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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

They have Sox on the brain

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The cleat is on the other foot. The apple is in the other throat. The Red Sox are the reigning world champions and the Yankees are trying to recover from international disgrace. And New Yorkers are now obsessed with Boston's baseball team.

Say hello to the New York Sox, now covered as thoroughly as the Yankees and Mets by the Gotham media machine.

The world champion Red Sox held their first workout for pitchers and catchers yesterday and once again there were representatives from the New York Times, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, and Newsday on hand to watch the Sox go through their paces. These are not day-tripping reporters. These guys are camped out here, more than two hours from the Yankees' base in Tampa.

"They're catching up, aren't they?" quipped Sox owner John W. Henry. "They're becoming almost as fascinated with us as we are with them."

Maybe more.

"The Red Sox right now, I think, are bigger than the Mets in New York," said veteran baseball columnist Kevin Kernan of the New York Post. "Basically, there's `The Apprentice,' and then there's this rivalry."

It's officially out of control. It's also wildly inverted. For decades the Red Sox and their fans were maniacal about the Yankees. Now it's just the opposite. Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "They [the Red Sox] have something we want," and those who follow New York baseball are covering the Red Sox like a third regional franchise.

Terry Francona, Theo Epstein, Curt Schilling, and David Wells all held press conferences Thursday and each was asked multiple questions about the Yankees, about Alex Rodriguez, about the 2004 American League Championship Series, and about the respective pitching rotations of the Sox and Yankees in 2005. There's so much Yankee talk around here, we've hardly had time for that annoying little steroids scandal.

Wells found himself splashed on the front page of yesterday's Post, next to the headline, "RAT SOX" with subheads reading, "Wells: Torre dissed me" and "A-Rod's all talk." Boomer was on the back page of the Daily News next to the headline, "FAT LIP." Remember, this is a guy who now pitches for the Boston Red Sox and will wear No. 3 -- the number retired for Babe Ruth in New York.

Wells shrugged his shoulders yesterday when informed of his Big Apple splash. "That's the way it goes in New York," he said. Jason Varitek had a similar response. "I guess this is good for you guys [Boston media]," he suggested.

It's an odd switch for those of us who remember New England's unhealthy fixation on all things New York. Sox fans' insecurity complex regarding the Yankees is legendary, but all that changed last October in Games 4, 5, 6, and 7 of the ALCS.

Murray Chass, Hall of Fame scribe from the Times (which owns a portion of the Red Sox), said, "The Red Sox are a presence in New York. You can't write about the Yankees without writing about the Red Sox."

ESPN was quick to jump on board Thursday and yesterday. The top of "SportsCenter" hammered away at Trot Nixon's contention that A-Rod is a "clown." Much was made of Rodriguez's teammates' reluctance to come to the defense of their teammate. Rodriguez has become a human dartboard since the end of the playoffs. The way things are going, Chris Rock is bound to diss A-Rod at the Oscars.

Oh, and let's not forget ring-gate. After a popular Sox fan website speculated that the ball club would not hand out championship rings at the Fenway opener (April 11 against the Yankees), Sox executive vice president Dr. Charles Steinberg was inundated with phone calls and e-mails from outranged Sox fans. Sox fans want those rings rubbed into the faces of the New York Yankees. They want the full monty, and we don't mean Bob Montgomery. New Englanders waited too long and put up with too much grief from the Yankee fans. The flag raising and bling ceremony are the ultimate payback and woe to any Sox official who suggests anything else.

Henry, trying to soften the blow if the Sox elect to do the ring thing on another day, asked, "When was the last time a team gave out the rings on Opening Day?"

How in the name of the baseball god would we know? New Englanders are not well versed in the Dave Roberts Rules of Order regarding championship ceremonies for baseball teams.

"I really think what our fans are looking forward to is the raising of the banner," said Henry.

Maybe, John. But they also want to see the Sox wave those rings in the faces of the Yankees.

"I don't think it's necessary to do anything in anybody's face," said the polite owner. "Just to try to do something like that . . . I can't imagine feeling any worse than we did in 2003, except for the way they felt in 2004. I think 2003 plus 2004 equals a very interesting 2005. We still haven't finalized the ring decision. I have no idea if they will be ready."

Steinberg said, "We got hundreds of phone calls about it. It was a marvelous demonstration of how a small story that really was saying that the creative planning process is about to begin, nonetheless caused so many people who care so much and feel so passionately to call and send e-mails and express their opinions. The majority of the feedback is that they want the ring ceremony Opening Day. The overwhelming majority of the calls and letters that came in were pleading for the ring ceremony to be Opening Day."

Go for the opener, guys. No one in the Nation wants to hear about the rings not being ready or gentlemen's agreements. Don't forget how much the Yankees love to rub it in. Before Game 7 last year, the Yankees brought back Bucky Dent to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, then they put the Sox owners in the Babe Ruth Suite.

No More Mr. Nice Guy. Put the World Series championship ring on Bronson Arroyo's hand Opening Day and let's see if A-Rod can slap it away.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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