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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Place in pop culture

You know nothing about baseball. You don't care to know. Yours is a life unencumbered by hits, runs, errors, and the debate over the designated hitter. You've never been to a major league baseball game. Fenway is the area you drive past to get to the Museum of Fine Arts. You shall forever remain willfully uneducated regarding all things American and National League.

But you can't avoid the Yankees and the Red Sox. Not if you live in America in 2004. Not if you lived in the Western Hemisphere any time since World War II.

The Yanks and Sox are hotter than ever, and hotter at one another than at any time in their Athens-Sparta history. And more than other American sports teams, they've been part of American culture for almost all of their 100 years war.

It started, of course, with the Yankees, with Babe Ruth. The Bambino was an international icon, on a par with Elvis and Mickey Mouse. American dogfaces came home from World War II talking about enemy soldiers cursing Ruth in the trenches. Babe's teammate, Lou Gehrig, was another American hero. The Bambino and the Iron Horse were both subjects of full-length motion pictures (though Gary Cooper's Gehrig was a lot more believable than William Bendix's Babe).

The Baby Ruth Candy Bar was actually named after a president's daughter, but it still reminded us of the Yankees. Ditto for Yogi Bear, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character. Pretty close to Yogi Berra, no?

Yogi certainly went mainstream. How many people who've never seen a baseball game have said, "It ain't over `til it's over"?

And what of Joe DiMaggio? Did any ballplayer ever cross into more areas of pop culture? He was The Great DiMaggio in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." Paul Simon asked "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" in "Mrs. Robinson." He was Mr. Coffee of advertising fame. Oh, and he married Marilyn Monroe.

The Yankees were/are all over the silver screen. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle went Hollywood in the 1960s and most recently were the subject of HBO's "61." HBO gave the Red Sox an hour-long documentary entitled, "The Curse of the Bambino."

Did you see "Catch Me if You Can?" Frank Abagnale's father keeps asking his son, "Do you know why the Yankees always win?" and the answer is "because the other team's too busy staring at the pinstripes."

Robert DeNiro's "A Bronx Tale" was a gangster movie/love-letter to Mickey Mantle. Billy Martin showed up on Sgt. Bilko. More recently, Seinfeld's George Costanza went to work for George Steinbrenner and the calzone-eating Boss became a Seinfeld regular.

The Red Sox can't match the Yankees for championships, but today they enjoy a national following of almost equal numbers. Sox garb and Sox references are everywhere you turn. Nomahhh is a regular on "Saturday Night Live." The Farrelly Brothers incorporate the Sox into every movie. Ditto for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Affleck has become a virtual spokesperson for Red Sox Nation. Speaking from the Daytona 500, he was all over the tube after Alex Rodriguez was traded to the Yankees. He brought then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez to Fenway for the infamous third game of last year's American League Championship Series battle with the Yankees. He also spent a night in the Green Monster seats.

Stephen King, who wrote "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon," is another Sox season ticket-holder. King even goes to spring training games. He's writing a fan book on the Sox this season. He was the first to speculate that a Red Sox-Cubs World Series would be a sign of the Apocalypse.

David Halberstam has written three books regarding the Red Sox and/or Yankees. Doris Kearns Goodwin is a Sox season ticket- holder. John Kerry no doubt will bring the Sox into the act when he runs against former Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush. Bush, you might remember, talked about the reaction of Red Sox fans and Yankees fans when he learned about the A-Rod trade in mid-February. No one is too busy or too important to have an opinion about the Red Sox and the Yankees.

The Sox and Yanks are nightly material for Leno and Letterman ("Angela Lansbury celebrated her 78th birthday today and Pedro Martinez threw her to the ground" -- Letterman).

It's not as if the Sox are new to American pop culture. Ted Williams was known to all Americans when he served as a pitchman for Sears & Roebuck after he retired in 1960. You couldn't buy a fishing rod or a mitt at Sears without seeing Ted's face. He's also been the subject of about 20 books, including a soon-to-be-bestseller by Leigh Montville. Ted didn't marry movie stars, but he has his own tunnel, which is more than DiMaggio can say. Folks from around the world pass through the Ted Williams Tunnel daily.

Yaz was another Sox icon. Ali McGraw talked about him in "Goodbye Columbus" and we all stocked our shelves with Big Yaz Bread after the 1967 season. He gave his trophies to presidents and congressmen.

Bill Clinton visited the Red Sox at spring training in Kissimmee, Fla., when he was running for president in 1992. He talked with Wade Boggs (hmmm, wonder what they talked about?). And Ellis Burks can tell you about the day candidate Mike Dukakis played catch with him during the presidential race of 1988.

Sox caps and Yankee caps populate the globe. It's impossible to travel without seeing plenty of both. Rappers (P. Diddy, Nas) wear them. NBA players wear them. One of Adam Sandler's dates strips to her Red Sox underwear in "Anger Management."

Like everyone else, Sandler went back to the well after Game 7 in New York in 2003. He used the clip of Aaron Boone's homer in "50 First Dates."

It's going to be like that all year. And next year. You can ignore baseball, but you can't hide from the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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