Yankees-Red Sox: Hollywood matchup; Odds are irrelevant in one of oldest, fiercest rivalries

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Everywhere, there are ghosts. The Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920, and some say they have lived under a curse ever since.

Who's to argue?

The Yankees have won 24 World Series championships in the past 80 years. The Red Sox have not won the Series since Ruth was their star pitcher. The closest they came was in 1986, when that ball rolled through Bill Buckner's legs and the trophy ended up on the other side of New York City.

If you're a diehard Red Sox fan, it's hard not to look at the swings and errors of outrageous fortune that have beset the Sox over the years and wonder if some higher power has it in for them. But maybe, just maybe, they finally have come face to face with a new destiny.

They have come back to New York to face the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and take one of the greatest rivalries in professional sports to a new level.

"It's going to be great," said future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens, who has seen this rivalry from both sides. "It's going to be awesome."

The Red Sox and Yankees have never played each other in the postseason. The closest thing to a postseason showdown was the 1978 regular-season playoff in which Bucky Dent knocked the Red Sox out of October with his memorable three-run home run.

Now, thanks to the three-tiered playoff system, they finally will go head-to-head for the right to represent the American League in the World Series. The best-of-seven ALCS begins tonight, when Yankees right-hander Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez faces last-resort left-hander Kent Mercker in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium.

"It's kind of eerie if you think about it," said Yankees pitcher David Cone, who will start Game 2 against Ramon Martinez tomorrow night. "The Sox and Yankees are meeting for the first time in the postseason. It's an opportunity that Sox fans have been waiting for since Babe Ruth.

"You have to be blind not to see the passion of this rivalry."

The Red Sox staged an incredible three-game comeback to defeat the Cleveland Indians in the Division Series. They figure to be decided underdogs, with their pitching so in shambles that the journeyman Mercker was the best option available for Game 1. But they're still dangerous. The Indians found that out the hard way.

"I think it's a source of motivation to prove everyone wrong and it's obvious that we're an underdog," Mercker said. "We were an underdog against Cleveland, but as long as 25 guys and five coaches in that clubhouse don't believe that, you've got a chance."

The Yankees won't need a pep talk. They lost eight of 12 regular-season games to the Red Sox, including a three-game September sweep at Yankee Stadium.

"There is no speech that I could make that could get them excited more than knowing they are going to Fenway Park and that the Red Sox are coming here," said Yankees manager Joe Torre.

"It's been a rivalry back before me and before them, but I think even if they don't know the ancient history that has involved between these two teams, I think they've seen Bucky Dent's home run more times on that scoreboard than they wanted to."

Torre said over the weekend that he didn't care who the Yankees played, as long as the Indians and Red Sox wore each other out in the Division Series. He got his wish, but now discounts the importance of the fatigue factor in this series.

"I think Jimy [Williams] hit it right when he said, 'We are not tired,' " Torre said. "You don't get tired when you're in postseason play. Maybe they can't line their pitchers up the way they would normally like to do, but they're on such a high right now. They beat the odds, not only by beating a great Cleveland Indians ballclub, but coming back from 2-0. They've ridden this thing.

"They'll be tired when it's over for them, whether that's this week, next week or the week after that whenever it is. Then I think exhaustion sets in. But right now, they'll do it on fumes if they have to and I don't see any fallback other than not being able to line up people the way you want to."

That would appear to be a very important competitive edge for the Yankees, who might be facing presumptive Cy Young Award-winner Pedro Martinez in Game 1 if the Red Sox had been able to steal one of the earlier games of the Division Series and avoid a draining Game 5.

Instead, they will draw Mercker, an unlikely choice even on a pitching staff stretched paper thin during the five-game Division Series.

The veteran left-hander lasted just two innings in Sunday night's 23-7 victory over the Indians, but drew the start based on his solid performance during the final weeks of the regular season and, presumably, because left-handed starters fare better with the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium.

"We just felt he was the best choice to start the game," said Williams. "I'm looking at his last start like it was a side start. He hadn't pitched in 12 days. His command wasn't what it could have been."

Mercker, who spent a frustrating summer in Baltimore in 1996, lasted 1 2/3 innings and gave up two runs on Sunday, but insisted he wasn't surprised when he was informed that he would go in Game 1. Pat Rapp, who was just added to the postseason roster, and Ramon Martinez were the other possibilities.

"I knew that Ramon [Martinez] had thrown more pitches than I did," Mercker said, "and figured that keeping him on regular rest would make him better. I guess I got the start by default, but I'm looking forward to it. I don't think Jimy is doing it just because he doesn't have anyone else. I think he has confidence in me."

Hernandez was an obvious choice for the Yankees. He was the starter in Game 1 of the Division Series and pitched very well against the Texas Rangers. Veteran David Cone will go in Game 2 and former Red Sox ace Clemens will face Martinez in a much-anticipated Game 3 showdown at Fenway Park on Saturday night.

"I think with El Duque, both he and Roger have the durability to be able to pitch long and then come back and pitch long the next time," Torre said.

"Hernandez was picked for Game 1 against Texas because he's put a lot of numbers up as far as innings pitched -- seven and eight innings -- and he didn't disappoint us. Roger didn't either, obviously, but Roger couldn't pitch Game 1 because he just pitched."

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