Sunday, April 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Major League Baseball

The rivalry marches on: A history of Red Sox vs. Yankees

Seattle Times staff reporter

The deal that changed everything

On Jan. 3, 1920, Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000.

The entire Yankees-Red Sox dynamic the Yankees' eternal supremacy, the Red Sox's eternal heartbreak can be traced back to this fateful moment. Before 1920, the Red Sox had won five World Series, the Yankees none. Since then? The Yankees 26, the Red Sox none. Some would even call it a curse.

BOSTON — If you go by the natural assumption that a classic rivalry must have give-and-take — an exchange of triumphs and failures, a relatively equitable parceling of fulfillment and despair — then the Yankees and Red Sox don't qualify. Not even close.

Their rivalry has been compared, from the standpoint of relative success, to that between a hammer and a nail.

Oh, the Yankees and BoSox have give and take, all right. The Red Sox give — starting with Babe Ruth and continuing right through then-manager Grady Little's ill-fated refusal to lift Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of last year's American League Championship Series — and the Yankees take.

But it doesn't matter, because all the other elements — the unparalleled passion of the two fan bases, the deep resonance of shared history, the cast of vivid characters and catalogue of bizarre and riveting moments — make it the best rivalry in baseball, without question, and arguably the best in all of sports.

And far from detracting from the experience, the Red Sox's enduring futility — no title since 1918, one season before The Gift of the Bambino, compared to 26 for the Yankees in that span — is actually the quality that makes the rivalry unsurpassed.

As thoroughly and heartbreakingly as the Yankees have dominated Boston, the Red Sox Nation is forever sustained by the notion that this, finally, is the year and oh, how sweet it's going to be.

"If you can win a World Series," former Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman once said, "you will be immortal around here."

And the Yankees? Just like Road Runner out-foxing Wile E. Coyote, they are sustained by the pure, unadulterated joy of foiling the Sox, over and over.

As Yogi Berra once put it, with uncharacteristically unbungled eloquence, "We've been playing these guys for 80 years. They're never going to beat us." Beep! Beep!

The Red Sox don't buy that. Can't buy that. So, after finishing second in the AL East behind the Yankees for the past six seasons, they went hellbent for a pennant and World Series title this offseason, and have assembled a team equipped to do so, if things break right.

Like they ever do. But you never know.

Indeed, it seems clear, as the Red Sox and Yankees yesterday reached the halfway point of their first frenzied series of the year at Fenway Park, the Red Sox taking their second straight game 5-2, that the rivalry has never been more heated, more robust and more competitive.

"If you go and look at a football season, where one game seems to be a turning point, it's a good analogy," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "One game stands out. There's 19 seasons here, when you play these guys.

"Every single game is ... I hesitate to say warlike, because you certainly don't want to get into the feeling it's dangerous out here. But I think the passion and need to win on both sides is something you won't experience anywhere else."

The Red Sox and Yankees played an unprecedented 26 times last year, including those seven in the postseason. But now the rivalry extends even to spring training, where fans slept out overnight to get tickets to their "showdown" in Fort Myers, Fla. Tickets were being scalped for $200, and commemorative pins were sold to mark the occasion.

Now the hype is nearly nonstop. Five books pertaining to the rivalry are scheduled for publication soon, along with two film documentaries and an off-Broadway play.

The rivalry has seeped into the popular culture, from references in Adam Sandler and Matt Damon movies to "Catch Me if You Can," in which Frank Abagnale's father asks his son, "Do you know why the Yankees always win? Because the other team's too busy staring at the pinstripes."

(Abagnale was played by Leonardo DiCaprio, star of "Titanic." Fenway Park opened on April 20, 1912 — five days after the Titanic sank, for what it's worth.)

To understand the current state of the rivalry — or, to use accepted nomenclature, The Rivalry — and how it has in the last two years taken its greatest leap forward since the epic 1978 season, you must realize it now permeates the highest levels of the boardrooms, to an unprecedented degree.

That point was brought home when the Red Sox flailed in their vigorous attempt to land Alex Rodriguez, only to have the worst possible backlash — A-Rod signing with the Yankees, bringing their payroll to a record $182 million.

Not that the Red Sox are exactly the Pittsburgh Pirates — their $125 million payroll trails only the Yankees — but principal owner John Henry reacted to Rodriguez's signing by indignantly calling for a salary cap "to deal with a team that has gone so insanely far beyond the resources of all the other teams."

To Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who had simmered the previous winter when Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino dubbed the Yankees "The Evil Empire" after they stole Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras away from them, this was a batting-practice fastball.

Steinbrenner had responded to Lucchino tepidly — for him — by saying he was "sick." But with obvious glee, The Boss let loose on Henry — a Yankees limited partner for more than a decade — by releasing a statement that was an "in-your-face" masterpiece:

"We understand that John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated and disappointed by his failure in this transaction. Unlike the Yankees, he chose not to go the extra distance for his fans in Boston. It is understandable, but wrong, that he would try to deflect the accountability for his mistakes on to others and to a system for which he voted in favor. It is time to get on with life and forget the sour grapes."

If you get the feeling these two teams just don't like each other, you're on to something. It seems almost pathological. The Red Sox tweaked the Yankees last year by promoting a series against them with music from "Star Wars" and having James Earl Jones — the voice of Darth Vader — recite the national anthem. Evil Empire, indeed.

Last fall, in the wake of the heated Fenway Park ALCS games that resulted in Don Zimmer charging Pedro Martinez, and two Yankees players allegedly assaulting a groundskeeper stationed in the bullpen, Yankees president Randy Levine castigated the Red Sox for "an atmosphere of lawlessness that was allowed to be perpetuated ... and that needs to be corrected."

And when the Yankees prevailed in the series, after trailing 5-2 with five outs to go in Game 7 only to win in the 11th inning on Aaron Boone's homer, witnesses reported Levine screaming, "Take that, you 1918 (expletives)!"

Former Yankees general manager Bob Quinn — whose grandfather of the same name once owned the Red Sox, purchasing it from the eternally maligned Harry Frazee, then selling to Tom Yawkey — got to see Steinbrenner's obsession with the Red Sox up close, sometimes to his intense discomfort.

"Some people think it's schmaltz, but I think it's quite serious," Quinn said. "I think George would rather beat the Red Sox than even the Mets — almost rather beat the Red Sox than breathe. He takes great delight anytime they beat the Red Sox."

And when they don't? "Then the general manager and manager want to be scarce," Quinn said with a laugh.

Yesterday, no doubt, was a good time to avoid Steinbrenner, after the Yankees were beaten by Curt Schilling — one of their winter targets that got away to the dark side. Rodriguez, to the delight of a jeering crowd, is 0 for 8 in the series, and the Red Sox moved atop the AL East standings, insignificant as that may be in April.

"It's a win," Schilling said. "Anything else is pretty much meaningless."

Tell that to the Red Sox fans, who filled Fenway for the 70th consecutive game en route to an anticipated sold-out season. They taunted Jason Giambi with a raucous, sing-song chant of, "You use steroids!" and, of course, belted out the ever-popular "Yankees suck!" which has been known to break out at New England weddings and bar mitzvahs, and which Patriots player Larry Izzo started an estimated million fans chanting at a Super Bowl victory celebration this past winter.

Now the rivalry is fueled in ways unimaginable during the 1940s, when Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams waged their battles — Web sites, chat rooms, talk radio. Schilling has been known to log on to a rabid Red Sox site called "Sons of Sam Horn," with the moniker Gehrig38, a nod to the Yankees legend for whom his oldest child is named.

Despite those Yankees leanings, Schilling had no hesitation upon joining Boston to declare that he now hated the Yankees. When Rodriguez, who rhapsodized about Sox tradition while he was trying desperately to sign with them during the winter, was asked earlier this week if he now hated them, too, he said, "The feeling is mutual."

Torre got an indication of the mind-set of Red Sox fans last year during one of the Yankees' visits to Boston. A middle-aged man in a Sox hat recognized Torre in the elevator of their hotel, and told him, "We're going to beat you tonight."

"I said, 'I hope not, but that's fine,' " Torre recalled. "He started thinking, and you knew he was going to come up with something. He said, 'You know what? If it was a choice between beating the Yankees or capturing Saddam Hussein, I think I'd take beating the Yankees.' And he walked out of the elevator."

The beauty of being a Yankees fan, of course, is that you don't have to choose. Not so far.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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