Thursday October 16th, 2008

Jonny Gomes straddled the first base line like a bouncer at a biker bar, Mohawk stretched across his scalp, barbed wire tattooed around his biceps, beard hiding half his face. As the last verse of the national anthem hung over Tropicana Field before Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, Gomes turned toward the third base line and doffed his cap to the Boston Red Sox, who doffed their caps back, baseball's version of an armistice.

The Tampa Bay Rays did not include Gomes on their playoff roster, but he sits on the bench in full uniform, just in case anybody needs a mediator. Gomes is the Rays' part-time outfielder and full-time enforcer who in the past two years has scuffled with the Red Sox, the New York Yankees and the Red Sox again. When a Rays batter takes a fastball in the ribs, players on the bench look to Gomes for their cue -- should I stay or should I charge? "It's not a reputation I want to have by any means," Gomes says, "but it doesn't hurt to have it on your résumé."

Gomes is perhaps the most active member of the Red Sox-Rays fight club, which in the past eight years has produced eight altercations resulting in 25 ejections and 22 suspensions totaling 98 games. There have been allegations of hair-pulling, eye-poking, bat-throwing, sucker-punching and "hitting like a woman." There have been threats, hospital visits and repeated warnings from the commissioner's office, most of which have not been heeded.

"This isn't the WWF," says Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. "It's not like you're going to meet up in the parking lot." However, after a spring training game in 2006, Rays leftfielder Carl Crawford did challenge Red Sox relief pitcher Julian Tavarez to "go one-on-one in the parking lot" after Tavarez stepped on the right arm of Rays centerfielder Joey Gathright, leaving cleat marks in his skin, and punched him in the face.

The Rays and the Red Sox long ago developed the enmity required of all great rivalries. Now they are throwing in some meaningful, not to mention wildly entertaining, baseball -- loads of it. The first two games of the ALCS took a total of eight hours and 52 minutes, and they produced a pitcher's duel, a slugfest and a 95-mile-per-hour fastball that Rays reliever Grant Balfour uncorked in the direction of Boston rightfielder J.D. Drew's face, appearing to violate the cease-fire.

Drew turned quickly enough to take the pitch in the shoulder, and the Red Sox did no more than bark at Balfour. They are versed enough in postseason baseball to recognize that this is no time to settle vendettas. That is what spring training is for. The Red Sox retaliated in more understated fashion, getting a split of the first two games of the series and swiping the home field advantage that the AL East-champion Rays worked six months to win. On Monday, Tampa Bay regained that edge with a 9-1 thumping of Boston, the third straight series between the two teams in which the Rays lost the opener but bounced back to win the next two games.

Given the Rays' financial constraints (a $44 million payroll, second-lowest in baseball in 2008) and their competition in the American League East, it is easy to assume that this is their best chance for a championship. But the winning pitcher in Game 2 was 23-year-old Rays rookie lefty David Price, and the winning run was scored by 25-year-old rookie outfielder Fernando Perez, neither of whom had ever been in a major league game before September. The Rays, in other words, are young enough to give the Red Sox -- everybody, for that matter -- problems for a while. "I'm talking two, three, four seasons," says Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd. "With the way we hate them, and the way they hate us, this could be a great rivalry for a long time."

The Red Sox and the Yankees used to be just as outspoken, back when Pedro Martinez was throwing Don Zimmer to the ground and Jason Varitek was shoving Alex Rodriguez in the face. But at some point in the past four years, the Red Sox and the Yankees started treating each other with a disarming level of respect, like CEOs who cross paths at the country club 19 times a year. If those teams remain so disgustingly professional, Red Sox-Rays could become the new Red Sox-Yankees, with far less tradition but a lot more vitriol.

From the time the Rays were born, in 1998, they lost to everybody, but they lost with exceptional regularity to the Red Sox, dropping 111 of the first 169 meetings. "It was a rivalry, but it wasn't a rivalry," says Gomes, a Ray since 2003. "They beat us every time." The Rays, in turn, tried to beat them up. They became the goons of the AL East, unskilled but undaunted. "We didn't feel like we were getting a whole lot of respect -- nor did we deserve any," Rays reliever Trever Miller says. "In that situation guys can get bitter." Nobody brought out the Rays' inferiority complex quite like the Red Sox, who, by winning a World Series in 2004, had finally reached the big time.

The history of violence between these teams dates back to the night of Aug. 29, 2000, when Rays centerfielder Gerald Williams took a fastball from Pedro Martinez off his left hand. Williams rushed the mound at Tropicana Field, Red Sox and Rays following closely behind. Whatever happened in the middle of that mosh pit helped spawn eight years of animosity. The Rays claimed, without much evidence, that Red Sox first baseman Brian Daubach was throwing punches under the pile. So Rays pitchers took aim at Daubach, though aim was never really their strong suit. They threw at him five times, hitting him only twice.

"The only problem was our pitchers kept missing the guy," said then Rays manager Larry Rothschild, who was ejected from the game along with his replacement (bench coach Bill Russell) and Russell's replacement (first base coach Jose Cardenal). When home plate umpire Tim McClelland went looking for another potential Rays manager to eject, he asked third base coach Billy Hatcher who was in charge. "I don't know," said Hatcher, neglecting to mention that he was.

The Rays released all their frustrations and insecurities in one night. At the end of the game, Williams went to the Red Sox clubhouse to stake out Martinez, along with teammates Greg Vaughn and Bobby Smith. Martinez, with the help of security guards, sneaked out an alternate exit.

It was on. One month later, when the Rays eliminated the Red Sox from playoff contention, closer Roberto Hernandez walked off the mound at Fenway Park and waved goodbye at the Red Sox dugout. The next day, when Hernandez gave up a game-winning home run in the ninth inning, Martinez stood on the top step of the dugout and waved back at him. "Tell Hernandez he can take his hand, stick it in some K-Y jelly and shove it," Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon said.

But this June 5 at Fenway Park, as the Red Sox and the Rays staged their latest battle royal, the dynamics of the bout appeared to change. Gomes, who pummeled Coco Crisp as the Red Sox centerfielder bolted to the mound, explained that he felt compelled to protect Rays starting pitcher James Shields -- who had plunked Crisp in retaliation for his hard slide into a Tampa Bay infielder the previous night?because of the righthander's importance to the organization. Finally the Rays were fighting for more than pride.

"When I was there, we felt like we had to fight for some credibility, but we didn't have the horses," says John Flaherty, a former Rays catcher and now a Yankees TV analyst. "I see the same attitude in this team, but now they have the horses. It's a dangerous combination when you have a team that is motivated to stand up for themselves and fight, and also has the talent to back it up."

The Red Sox can relate. In the beginning they were the ones with little-man's disease, throwing wild haymakers at the Yankees to no avail. Then they hired a whiz-kid G.M. (Theo Epstein), stocked a depleted minor league system with such players as Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis and turned a roster full of beer leaguers into a streamlined outfit that cared as much about preventing runs as producing them. They tabbed former Philadelphia Phillies skipper Terry Francona to manage the team, but only after they interviewed a forward-thinking bench coach from Anaheim named Joe Maddon, whom they deemed impressive but inexperienced.

The Rays, for all their differences with the Red Sox, did not mind copying Boston's blueprint. (From a philosophical standpoint Tampa Bay has more in common with Boston than New York does.) They hired their own kid G.M., 31-year-old Andrew Friedman, who in turn hired Maddon 23 months after he had been passed over for the Boston job. They built the best farm system in the major leagues, according to Baseball America. (Boston's is second.) And they preached run prevention as if it were a new religion. On July 28, 2007, Friedman sent infielder Ty Wigginton to Houston for relief pitcher Dan Wheeler, a trade that went largely unnoticed around the country but resonated in the Red Sox clubhouse.

"I felt like that's when it all started for them," Red Sox infielder Alex Cora says. "A lot of people were surprised they made that trade, but we weren't. It was just like in 2004, when the Red Sox pulled the trade for [first baseman] Doug Mientkiewicz and [shortstop] Orlando Cabrera" -- both celebrated for their glove work -- "and then won the World Series. Both teams realize you need pitching and defense. You can't win the World Series without it."

When teams are as stingy as the Red Sox and the Rays, games are taut and tensions high. That formula was followed in Game 1, a 2-0 Boston victory in which Tampa Bay got only four hits. The teams broke loose in Game 2, combining for an ALCS-record seven home runs. In the end, however, the player of the game was Wheeler, who worked 31-3 innings out of the bullpen, his longest outing in four years. The Rays won in the 11th inning, at 1:36 a.m., not with a homer, but with B.J. Upton's shallow fly ball to rightfield, not much more than an infield popup, really. Perez, regarded as one of the fastest runners in the majors, tagged up and raced home, pounding his hand against the plate. "That's not a ball very many people can go on," Perez says.

Some of the Red Sox still have a hard time seeing the Rays as contenders, much less adults. Ortiz, who refers to them as "those kids," watched closely as they failed to muster a hit off Daisuke Matsuzaka for the first six innings in Game 1. "I'm telling you," Ortiz said afterward, "I saw faces tonight different than what I see in the regular season. But I don't blame anybody. This is their first time in the playoffs. We're kind of used to it. You don't see anybody panicking." It was the kind of remark, honest but condescending, that stings as much as a Balfour fastball.

Just as young Red Sox learn about Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, young Rays learned about Trot Nixon and the K-Y jelly. Rays starting pitcher Scott Kazmir was among those indoctrinated early. He triggered a brawl with the Red Sox when he was only 20 years old and making his seventh major league start. Kazmir is now 24 and an All-Star. He pitched Game 2 of the ALCS, giving up five runs, which did not look so terrible compared with the eight runs surrendered to the Rays by Kazmir's fellow Houstonian Josh Beckett.

Before the series shifted back to Boston, Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo was kind enough to brace the Rays for the kind of reception they would receive at Fenway Park, about as chilly as the one given to the Yankees in Octobers past. "When you go to Fenway," said Lugo, who played four years for the Rays, "that is the house of pain." With these two teams, it always comes back to bodily harm.

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