighting on the field, much of it involving catchers Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson, who emerged as the de facto captains of the respective rivals. A generation after Ted and Joe embodied the rivalry, the young catchers picked up the torches and ran head-first into one another. Early on, Munson was probably the better all-around player, but it was a close call and the grubby Yankee backstop was wildly jealous of his Boston counterpart. Fisk was tall, handsome, graceful, and powerful -- all things Munson was not. It had a Jack Kennedy-Richard Nixon feel to it. In 1973, the two collided at home plate, sparking a memorable brawl. At the height of the catchers' rivalry, former Yankee public relations director Mickey Morabito put together a pregame stat sheet featuring comparative stats on Munson and Fisk. At that particular junction of the season, the Yankee catcher was leading Fisk in batting average, homers, RBI, runners caught stealing, and every relevant statistic. Fisk had two more assists than Munson. Morabito remembers Munson seeing the numbers before the game and muttering something to himself. That night, Munson dropped third strikes the first three times Boston batters struck out. Each time, Munson would retrieve the ball and fire to first for the official, "K, 2-3." Each intentional drop earned Munson an assist. He turned and shook his fist toward the press box after the third assist gave him a lead over Fisk.

Now that's a rivalry.

The Red Sox and Yankees represented the American League in the 1975 and '76 World Series. Both lost to the powerful Big Red Machine from Cincinnati. The Sox and Yanks went eyeball to eyeball in '77 with New York finishing 2 1/2 games ahead, en route to another World Series win. This set the stage for the 1978 pennant race, one which would torture Boston and solidify the notion that no first-place lead is ever safe. The '78 Sox were an All-Star cast and led the Yankees by 14 games on July 20. But the Yankees were the defending world champs and made a crucial move, replacing Billy Martin with Bob Lemon as manager in midsummer. As New York surged, the Sox faltered and on the first weekend of September the Yankees came to Boston and swept four straight by an aggregate count of 42-9. It would forever be known as the Boston Massacre and it left indelible scars on the Boston psyche.

The Sox eventually recovered, winning their last eight regular-season games to force the second one-game playoff in American League history. Yankee players convened at Daisy Buchanan's saloon on Newbury Street in the Back Bay the night before the playoff. "We always knew we could beat Boston when we had to," Reggie Jackson said later.

And so they did. On the fateful afternoon of Oct. 2, 1978, the Sox watched a 2-0, seventh-inning lead vanish into the left-field netting as Bucky Dent's soft fly feathered over the wall and into the screen. The Yanks eventually won when Rich Gossage got Carl Yastrzemski to pop up with the winning runs in scoring position, but the signature blow of that loss is Dent's homer and to this day he is known as Bucky (expletive) Dent throughout New England.

The Yankees endured a championship drought after '78, but the Red Sox were unable to capitalize. There was little competition from New York in 1986 when Boston made its strongest bid to win a championship. The '86 Sox teased New England as never before and appeared to have beaten the New York Mets to win their first World Series in 68 years before an unlikely chain of events again conspired to thwart the Red Sox. The October collapse of 1986 produced probably the most memorable gaffe in baseball history, the Mookie Wilson grounder which skipped between the legs of Sox first baseman Bill Buckner. The Charlie Brown moment has come to symbolize eight decades of Sox frustration.

The 1986 World Series -- in which the Red Sox came closer to winning a World Series, without actually winning, than any team in baseball history -- gave birth to the cult of the curse. The Times's George Vecsey penned a column about the Red Sox' bad luck beginning with the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, and two years later I went to work on a hardcover book titled "The Curse of the Bambino," which was first published by E.P. Dutton in 1990. In the years since the book's publication, th Curse has taken on its own life and it is now used to explain anything that goes wrong for the Red Sox.

Cursed or not, it was the 1986 Red Sox team that put fear into the heart of Sox fans everywhere. No lead would ever be safe again.

The fact that the '86 collapse came at the hands of a New York team only underscored the Boston-New York dynamic that is so much a part of the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry.

In the years after '86, Boston was again made to feel inferior when several of its institutions were engulfed by New York. In 1996, the Hub's venerable Jordan Marsh department store was bought out by Macy's, a New York giant. Closer to home for this typist, the Boston Globe, which had been owned by the Taylor family since 1873, was bought by the New York Times in 1993. The purchase expanded a complicated loop: the Taylors had once owned the Boston American League franchise and were the ones who named the Red Sox and built Fenway Park -- which had once been owned by the Yankees as part of the Ruth deal.

On the ballfield, the Yankees returned to championship glory in 1996 while the Sox' drought continued, magnifying the pain of the near-miss of '86. After 1995 the Red Sox started a run of eight consecutive finishes behind the Yankees (a streak still active going into 2004).

The Red Sox lost the 1999 playoff to the Yankees in five games and the series did little to diminish Boston's obsession with the Yankees. In two of the games, umpires made erroneous calls which went against the Red Sox. In both instances, there were published apologies from the men in blue. When the Sox were losing Game 4 at Fenway, fans littered the field with debris and action was stopped for several minutes after the Yankees were pulled from the field. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner accused Boston manager Jimy Williams of inciting a riot. Williams called Steinbrenner "Georgie Porgie." The only satisfaction for Red Sox fans was the rout of Roger Clemens in Game 3 at Fenway. According to Ma Clemens, Fenway fans treated her son "like Hitler." Clemens won three Cy Young awards and a franchise-best 192 games for the Red Sox, but New Englanders resent Clemens for getting himself traded to the Yankees. Like Wade Boggs before him, the Rocket assembled a Hall of Fame resume with the Red Sox, but went to the Yankees to win his World Series ring. Ouch.

After the 2001 baseball season, the "Boston New York Ruth Fenway Times Globe Red Sox Yankee" loop was completed when The New York Times joined billionaire John Henry as the second-largest investor in a group that purchased the Red Sox from the Yawkey Trust. Perfect. More than eight decades after the Bambino's debacle, Boston's baseball team again was (partially) owned by New Yorkers. It didn't make Red Sox fans any more comfortable to learn that Henry still had a 1 percent ownership of the New York Yankees and owned a couple of Yankee championship rings.

But those fears were quickly allayed when the Red Sox new ownership made it clear that beating the Yankees would be the top priority. New Sox CEO Larry Lucchino was an old Steinbrenner enemy. Lucchino worked for Edward Bennett Williams when the great trial attorney purchased the Orioles in 1979. The O's and Yanks jousted for AL supremacy in the early 1980s and the combative Lucchino took on Steinbrenner headfirst. Big George never forgot and was ready for battle when he learned that Lucchino would be running the Red Sox for Henry & Co.

In 2003 the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry reached new heights and it was Lucchino who set the tone. In the winter after 2002, both clubs went to Nicaragua in hopes of signing Cuban free agent righty Jose Contreras. It was reported that the Red Sox bought up all the available hotel space in an effort to box out the Yankees. When Contreras wound up signing with New York, Epstein was rumored to have broken hotel furniture while Lucchino called the Yankees "The Evil Empire." Offended by the remark, Steinbrenner lobbed insults at the feet of Lucchino and commissioner Bud Selig issued a gag order, silencing both houses. But the off-field activity continued as the Yankees got involved in an Expos-White Sox trade for the sole purpose of keeping righty Bartolo Colon out of Boston. When the Red Sox traded for Jeremy Giambi, New Yorkers smirked. As with the DiMaggios, the Yanks already had the superior brother.

In 2003 the Red Sox and Yankees wound up playing one another a record 26 times, including seven pulsating playoff games. The Yankees won 10 of 19 regular-season contests and four of seven in the American League Championship Series. The season-long battle which included beanballs and young Theo's author dad ripping Steinbrenner by mentioning an old felony conviction, culminated in a seven-game American League Championship Series for the ages. A century of acrimony and New England angst came to a head on the Saturday afternoon of Oct. 11 at Fenway when Pedro Martinez went head-hunting and wound up tossing 72-year-old Yankee coach Don Zimmer to the ground during a bench-clearing melee. That was the same day that two Yankees and a Red Sox groundskeeper got into a fight in the visitors bullpen. As ever, the Yankees won the game. And the series. Sox fans forever will hang black crepe around Oct. 16 because that was the date of the seventh game of the 2003 ALCS. The Red Sox routed Roger Clemens, led, 4-0, in the fifth and 5-2 in the eighth. And then manager Grady Little joined Bill Buckner, John McNamara, Mike Torrez, Danny Galehouse, Johnny Pesky and the other busts which adorn the Boston Baseball Hall of Shame. Grady left Pedro on the hill as the Yankees cracked four straight hits, good for three runs and extra innings. It all ended at 12:16 a.m. in the 11th inning when Aaron Boone hit a walkoff homer off Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. The loss joined the Buckner game and the Dent game as one of Boston's three most painful. It was exhausting and when it was over Yankee manager Joe Torre said that the 2003 Red Sox were the best team his Yankees had faced in their championship run which started in 1996. Didn't matter. Back in the Hub this collapse of biblical proportion -- ghoulish even by the lofty standards of Boston baseball lore -- made the Red Sox and their fans more obsessed than ever with beating the Yankees. 

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