boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
BOB RYAN

Start of something (too) big

The Yankees are here. I wish I could get more excited.

Well, that's not completely correct. I am excited, but perhaps not the same way most Red Sox fans are.

I'm excited because to me it's primarily about the baseball. It doesn't matter to me that the Yankees haven't won the World Series since 2000. They still represent baseball excellence. The Yankees are the Yankees are the Yankees. In terms of batting order (one through eight), no one's better. No one. Robinson Cano hit .342 last season and slugged .525. That's sick. And Red Sox fans reference Bill Mueller. Please.

So that's why I'm jacked. I want to see what Messrs. Schilling, Beckett, and Matsuzaka do against a Yankee lineup that leads all of baseball in runs and the American League in on-base percentage as they eagerly await the return from the disabled list of Hideki Matsui to make the lineup even more formidable.

The problem is that we baseball fans will have to endure the sophomoric overuse of many naughty words as we enjoy our baseball.

Historically speaking, it is a great rivalry. Is it the best North American sport has to offer? Our parochial conceit leads people in these parts to say "yes," but is it on a par with our great college rivalries, or the Cubs and Cardinals or even Calgary and Edmonton? Maybe, maybe not. I do know that I've enjoyed other local rivalries more.

You know why? It's because like so many other things in modern sport, it has lost its purity. Remember that great scene in "Diner" when the old guy tells Shrevie that on his television the Ponderosa looked "fake "? That's the way I feel about the state of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, at least at this end of I-95.

It's the times. No longer can things just be. Everything is over the top. Fans are whipped up by talk shows and chat rooms to the point where there is no more gray in the Crayola box. I acknowledge the print media doesn't help, either. Does Joe Cronin taking on Jake Powell in 1938 really have any connection with A-Rod stepping in against Schill tonight? It's a great story, and it was the true start of the rivalry (the rivalry having zero resonance when The Babe was a Yankee since the Red Sox were perpetually horrible), but that's the end of it.

A rivalry is really good when it's from the inside out, not when it's from the outside in. Celtics-Lakers was a great rivalry when Bird was trying to outdo Magic and the entire Celtics team disliked Kareem and when Kevin McHale gave the entire state of California reason to hate him by decking Kurt Rambis. Yankees- Red Sox was a great rivalry when Billy Martin, Thurman Munson, Mickey Rivers, and Graig Nettles were on one side and Carlton Fisk, Bill Lee, Luis Tiant, and Rick Burleson were on the other.

Rivers hitting a first pitch Looie changeup for a home run at Fenway and one week later Reggie Cleveland drilling Rivers in the butt to open up the first at Yankee Stadium and saying, "Let's see the little [hyphenated naughty word] hit that first pitch," that was real, and the fans reacted accordingly.

You know what the Yankees and Red Sox see in each other in the Year of Our Lord, 2007? They see a quality division opponent, no more, no less. In the past four years these teams have met 90 times, not including spring training affairs (which are Theatre of the Absurd productions). The Yankees have won 46 and the Red Sox have won 44. Great stuff.

For the players, the rivalry is about the competition. For far too many Red Sox fans, it's about some imagined grievance with both the Yankees and the city of New York. It's chic to say you hate the Yankees, even if there really is nothing to hate. Really, what has Derek Jeter ever done besides not be Nomah? And now that Nomah is gone, perhaps not be Papi? I truly don't know.

A-Rod? Sorry. Hating A-Rod was in the province of the Yankees fans. He's their issue, not yours, but given his ever-growing list of clutch hits (such as yesterday's two-out, game-winning home run), his Yankee Stadium status has been elevated to "like" with "love" on deck.

See, that's what I loved about the great Boston rivalries of the past. It was about the competition. Celtics fans could not hate Jerry West. I don't think Celtics fans hated Dr. J. (I will acknowledge that Celtics fans found none of the vintage Knicks to be lovable.) Bruins fans could not hate Guy Lafleur, just as their dads could not possibly have resented the elegant Jean Beliveau, no matter how many game-winning goals he scored against their beloved Bruins. Red Sox fans could not hate Brooks Robinson. All these things would have been irrational.

But they were all wonderful rivalries. They were pure.

What we have with the Red Sox and Yankees now is manufactured fan nonsense. Hate to tell you, but no one in uniform hates anyone in the current Yankees-Red Sox state of affairs. The players can't believe what they hear and what goes on in the stands, or on the streets. They cannot relate to any of it.

Now if this is a strict DNA thing, there's no way I'm ever going to connect. Sorry. And it may be. My own born-and-bred New England daughter hates the Yankees. I don't. I think they're a darn fine division rival.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES