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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

An even tougher test is at hand

Johnny Damon returns tonight with Jorge Posada and the rest of the Yankees.
Johnny Damon returns tonight with Jorge Posada and the rest of the Yankees. (Nick Laham / Getty Images)

Jake LaMotta used to say, ''I fought Sugar Ray Robinson so often, I almost got diabetes."

Does this mean the Red Sox are in danger of catching Mad Steinbrenner Disease or Jeter-itis?

The Sox play host to the Yankees tonight and it'll be the seventy-second meeting between the teams since the start of the 2003 season. That's 26 times in 2003 (including seven in the playoffs), 26 times in 2004 (another seven-gamer in October), and 19 times last year.

The three-year record?

Boston 36. New York 35.

Can't get much closer than that, can you?

Both teams have won an American League Championship Series at the expense of the other during this span and the Red Sox have a World Series title to boot. The Yankees own a 26-1 edge in Series championships since 1923, but the Sox lead, 1-0, since 2000.

What is particularly annoying here in the Hub is the ranking of the teams in the AL East since 1998. Boston has finished second to New York for the last eight seasons. That is a major league record.

The Sox thought they had the Yankees whipped last year, but when the teams finished with identical records, the Yankees were declared division champs on the basis of a better regular-season record against Boston. Now it appears the Blue Jays are capable of breaking up the New York-Boston grip on the top two spots in the division.

We have not seen the Yankees at Fenway since last October when Robert Redford, Renee Zellweger, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Yo-Yo Ma, Tim Russert, and thousands of other movers, shakers, and fakers filled Boston's ancient ballyard for the final three games of the 2005 regular season. The Sox and Yanks both poured champagne on the clubhouse carpet that weekend, then went off to lose first-round playoff series to the White Sox and Angels, respectively.

Red Sox-Yankees is probably the best rivalry in the history of American sports, and in recent winters events somehow brought the hype to new levels. Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino (Remember him? Before the Theo Epstein's Machiavellian power play, Lucchino was a big guy around Fenway) threw high octane on the smoldering fire with his ''Evil Empire" remark before the 2003 season. Then we had the hideous Alex Rodriguez bidding war in the winter of 2003-04. Last year the border war was fueled by Boston's Opening Day ring ceremony in the face of Mssrs. Torre, Jeter, and Rivera as Red Sox fans basked in the afterglow of the New York Chokees of October '04.

And tonight we have Johnny Damon at the center of the universe -- right where he wants to be.

Ever an uncomplicated man, Damon last winter became a direct descendant of Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Sparky Lyle, and Babe Ruth -- the latest in a century-long line of Red Sox stars who went to New York searching for fame, fortune, and a championship ring. It makes for a circus-like atmosphere leading into tonight's opener.

Damon campaigned vigorously to become the hairy face of the Boston franchise in his final two seasons with the Sox. Not as important to the team as Manny Ramírez, David Ortiz, or Curt Schilling, Damon emerged as the most famous member of the 2004 championship Sox. The perfect idiot with the perfect hair, Johnny milked his celebrity every moment of his final year in Boston. He also played his butt off and had a spectacular first half when lesser men would have wilted under the self-imposed pressure of Regis and the book tour and Page Six and the Inside Track. Not Damon. He put a bull's-eye on his back, then he delivered.

Now he returns to Boston, and Sox fans view him as a greedy traitor. Damon went from Jesus to Judas with one stroke of his pen on a Yankees contract.

It's absurd, of course, but that is the nature of the Nation. This rivalry is nothing if not emotional, and Damon's flight to New York inspires wrath from thousands of fans who would have done the same thing given the disparity of the offers from Boston and New York.

Damon hit a couple of homers at Yankee Stadium Saturday and appears to be settling in nicely with his new team. But he is not Boston's biggest problem as the Sox take on the Yankees for the first of 19 regular-season meetings this year. New York's lineup is simply spectacular (Bernie Williams batting ninth?), and as much as we like to laugh at their pitching, the Yankees led the AL in ERA through the first 20 games of the season. They've already traveled to Oakland, Anaheim, Minnesota, and Toronto. They are formidable.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, appear vulnerable, never more than when Josh Bard tries to catch Tim Wakefield's knuckler, as he will tonight. The Sox have had trouble scoring runs, particularly when Wakefield pitches, and no one feels good about a road trip in which the locals won only three of nine games in Toronto, Cleveland, and St. Petersburg.

No Devil Rays tonight. It's the Yankees. Again.

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

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