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March rivals

Red Sox-Yankees is a tougher sell this time around

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Ten measly bucks, and you could have watched Jason Giambi homer against the Sox last night.

Your mother, father, sister, aunt, and uncle could have come, too. That's how many tickets could be had, for face value or less, in a 10-foot radius of sidewalk outside City of Palms Park at 7:05 last night. Inside, Abe Alvarez was throwing the first pitch of the first meeting between the Red Sox and Yankees since Johnny Damon and his disciples brought deliverance last October.

One dejected man slumped in a chair in front of the box office. He refused to give his name, saying only that he'd give anything to sell his tickets at face value ($21 apiece). A year ago, tickets for the inaugural spring game between these adversaries sold for up to $500.

Evidently, the hype was just too much this time. The Yankees prevailed, 9-2, before a crowd of 7,723, halting their winless skid at nine games (four straight in the American League Championship Series, then an 0-4-1 beginning to spring training). Giambi, who is expected to be a landing strip for fan venom, was showered with boos, but it was hardly a downpour.

Asked whether Giambi has been booed more or less than expected, Bernie Williams said, "It's very early to say."

Someone near the field held a sign that read "Got Milk?" with the word "Milk" scratched out and "Juice" inserted. But Giambi showed a flash of his natural talent in the top of the fifth, cranking an 0-and-1 pitch from John Halama over the fence in center, just to the right of the 410-foot sign, for his first home run of this trying spring.

"That's why he's a pro," said David Ortiz. "Everybody knows he admitted it and he's not using anything and he still hit the ball like that.

"Giambi be fine, man. People have to give my man a chance. He's a good kid. He say what he say to get it over with. I think he deserves an opportunity to be out there without people getting on him."

Joe Torre wasn't obliged to bring Giambi here. The Yankee skipper was required by Major League Baseball to bring any four regulars, not necessarily the one who admitted steroid use to a federal grand jury and apologized publicly for his mistake. But Torre did bring Giambi, along with Williams, Hideki Matsui, Ruben Sierra (who was scratched from the lineup), and Tony Womack for the two-hour drive down I-75.

Giambi came to bat five times. He singled sharply to right in the first, flied to shortstop Edgar Renteria in the third, homered in the fifth, was rung up on a breaking ball in the seventh, and grounded to short in the ninth.

Matsui, a nightmare for Boston last October, pounded a double to right-center in his first at-bat and lost a Kris Wilson fastball in the palm trees in right for a 7-2 lead in the eighth.

Alvarez, a lefthander with one career major league start, pitched two innings, going through the Yankee lineup once. He allowed two runs on four hits and a walk, taking the loss. Sox manager Terry Francona, who called up Alvarez for one start last season, gave the ball to the 22-year-old to measure his poise and expedite his development.

"I know his hat's crooked, but he's a pretty sharp young man," Francona said. "I know it's a spring training game, but it's the Yankees, it's a night game. Hopefully he'll grow from it. That's what we want."

The Sox, who played five starters -- Renteria, Ortiz, Trot Nixon, Kevin Millar, and Mark Bellhorn -- couldn't score until the fourth. Nixon accounted for that first run with a first-pitch home run off lefthander -- yes, lefthander -- Alex Graman.

Not earth-shattering stuff, but Graman is a 6-foot-4-incher with solid Triple A credentials (11-6, 3.37 ERA at Columbus last season). Francona has said Nixon will not play Opening Night against Randy Johnson, given that Nixon is a .213 hitter against lefties (.293 vs. righties) and has hit just nine of his 112 homers against lefties.

His mind won't be changed.

"Not on Opening Day," Francona said. "That wouldn't make a lot of sense to me. As I've said, it's not a strict platoon."

In the end, this was just another spring training game, albeit one with 225 credentialed media, 25 fewer than last March 7 when these teams met.

There was very little trash talk. No one asked Alvarez if there was an ulterior motive to his postgame clothing: a black T-shirt with "Public Enemy" splayed across the front.

"Why people make such a big deal about this game, man?" Ortiz asked. "This doesn't mean [expletive]."

Except, that for the first time, the Yankees had to face Sox media and address an offseason of suffering.

"You can dissect the game so many ways, what went wrong, what should have happened, and could have happened," Williams said. "At the end of the day you look at the result that wasn't the result you wanted. You try to leave it alone and turn the page."

But, it's a lesson learned.

"It has to be to some extent," Williams said, "so it reminds you."

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