Rivalry can't be matched

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:28 AM ET

It is a sporting rivalry that dwarfs all others. In fact, in an era when money and television saturation have tended to erode the quality of most traditional vendettas, the Red Sox versus the Yankees is one that transcends the game itself.

People who wouldn't stop to watch a half-inning of any other baseball game are drawn to their TV sets this week, fearful of missing history. And, if history can be trusted, they will be rewarded.

This thing is not just a "them-against-us" affair. Its roots stretch back nearly a century, complicated and nurtured by the personalities of the teams.

On the one hand, you have the tortured history of the Red Sox, 86 years removed from their last World Series title; a legacy of losing the big one made all the more unbearable in Boston by the knowledge that it all began when Babe Ruth was sold by a traiterous Red Sox owner to the Yankees after the 1918 season.

And then there are the Yankees, unassailable in their might, cold and dispassionate in their efficiency over the years. Since 1918, the Yankees have been in 39 World Series, winning 26.

"Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel," commented comic Joe E. Lewis 50 years ago, and it's as true today as it was then.

Their fans look at the standings as they might look at the stock tables, expecting another fat dividend cheque as their birthright.

They take especially great delight in torturing the hearts of Red Sox fans. Take last year, for example, when Boston manager Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in too long in the seventh game of the ALCS and allowed the Yankees to overcome a Boston lead. They won it in the 11th when Tim Wakefield served up a flat knuckler to unlikely hero Aaron Boone, who swatted it out of the park.

Yesterday, I was listening to a New England reporter on the radio talking about the series, making perfect sense about what has to happen for the Red Sox to win, until he let his heart rule his words.

"I think," he said at one point, "that (Tim) Wakefield has to play a key role. He has always pitched well against the Yankees, except, of course for the Aaron Boone home run. But that was just one pitch ..."

One pitch. One pitch? It's always just one pitch. Do you think the passengers stood on the deck of the Titanic and said: "Well, it's only one iceberg?" All it took was one pitch for Bucky Dent to eliminate the Red Sox in a 1978 playoff game, with a homer over the wall. All it took for Mookie Wilson to bury Boston's dreams in the 1986 World Series was one pitch that he swung at and the slow roller slithered through Bill Buckner's legs.

In his 1982 book, How Life Imitates the World Series, author Tom Boswell commented: "A Red Sox ship with a single leak will always find a way to sink. No team is worshipped with such a perverse sense of fatality."

The apparently solid facade of this current Red Sox outfit will only serve to make the heartbreak, if it comes, even harder to bear in Beantown. This is a team without an obvious weakness. They have plenty of pitching and a lineup of tough-minded everyday players.

"This is the most prepared group I've seen," first baseman Kevin Millar said. "There's a swagger to this club. We're probably the toughest team in the league over the last six weeks. It's crazy.

"Last year, we walked off the field after Game 7. It was gut-wrenching. But that makes you stronger and tougher, and here we are."

THIS IS THE YEAR

Even more alarming than such confident talk for anyone afflicted by the Red Sox neurosis is the fact Las Vegas bookmakers have somehow been convinced that this is the year.

And it very well might be. But there are millions of us out here, watching from afar, waiting for the implosion. Somebody will inexplicably fall down. Some obscure bench-warmer will knock one out. Or maybe a little nubber will slip between someone's legs.

Or maybe the collapse will be even more horrible than that. Maybe they'll accomplish the true double-cross by beating New York, only to have the Astros and, horror of horrors, Roger Clemens box their ears in an anti-climactic World Series.

It's another train-wreck in the making and the only thing that's certain is you can't evert your eyes.


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