A historical, hysterical rivalry


NEW YORK -- In a perfect world, the Yankees and the Red Sox would get to settle this thing of theirs in the World Series. Playing for the pennant for the first time in the American League Championship Series is as close as the two storied rivals are destined to get.

"This will do," contends the Yankees' David Cone, the Game 2 pitcher. "If you're a student of history you have to be into this rivalry."

Forget the Mets. This is the Sox and the Yankees. This is war, the only one that will actually cause at least half of a baseball-frenzied city to momentarily stop hyperventilating over the possibility of a Mets-Yankees Subway Series.

"There's no question that people here have their minds and thoughts and hopes on a Subway Series, but everyone here is wrapped up in this one, because of Boston, because of New York," said Darryl Strawberry. "The only shame is that we're in the same division. So maybe this is everybody's World Series. This is what they want to see."

Now Bobby Valentine will probably call this the lack-of-respect thing, but the Mets truly have become a back burner issue in Yankees territory. Subconsciously, it's almost like that franchise doesn't exist. Witness the rewriting of history by the Yankees' Joe Torre when talking about the rivalry between the East Coast cities.

"The most recent history was back in 1978 with what went on in that series," Torre said, his rewind button skipping 1986. You know, the year Sox fans invented the derisive cheer (DAR-RYL, DAR-RYL, DAR-RYL), the year a Sox championship rolled away through Bill Buckner's legs, the year the Mets, not the Yankees, got the last laugh on New Englanders.

The oversight is understandable, though. This is Back Bay vs. Da Bronx. Queens will have to wait. "When you walk down the street, now, it's, 'You'd better beat Boston,' " said Derek Jeter. "Before we'd hear Mets. Now it's Mets and Red Sox."

"Our players know what it means to play in Fenway Park," said Torre. "That is as middle-ring type of thing as it is here. There's no speech I could make that could get them excited more knowing they are going to Fenway and the Red Sox are coming here."

That Mets-Yankees is in its infancy by comparison. After all, spring training games don't matter to anyone but George Steinbrenner. And the two city teams didn't officially christen their rivalry until the invention of interleague play. Therefore, the Mets-Yankees thing overheats mostly in print. It is as much an invention of newspapers as William Randolph Hearst's Spanish American War.

Remember the Maine? How about the pain dealt by one team to another for almost an entire century?

Only Brooklyn's Old Bums and the former inhabitants of Coogan's Bluff could relate to the visceral stir now being experienced across New England. Their Sox have one more shot at the Yankees before the team of the century marches into a new millennium.

"It's tough to match a Dodgers-Giants thing only because they had a share of the same city, same newspapers, same everything," said Torre. "This one puts city against city, two highly energized cities, two great East Coast cities that love their sports, love to win."

As every New Englander knows all too well, loving to win and being able to do it are not necessarily the same thing. Historically, the roadblock that traditionally stopped Bostonians from winning comes in Yankees pinstripes. Which is why absolutely no other team can match the intensity of the hatred, the rivalry, the envy Boston feels for the bullies from the Bronx.

The Sox, resuscitated by their remarkable comeback against the Cleveland Indians in the division series, would do best to try to play without the weight of history on their backs. Jimy Williams, the Sox manager, got it right by feigning ignorance about all things relevant to building a feud that's about to enter its second century. "I haven't been here long enough to really understand it," Williams said. "It just seems the East, they play hard against each other."

Kent Mercker, who got the starting assignment for the Sox last night against Orlando Hernandez, didn't try to deny the sense that history will only be extended, not written, in the next several days. "It's very meaningful," said Mercker. "I've read the books. I've watched the sports shows. I know what this rivalry is about."

It's about the steal and then the curse of The Babe. It's about the low blow struck against all of New England when Bucky Dent homered over the Green Monster in '78. It's about the glaring omission of championship moments in the lives of Hall of Fame members such as Ted Williams and Carl Yastzremski. It's about generation after generation of Red Sox players having to be blinded by the dazzle of all those Yankees' championship rings.

So in this series, the calculated cool of the Yankees is pitted against a franchise desperate for one last lick. No doubt at all who's afflicted by angst. "This is a tremendous opportunity for Boston and Boston fans," said Cone, the tweak in his words as obvious as the twinkle in his eye.

Just another shot in a rivalry for the ages. The latest skirmish began last night.

Pub Date: 10/14/99

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