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Joined, for bitter or worse

Johnny Damon, the Red Sox center fielder whose appearance with shoulder-length hair and full black beard dovetailed with the release this spring of Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of The Christ," has inspired much commentary on how he could pass for the lead actor.

Read into that what you will, but when Damon was asked about an epic of another sort, the one jointly composed by the Red Sox and Yankees, and how Alex Rodriguez had seemingly gone overnight from potential Boston franchise savior to enlist as the newest Yankee mercenary, Damon replied, with some wonderment:

"I was shocked. He signed to play with the Devil."

And so, a mere 5 1/2 months after the conclusion of the latest installment, one in which Derek Jeter whispered to Aaron Boone about ghosts and a weeping Tim Wakefield sat before his locker in Yankee Stadium and said, "It wasn't supposed to end this way," the Sox and Yanks renew a competition that can trace its roots back 100 years, and despite the inevitable one-sidedness of the outcome -- you have to go back a century to find the last time the Sox prevailed -- it is unmatched by any in sport.

"It's like a passion that I've never seen before," said Rodriguez, who was willing to give up millions to flee Texas for Boston but in the end relinquished nothing but his position, shortstop, to play for the Bombers, "and I can't wait to be in the middle of it and do my best."

The Yankees and the Red Sox played each other 26 times in 2003, the most they'd ever squared off in a single season, and New England and Gotham were held in thrall until Boone hit a feckless knuckleball from Wakefield into the left-field seats to lead off the 11th inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Five outs away from certain victory -- a 5-2 lead and ace Pedro Martinez on the hill -- the Sox succumbed.

Call them the victims of a manager benumbed to the possibility that Martinez was tapped out. Call them helpless to rebuff the remarkable resilience of a team able one more time to tap into a championship tradition willed back to life by an owner who has never spared any expense, if it meant another diamond-studded ring in the end.

Call them cursed, unlucky, or haunted by the spectre of Bill Buckner, as Grady Little, the manager who would pay for this failure with his job, would say privately in the days after this devastating defeat, then repeat in the pages of GQ.

Most of all, call them willing to try again, fortified by the arrival of a new ace, Curt Schilling, whose early utterances upon being acquired by the Sox included, "I guess I hate the Yankees now," and a new closer, Keith Foulke, enlisted precisely for his ability to record five outs when they are dearest.

"These are just two teams crushing their horns together and going for it," Sox first baseman Kevin Millar said. "It doesn't get any bigger. You can throw as much fuel as you want on the fire, but the fire is already hot."

Passion play

Can it really get any better than these last months, which have mixed diamond splendor with scenes of feuding owners, skulking scouts, beanball-throwing pitchers and brawling sluggers, an arrest-inducing bullpen fight between pinstriped players and a Fenway groundskeeper (!), a tragicomic tiff between a 72-year-old coach and the superstar who brusquely toppled him to the ground?

"I believe it can," Damon said, "because of everything that transpired in the offseason. It's going to be huge.

"They're still the team to beat. They've gotten it done. We haven't, for so many years. We know we have a good team. We know we're better than them on any given day, and on any given day they're better than us. It's just a great rivalry.

"I know the Yankees are disappointed they lost the World Series, but I think our series just drained them. They had no chance against the Marlins. It might have been the same thing for us. It will go down as possibly one of the best series of all time. It's good to be a part of it, but not good to be the loser. We have to go out there and prove it. Everyone in here knows that. And this is what all of America has been waiting for all winter long, to get this baseball season going."

Hyperbole? Not if you were at City of Palms Park in sleepy Fort Myers, Fla., in mid-March when they camped out on the sidewalk overnight and peddled tickets on eBay for $500 a pop, all for a mere exhibition game between the Yanks and Sox. TV ratings were double those of a regular-season Sox game from last April and May, and there has been little short of a stampede at the box office on Yawkey Way, the Sox having sold more tickets (nearly 2.4 million) than they ever have before Opening Day.

The unprecedented enthusiasm is a byproduct of the moves made by both teams during the winter, the Sox adding Schilling, Foulke, a righthanded bat in Ellis Burks, and a new second baseman in Pokey Reese, the Yankees countering by replacing Houston-bound star pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte with Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez, adding a slugger in Gary Sheffield and a speedy center fielder in Kenny Lofton, two top relievers in Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, and finally the capper, A-Rod in a stunning trade with the Rangers.

"Even the President gets to go to the ranch for a month," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said about the breakneck pace of the so-called offseason, "but not Theo Epstein or Brian Cashman, not the owners -- John Henry or Larry Lucchino or George Steinbrenner. It just never stops. That's the nature of the beast in baseball."

There were times this winter it appeared the baseball universe had been shrunk to the size of two teams, both spending at a rate far exceeding their 28 limited partners. Only two teams will exceed baseball's luxury tax threshold this summer -- the Yankees and the Sox. The Yankee payroll is upward of $184 million, the Sox in the neighborhood of $125 million.

GM Epstein bristles at the suggestion that the Sox play in the same financial league as the Bombers.

"I think it's a matter of degrees," says Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro, whose payroll is barely one-third of Boston's. "When you look at a team like us, it's hard not to lump them together because they're so far above us. They're both in stratospheres I can't even contemplate, but I'm sure Theo sees the Yankees having much more discretionary income, and what they can do with it is a big difference.

"The biggest issue is they can pay over their mistakes. They can afford to take greater risks. They can be more active in the international market. We can't afford to make mistakes. If we do, they'll be a significant hindrance to our plans."

But that huge advantage shrinks, Shapiro said, once the calendar turns to October. You need only look at the winners of the World Series in each of the last three years -- the Diamondbacks in 2001, the Angels in 2002, and the Marlins last season.

"That's the way we like it," Jack McKeon, the Marlins' 73-year-old manager, said of the inordinate attention given to the Sox and Yanks. "We'll sneak up on them again.

"It just goes to show you, what the hell, the money's not the factor, it's the players. The Yankees outspent us by $100 million and we still beat 'em. You get the players, money doesn't have anything to do with it."

Of course, money goes a long way in determining your ability to get the players.

"There's nothing wrong with the Yankees or Red Sox spending more money," Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella said, "but inevitably there has to be a more level playing field. Maybe raise the bottom some [require a minimum payroll threshold], lower the top some. See what it's done with other sports. You can't tell who's going to win the Super Bowl. Everybody gets a chance.

"I think if I was one of the bigger teams, I'd feel the same way. I know I'll probably get a retort from Mr. Steinbrenner, but we just happen to be in the wrong division, where a lot of spending is going on. We get caught in the crossfire, where the Yankees spend and the Red Sox spend, and the Yankees spend and the Red Sox spend.

"There's nothing wrong with that, but the disparity shouldn't be as great."

Competitive imbalance

It was a Red Sox owner, Tom Yawkey, who was the Steinbrenner of his day, overspending to acquire talent from the time he purchased the club in 1933. The Sox and Yankees waged an epic battle in 1949, the Sox losing the pennant on the final weekend of the season in Yankee Stadium. And the Sox continued to look up at New York in the standings until 1965.

A century ago, fate had smiled more kindly on the Boston nine. With a pennant hanging in the balance in 1904, Happy Jack Chesbro, a 41-game winner for the New York Highlanders that year, uncorked a wild pitch that allowed the winning run to score. There would be no World Series that year, but by 1918, the Sox had been world champions five times. Then Babe Ruth was sold after the 1919 season, and the tally since then reads Yankee world titles 26, Sox 0.

Such a competitive imbalance, numerous observers have opined, hardly bespeaks a rivalry. The participants know better. Yankee Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, now a special assistant to the owner, said the rivalry is as intense as any time since the 1970s, when All-Star catchers Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk used bats and fists and Bucky "Bleeping" Dent broke the hearts of an earlier generation in the same way Aaron "Bleepin" Boone would a quarter-century later.

"The rivalry that we had was nastier than it is now," Jackson said. "Those guys fought. The Munson-Fisk thing was a big deal. There is no Garciaparra-Jeter thing. They're both great shortstops, but there's no hate."

But yet, there is Damon saying A-Rod signed with the devil, rhetoric less tongue-in-cheek than Lucchino's famous reference to the Yankees as the "Evil Empire." And there was Millar, last summer calling out Clemens after he threw a pitch that was headed for Millar's head until Millar stuck out a hand in self-defense. And there was Martinez two days later, coming inside on both Alfonso Soriano and Jeter, both coming away with welts on their hands. And, the most vivid scene of all, there was 72-year-old Yankee bench coach Don Zimmer, rage blinding his better judgment as he charged Martinez, who tipped him to the ground.

A winter to cool off? Hardly, not with the Yankees stealing away the prize the Sox most coveted, Rodriguez.

"All winter you had A-Rod going to Boston," said Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli, the former Yankees coach, "and then you go to sleep one night and wake up and he's a Yankee."

The Sox and the Yankees play 19 times again this season. Their first meeting is in Boston April 16, a Friday night. The Fox network, breaking with tradition, has made it a nationally televised game. It will not be the last time a nation's eyes are turned to these two teams.

"Obviously with the fans, the rivalry is at its zenith, and probably so for the players, too," said Piniella, a former Yankee who played a key role in the `78 playoff triumph. "I think the dislike of the players, that's a thing of the past. But for the fans, it's still a good rivalry, the best rivalry in baseball.

"You have the Cubs and St. Louis, and maybe the Dodgers and San Francisco on the [West] Coast, but the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry is by far the best."

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