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Red Sox and Yankees, the matchup they wanted

| Monday, Oct. 11, 2004

NEW YORK -- From the instant Aaron Boone's home run cleared the left-field wall last October, the Yankees and Red Sox have been building to this.

The tug-of-war over Alex Rodriguez, the sniping between owners, the on-field fight and the off-field posturing. If not inevitable, a rematch seemed fated.

And come Tuesday night, the players, the fans and the sponsors get what they want: New York and Boston, fighting for the AL pennant again.

"Clash of the titans for the pennant," Boone said Sunday. "I think a lot of people wanted to see this. I'm looking forward to following it."

The rivalry brings out the best and worst, on the field and off, leaving baseball's biggest spenders fixated on each other above all else -- that's why Pedro Martinez proclaimed after losing to New York last month: "Call the Yankees my daddy. I can't find a way to beat them at this point."

Unless they were in the same ballpark, games were merely preludes or postscripts this year. New York's 3-1 win over the Twins in the opening round of the playoffs merely a tease, Boston's three-game sweep of the Angels an appetizer before the meat of the main course.

In the long run, Derek Jeter's flying dive into the stands to grab Trot Nixon's popup on July 1 and Nomar Garciaparra's no-show that night will be remembered far longer than either first-round series.

"If not now, then when?" Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said yesterday at Fenway Park.

"Idiots worldwide are thrilled. They've never had such great p.r.," he said, playing off his players' nickname for themselves. "Now that it's here, we can admit that if we're able to win a World Series and go through New York along the way, it will mean that much more."

Last fall's seven-game classic, capped by Boone's 11th-inning homer off Tim Wakefield, has been replayed in New York more often than any sitcom. Boston, which watched Pedro Martinez waste a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning and a 5-2 advantage in the eighth, fired manager Grady Little and replaced him with Terry Francona.

Red Sox fans could only take solace that the Yankees were so spent they lost 4-2 to Florida in the World Series.

Even this year, the Yankees got so juiced up during their three-game sweep of Boston at midseason, they staggered into Shea Stadium and got swept three straight by the lowly Mets.

Since last fall, Boston added pitchers Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke, then jettisoned Garciaparra at the trade deadline. New York brought in A-Rod, Gary Sheffield and Kevin Brown, among others.

Rodriguez has been at the center. The first spring training meeting of the teams after the AL MVP was traded from Texas to New York was hyped to an absurd level. There were commemorative pins and "Evil Empire" T-shirts being sold that afternoon at City of Palms Park.

When A-Rod went 1 for 17 in a four-game series at Fenway Park, New York fans questioned his fortitude. The Red Sox started 6-1 against the Yankees for the first time since 1913.

But that was April. In Boston and New York, the important number is 1918 -- the last year the Red Sox won the World Series. Boston sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees a year later, and since then New York has 26 World Series titles to zero for Boston.

In July, with the Yankees ahead by 91/2 games en route to their seventh straight AL East title, Rodriguez was in the middle of the latest New York-Boston brawl, sparked when catcher Jason Varitek shoved him in the face after Bronson Arroyo plunked A-Rod with a pitch.

"It just shows you how much both teams were hyped up," Rodriguez said. "You can't really control your emotions."

When A-Rod was dealt to New York in February, Boston owner John Henry said the trade showed baseball needed a salary cap. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner called it "sour grapes" and said Henry resembled the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz." Then, Steinbrenner disparaged Red Sox president Larry Lucchino in Sports Illustrated, saying: "I have nothing against him except I wouldn't want him in my foxhole. ... He's not my kind of guy. Not a good man."

No wonder the players get so fired up.

Last year, New York took 10 of 19 regular-season games, then won the series for the pennant, 4-3. Boston went 11-8 against the Yankees this season by pounding New York's struggling starting pitching, leaving the Red Sox ahead 23-22 the last two years.

"I think they're ready, psychologically, emotionally, physically," Henry said of his players.

Boone, whose offseason knee injury prompted the Yankees to acquire Rodriguez, will watch the series from afar. Having been in the center of the rivalry, his allegiance is clear.

"I've got to go with the Yankees," he said. "I'm sure it will be back and forth. It should be great."

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