A Whale Of A Weekend The epic proportions of the Boston-New York rivalry--the game's best--were undiminished by yet another Yankees triumph in the first of two crucial series

September 07, 2003

The last moment was a great moment, and it would have been even
had it played itself out on a dust bowl school yard, a green
college campus or on the calcined mountains of the moon. It would
have been great even if the jerseys had read sully's tap and
buster's bail bonds. But it took place at Fenway Park on Sunday,
in the long shadows of late August, and the jerseys read new york
and red sox, and Mariano Rivera was staring in at Nomar
Garciaparra with the bases loaded and a four-run lead in the
bottom of the ninth inning, and this was the best moment in a
weekend series full of wonderful ones.

It was better than the 10-spot that Boston had put on the Yankees
last Friday night, when the Red Sox closed to within 3 1/2 games
of the lead in the American League East, which may now turn out
to be as close as they will come in what's left of this season.
It was better than the ridiculous pinata of an eighth inning on
Saturday, when the two teams combined for six runs, which still
left Boston trailing by one in a game in which Rivera briefly
seemed to be in a footrace with Boston ace Pedro Martinez toward
obsolescence. It was even better than the moment earlier in
Sunday's game, when New York's Roger Clemens left the mound where
his career had begun in 1984 and was saluted with a warm ovation,
which he came back out of the dugout to acknowledge. History had
been the emotional accelerant all weekend, and because the teams
were where they were, and because the jerseys said what they
said, the last moment was the greatest of all.

Rivera went to work, carving fastballs, most of them cutters down
and away. Overanxious, and therefore overmatched, Garciaparra got
a piece of two of them but flailed vainly at the last. The
Yankees had won 8-4 and were leaving town with a 5 1/2-game lead,
one more than when they arrived. (The Red Sox would get that game
back on Monday when they beat the Philadelphia Phillies 13-9 and
the Yankees lost to the Toronto Blue Jays 8-1.) Suddenly there
was a deep and familiar stillness around the place. "You can't
match this," said New York manager Joe Torre afterward. "I guess
the closest thing to it, because I grew up and lived through it,
was the Dodgers and the Giants in the same city."

History is a funny old dog. Put it on too tight a leash, treat it
as an entitlement, the way the Yankees do, and you strangle the
romance out of it. Let it roam too freely, the way the Red Sox
do, and it can outrun imagination and common sense and lead you
into strange areas where wandering academics and poets on the
dodge start looking at your baseball team and seeing the crew of
the Pequod beating to quarters. Put these two approaches to
history together, and you get a rivalry that fairly well defines
the concepts of "freighted" (for Yankees fans), "haunted" (for
Red Sox partisans) and "ludicrously overstated" for virtually
everyone else.

"Players who put on the uniforms for these two teams and who come
into Fenway Park or into Yankee Stadium, they realize pretty
quickly that the rest of baseball is Club Med," says New York
general manager Brian Cashman. "It doesn't take long for players
to understand that people in both these places take baseball
very, very seriously."

It was 25 years ago this week that the Yankees came into Fenway
and swept four games from the Red Sox, outscoring them 42-9 in
what became known as the Boston Massacre and commencing the run
that ended with Mike Torrez's encounter with Bucky Dent that
October. It seems that 1978 was the modern tipping point,
returning the rivalry to the intensity of the DiMaggio-Williams
era--with, of course, roughly the same results. During each of
the three seasons before the current one, the Red Sox and the
Yankees reached Labor Day with New York's lead over Boston in the
single digits. They played 12 games in those three Septembers.
The Yankees won all but two. The oddest thing about the rivalry
is that it has remained so vivid and intense while being so
preposterously one-sided.

The clubs are shadowed in different ways by their respective
histories. After five American League pennants and four World
Series wins in the last seven years, the Yankees are fraying on
all sides. They have been banged up all season--shortstop Derek
Jeter got hurt again on Sunday, straining his rib cage while
swinging in the fifth inning--their starting pitchers are old,
and their bullpen (including the once transcendent Rivera) has
Torre approaching the dugout phone as if it were a basket of
Gaboon vipers. They are winning in large measure on the reservoir
of confidence built by having won those world championships.
This, alas, has not been an option available to the Red Sox since
shortly before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

But it is too simple--and in Boston, at least, too indulgently
self-lacerating--to wedge these current players into some
multigenerational costume drama. Each of these teams is a unique
bunch, fashioned by an entirely new generation of baseball
executives. Cashman is 35. Theo Epstein, his counterpart in
Boston, is 29. Together they add up to being a few months older
than Torre. They have consciously and unconsciously built two
teams ideally suited to playing each other. "You've got two teams
that are full of careful professional hitters who know how to
score runs in bunches," says Epstein. "Neither bullpen is what
you'd like, so neither team is ever out of a game."

The rivalry this year has been purely business, pragmatic in
tooth and claw. It began in earnest last winter, when the Yankees
bid up Cuban righthander Jose Contreras and signed him to a
four-year, $32 million contract, $5 million beyond what the Red
Sox were willing to pay. Epstein, a noted amateur guitar player
around town, was reported to have gone Pete Townshend all over
his hotel room in response, which Epstein denies and attributes
to the whispered calumnies of Yankees moles. As the season
proceeded, he seemed to steal the march on the Yankees a number
of times, especially in prying two relievers, lefty Scott
Sauerbeck and righthander Scott Williamson, out of, respectively,
the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds.

Boston president Larry Lucchino had responded to the Contreras
coup by calling the Yankees "the Evil Empire." The sniping
between the Yankees and Red Sox front offices got so bad that
commissioner Bud Selig stepped in and told both sides to cool
off. "That was one of the times that I didn't agree with the
commissioner," Lucchino says. "I think an intense rivalry like
ours is good for the game."

"Last winter," Cashman says, "I think things got a little
disrespectful between us, but they have a great organization, and
Theo's done a great job."

So scrape away all the classical allusions--it's hard to imagine
some ancient Athenian entrepreneur selling SPARTA SUCKS! T-shirts
at the foot of the Acropolis anyway--and all the literary
encrustation that this rivalry has accrued from the various
faculty clubs on both sides of the Charles, and what you have
left are two talented, splendiferously flawed baseball teams that
happen to suit perfectly each other's obvious strengths and
weaknesses. "You take two guys from each of these teams, and you
throw them in a ring, and everybody's going to come out of there
bloody," said Torre, who was wrung out by Saturday night.

The competitive standard for this season had been set in late
July at Fenway, when Boston pulled to within 1 1/2 games of
first-place New York by getting two wins against the Yankees in
what were arguably the three best games played anywhere in the
majors this year. Over the next month the Yankees built that lead
up to 7 1/2 games, but they showed signs of wear in doing so;
before heading for Boston, New York was slow-roasted at home on
consecutive nights by the Chicago White Sox 13-2 and 11-2.

Meanwhile the Red Sox walked through August in a fever dream.
Every win was Mardi Gras. Every loss was Krakatoa. They dropped
two tough games to the Oakland A's in a three-game series at
Fenway. Boston's No. 2 starter, righthander Derek Lowe, left the
first game with a blister, and Martinez came down with
pharyngitis and had to miss a start in the third game. Martinez
later became so incensed by criticism from some radio
know-nothings that he threatened to leave the team after his
contract ends next year. What kept the whole thing in balance was
the contribution of some of the players Epstein and Lucchino
brought in who are not yet afflicted with the Historical
Affective Disorder. When Lowe got some heat for leaving the
Oakland game, first baseman Kevin Millar taught everyone in
Boston a new verb: to cowboy.

"I want to see somebody cowboy up and stand behind this team one
time and quit whining about all the negative stuff and talking
about last year's team and 10 years ago and 1918," Millar said.

"Seriously," Millar said a few days later, "we all don't know any
better. David Ortiz, Todd Walker, Bill Mueller, we're all the new
guys here." Third baseman Mueller and designated hitter Ortiz
joined the Red Sox last January, from the San Francisco Giants
and the Minnesota Twins, respectively. At week's end Mueller led
the American League with a .323 average and Ortiz had proved to
be a natural lefthanded Fenway slugger, hitting 23 home runs,
including one stretch that ended on Saturday in which he'd hit
one out in six consecutive starts. These have been essential
numbers, especially last weekend, when $20 million-a-year slugger
Manny Ramirez missed all three games also with pharyngitis.
Meanwhile, Millar, a refugee from the Florida Marlins who was
batting .282, has supplied the Red Sox with more than a
respectable bat in the middle of the lineup. He has given them
something of a soul by demonstrating that he doesn't have very
much, well, soul.

Last season it was the Rally Monkey in Anaheim. This year the Red
Sox have the Rally Karaoke Guy. It seems that several years,
about 15 pounds and at least three shades of blond ago, Millar
allowed himself to be videotaped doing a lip-synch version of
Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. and then neglected to burn
every copy. So now, when Boston needs a late-game lift at Fenway,
up on the scoreboard video screen goes Millar in what appears to
be a hostage video shot by the Deney Terrio Dance Fever
Liberation Army. It is so very un-Red Sox. Imagine Yaz juicing
the lads up back in '78 by gyrating to a tune from, say, Styx.
Imagine--gasp!--what Ted might think. (No. Don't. There are
children in the room.)

"There's so much affection in this clubhouse," says outfielder
Gabe Kapler, one of the newest of the new Red Sox. "It's cool.
It's interesting." This is a remarkable departure for a team once
defined for the ages as "25 guys, 25 cabs." (After last weekend,
however, Kapler may discover that baseball in Boston is not all
Britney-and-Madonna after all. First, on Saturday, while pursuing
a fly ball, he ran into starting centerfielder Johnny Damon,
knocking him out of Sunday's game. Then, replacing Damon, Kapler
made two errors that cost the Red Sox two runs.)

The new guys are the heart of what has become a Red Sox lineup
with a prodigious chin. Through Labor Day they had come from
behind to win 36 games, and they'd won 20 in their last at bat.
Boston put up at least 10 hits in eight consecutive games before
last weekend's series, and they cowboyed Contreras in the opener,
scoring seven runs against him in three innings and squashing the
Yankees 10-5.

But the white-hot center of things came on Saturday, in the
eighth inning, with Fenway loud enough to chase away any ghosts.
Staked to leads of 3-0 and 4-2, Martinez had blown them both, and
he was long gone. Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte had hung on until
the Yankees built an 8-4 lead. Whereupon Torre edgily went for
the bullpen phone and brought on righthander Jeff Nelson.

Nelson was greeted by Millar on the big screen and by Garciaparra
at the plate. Garciaparra hit a double off the top of the wall.
Three batters later Nelson hit Jason Varitek to load the bases.
Then Boston manager Grady Little concocted the matchup of
utilityman David McCarty against Rivera. McCarty promptly
demonstrated the immutable universal law of What Do You Know,
Anyway? by lacing a nothing Rivera fastball off the wall for a
double and two runs. Rivera walked Lou Merloni and Damon to force
in another. By the time he reached back to 1999 to blow a high
fastball past Mueller, Rivera had let the lead slip to 8-7.

Luckily for New York, however, the Red Sox brought in Byung-Hyun
Kim, the submarining reliever whom since 2001 the Yankees have
treated personally the way they've treated the Red Sox generally
since 1920. New York catcher Jorge Posada took Kim in the general
direction of the Grand Banks for a two-run homer and a 10-7
Yankees win that left Torre looking very much as if he'd tried to
give dancing lessons to Kevin Millar. "That's the worst kind of
thing as a manager," Torre said afterward. "You sit there, and
you know there aren't any decisions left to be made. You all saw
Mo out there. He turned around and looked at that bullpen, and
there was nobody left there. It was his to win or lose."

Then it was Sunday, and the Red Sox came unstrung enough to hand
Clemens an 8-2 lead. They got two back, and they scraped
themselves into that final great moment with Rivera and
Garciaparra. But the two teams left Fenway knowing that the
Yankees had taken a giant step toward the division title and that
Boston's most immediate rivals are Oakland and the Seattle
Mariners, with whom they are entangled in a
three-teams-for-two-slots race. Boston and New York meet in
another three-game series this weekend at Yankee Stadium, though,
so maybe the Red Sox will again loosen the leash on their history
and go literary. It's important to remember, though, that the
whale doesn't know it's a metaphor. The whale goes blithely on, a
big old squid-gobbling beast, towing another boatload of the
doomed over the far horizon.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO PULLING OUT THE STOPS With a total of 44 runs and 64 hits, and hard play like Enrique Wilson's slide into Boston's Merloni last Saturday, the three-game set was a battle royal.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER HIGH LEVEL Jeter showed his range and swung a hot bat (6 for 12 in the series) before succumbing to a rib cage strain. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER UP AND DOWN Garciaparra sparked a late rally with a double last Saturday, but Rivera fanned him in Sunday's biggest spot. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER EYE BALL Jorge Posada skidded past Boston's Doug Mirabelli to score a ninth-inning run in a late-May series in which the winner each night took over first place. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAMIAN STROHMEYER LAST WORD Red Sox stalwart Martinez (right) faltered, but a victorious Clemens was hailed by the fans at his old haunt.

Revisit past Red Sox glory and Yankees dominance in the Curse of
the Bambino Timeline at si.com/baseball.

"Players who put on the uniforms for these two teams realize
pretty quickly that the rest of baseball is ClubMed," says

Scrape away all the philosophical encrustation, and what's left
are two talented, splendiferously flawed baseball teams that
suit each other perfectly.

Said Millar, "I want to see somebody cowboy up and quit whining
about last year's team and 10 years ago and 1918."