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A 'bye' week for Sox

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / August 26, 2008
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NEW YORK - It's the place where Johnny Damon hit two home runs to help silence a curse, the place where Aaron Boone hit one to keep it going. It's the place where Billy Rohr gained immortality, almost. It's the place of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Lou Gehrig, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. And, for all that, for all the history bound up in Yankee Stadium, much of it is Red Sox history, too.

Though the Yankees are fading, and the Red Sox are working on keeping their wild-card lead, there is something more involved in this week's series between the rivals. This is most likely the final trip to that venerable stadium in the Bronx for a team so inextricably tied to the Yankees and the moments.

"When they tear down a ballpark like that, obviously the history that's going on in New York, you miss it," Mike Timlin said. "It's one of the first major ballparks that I ever played in, when I was coming up with the Blue Jays. You step back, you feel the history, you know what has happened in Yankee Stadium. Yeah, you'll miss it."

Three more days, three more games, then it's all over. The rivalry will shift across the street, to a park with far more amenities, if far fewer memories.

But they will come. With the Yankees there, and the Red Sox visiting, there will be history made. There's no question about that. For now, though, both teams have to be content with honoring the past.

"I've played in that stadium for the last 14 years," said Tim Wakefield, author of one of the Yankees' best moments, and one of the Red Sox' worst, when Boone ended the 2003 American League Championship Series by taking a knuckleball deep into the night. "It's a pretty special cathedral in baseball, and hopefully I'm around next year to see the new one."

Echoed Timlin, whose first trip was in 1991, "I remember what I felt when I walked out on the field. Knowing I was walking on the same grass as a lot of historic baseball players. It's the honor of playing on the same dirt, same grass, same area that these guys have occupied."

It's the same for those who have made their debuts in the House That Ruth Built much more recently. Like Jed Lowrie, who first got a chance to experience it in April, just days after he was called up to the major leagues. He spent his 24th birthday playing there, in the second of two games between the Red Sox and Yankees, a Boston win. He got a chance to briefly visit Monument Park; there might be a longer trip this week.

"That and Fenway [are] kind of the two meccas of baseball, I guess you could say," Lowrie said. "Obviously, getting the chance to play at Fenway every day, and getting the opportunity to go to Yankee Stadium before they open up the new one, it's a pretty cool experience and something that I'll be able to say the rest of my life.

"The first time you step in there, it's hard not to recognize all the history and baseball that's happened there. Once the game starts, it's back to business, back to the game. You just kind of block that out and go play."

Jason Varitek remembers his first trip to Yankee Stadium. He remembers taking batting practice, hitting one in the upper deck. It was all new then, all exciting. But when asked for his thoughts about his final trip to Yankee Stadium - barring any one-game playoff or meeting in the postseason (both unlikely) - Varitek said it wasn't quite the same for him as it would be for someone else. Like Jeter, say.

"Not being a Yankee, I don't really care," Varitek said. "You ask me that about Fenway, and it'd be different. I respect what all the greats that have played there [have done]. That's not what I'm saying. We're not a part of that. We have Jim Rice and Luis Tiant to come into our locker room and talk to us. We're not a part of what goes on there."

Except when they are.

Roger Maris hit his 61st homer in Yankee Stadium against the Sox. Nomar Garciaparra sealed his fate as a member of the Sox there (13 innings, Jeter in the stands, Nomar in the dugout). Pedro and Roger - that's Martínez and Clemens, for those who haven't paid attention - dealt and dueled there until Trot Nixon ended things with a home run in the ninth.

For many of the Red Sox, though, the highlight of playing in Yankee Stadium was the fans. They might boo, and they might be harsh, but they were there and the games mattered. Even when visiting as a member of the Indians, back in his playing days (1988), manager Terry Francona said it was a good feeling.

"When I was on Cleveland, we were terrible," he said. "So you go to Yankee Stadium and you felt like the game was important. You knew you were playing a game that people care about, and that's a nice feeling."

Probably nicer for Cleveland than for Boston, though. So perhaps the Red Sox won't be so upset to see the old ballpark go. Because even though the pendulum has swung in the direction of the Red Sox lately, the tally stands heavily in the favor of the Yankees since the park opened in 1923.

"We spent a lot of years playing there where we had big brother/little brother," Varitek said. "My first two, three years, it was, they were the big brother, we were the little brother, and they just pounded on us. Till we grew up a little bit."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com

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