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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Anything goes when they meet

This is Red Sox-Yankees. This is July. This is Fenway Park. Two and a half games separate the ancient rivals at the top of the American League East.

The possibilities are infinite.

Think of what could happen here over the next four days. Johnny Damon could incite the Yankees by saying something really dumb. George Steinbrenner could get slapped with a tampering charge for telling Damon to cut his hair if he really wants to be a Yankee next year. Gabe Kapler could arrive from Japan just in time to beat up Tanyon Sturtze if there's another bench-clearing brawl. Randy Johnson could toss a couple of Boston television cameramen into canvas alley. Bill Mueller could hit a walkoff home run against Mariano Rivera. Mark Bellhorn could strike out. Damon could say something really dumb. Alex Rodriguez could hit five homers and dominate the weekend -- or he could get caught shoplifting Winona Ryder DVDs at the Copley Mall. Gary Sheffield could get traded to the Mets. Fenway groundskeepers could plant flatulence devices on the Yankee bench. Jack Nicholson could throw out a first pitch. Curt Schilling could vault out of a wheelchair, limp up the hill, and whiff Derek Jeter with the bases loaded in the ninth. Damon could extend his hitting streak to 29 games, then say, ''Yeah, I think 56 is a reasonable goal."

The Red Sox could sweep the Bombers and save face for dopes who predicted Boston would win the AL East in a landslide (save yourself the trouble: the exact phrase was, ''Come late September, this is going to look like Secretariat at the Belmont in 1973.").

The Sox led the Yankees by 6 1/2 games when those words were written June 26. The Yankees at that hour were a .500 team. Since that date, they are 9-3. The Sox, meanwhile, have lost 6 of 8, dumped Jay Payton, anointed the Big Schill as closer, and sent Have-It-Your-Way Foulke to the hospital for knee surgery.

And now the Yankees are here for four games. And there is new urgency. Gone is the comfort of finishing in second place. Fans in Minnesota, Cleveland, Texas, and Oakland believe they have a shot at the wild card. There's a strong possibility that the Sox or Yankees could be on the sideline come October -- maybe both if the quixotic Orioles find ways to keep winning.

And wouldn't that be a titillating prospect for hardball fans across America tired of the media dominance and self-importance of the Red Sox and Yankees over the past few years? Since the beginning of the 2003 season, Sox-Yankees has been subject of more coverage and debate than Red States-Blue States, and fans in other towns across the land are downright sick of the Steinbrenner AC and the Henrymen playing in a league of their own.

Not here. Not us. We can go back to the unfortunate transfer of George Herman Ruth, and Ted vs. Joe D, and Fisk vs. Munson, and Bill Lee calling the Yankees ''brown shirts," the Massacre of '78, and Pedro and the Rocket in 1999, and Pedro and Zim in 2003, and He Who Must Not Be Named, and Varitek and A-Rod, and the greatest comeback/choke in baseball history . . . and it never gets tired or old (come to think of it, someone should write a book about the Sox and the Yankees).

Now we get games that mean something again. In July. At Fenway. With the Yankees on the rise and the Sox on the slide.

It's impossible to look ahead to these games without recalling what happened here in July last year. The Sox lost the Friday night game and fell a season-low 9 1/2 games behind New York. Then came July 24, when the Yankees wanted to go back to their hotel and the Sox wanted to play after morning rain drenched the Fenway lawn. The game was played, Captain Varitek and A-Rod had their poster moment, Mueller hit the walkoff, and neither team was the same for the rest of the year. The Sox won again the next night (Nomar's last game at Fenway as a Red Sox), and kicked it into overdrive a couple of weeks later.

This year the Sox come into the weekend with a small lead, but events of the last two weeks have reduced the Nation to a legion of doomsayers. If the Red Sox don't stop the onrushing Yankee tide this weekend, it's going to start to feel a little like 1978 around here, and that is never a good thing.

The Sox believed they were better than the Yankees last year. It was a belief built on events of July 24-25 at Fenway and it was that belief that sustained them in those dark hours of 0-3 and 19-8 in October. They still believe they are better than the Yankees, but recent struggles and the loss of Keith Foulke now test that faith.

That's why this weekend holds so much promise. And if you're planning on getting to Fenway Park before me, you must already be there.

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

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