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New season, same red-hot rivalry

They are here. Yankees in our midst. Wearing road grays with ``New York'' splashed across the chest, the highly paid All-Star cast from the Evil Empire will take the field tonight at Fenway Park.

It will be the first time the Red Sox and Yankees have played a game that counted since October 16/17 in the Bronx when Boston baseball's Cowboy Up season of 2003 dissolved in a fountain of sorrow. Boston's excruciating loss in the seventh game of the American League Championship Series resulted in the firing of Sox manager Grady Little and triggered an offseason of fierce front-office competition, reinforced with dueling insults from the highest levels of the two ownership groups.

The rivalry has never been hotter. One gets the feeling that somehow this summer's national political conventions -- which will be hosted in Boston (Democrats) then New York (Republicans) -- could evolve into a referendum on the respective baseball teams.

The Red Sox have finished second to the Yankees in each of the last six seasons, a major league record. Given what happened in October, and the simmering hot stove that burned through our bone-cold winter, it can be argued that this four-game weekend bakeoff might be the most hyped April series in baseball history. Nothing is insignificant when the Red Sox

and Yankees meet in 2004. Take Curt Schilling, for example. When the veteran ace righthander agreed to a contract with the Red Sox in November, he announced, "I guess I hate the Yankees now." He arrived in Florida in mid-February with tonight's date already circled on his calendar. He said, "If Red Sox fans weren't passionate and [ticked] off and angry and bitter and hated the Yankees, they wouldn't be who they are."

Alas, Schilling won't pitch against the Yankees until tomorrow afternoon. Tim Wakefield -- the man who threw the fatal pitch to Aaron Boone in the 11th inning of Game 7 -- gets the ball tonight. Javier Vazquez will start for the Yankees.

In an unusual twist, Fox Sports, the national network of Major League Baseball, will broadcast tonight's game, more than a month ahead of its standard schedule. It will be Fox's first prime-time, regular-season telecast since September 1998, when Cardinal Mark McGwire was chasing Roger Maris's record of 61 home runs in a season. When Fox announced its decision to televise tonight's game, baseball commissioner Bud Selig characterized the event as "an extension of the postseason brought into April."

Fenway's 8 o'clock faceoff features Alex Rodriguez's first Boston appearance in a Yankee uniform. Rodriguez was effectively traded to Boston during the offseason, but the Major League Players Association objected to what it considered a devaluation of A-Rod's quarter-billion-dollar contract, and the Sox and Texas Rangers were unable to complete the deal. When Yankees owner George Steinbrenner swooped in and made the trade for A-Rod in February, the Sox were mortified and stupefied.

ESPN's Chris Berman said, "I still have newspapers from Boston and New York in the first days after the A-Rod deal. In Boston it was, `The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.' In New York it was, `Field of Dreams.' It was like reading World War II battle accounts from French and German newspapers -- two completely different takes on the same event."

Rodriguez made his major league debut at Fenway when he was 18 in 1994, and has enjoyed a receptive audience here through the years, but it'll be rough on him tonight. He's said he's hoping the booing won't be too vicious because his in-laws from Lowell will be in attendance.

The Yankees and Red Sox played each other twice during spring training, with New York winning both exhibitions. The March 7 matchup in Fort Myers, Fla., was covered by approximately 250 media members, with tickets fetching up to $250. Ticketless fans stalking the streets around Fenway tonight can expect to pay much more on the black market.

The Sox and Yankees played a major league-record 26 games (19 regular season, seven playoff) in 2003 with New York winning 14. Though the Yankees have not won a World Series since 2000, and the Sox since 1918, their free-spending competition to stay atop the American League East has put them into a league of their own in terms of player payroll. Of the 30 teams in the big leagues, the Yankees and Red Sox rank 1-2 in player payrolls, far ahead of all competitors. The Yankees will pay players $183 million this season, compared with Boston's payroll of $125 million. Only two of the other 28 teams are over $100 million.

Don Zimmer and Pedro Martrinez, who engaged in the most celebrated scuffle last fall, will not participate this weekend. Zimmer left the Yankees after the 2004 World Series and is coaching part time with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Martinez pitched last night and won't face the Yankees until next weekend in New York.

Next weekend?

That's right. The Sox and Yankees play three more times at Yankee Stadium starting a week from tonight.

Early and often. It's the theme of Red Sox-Yankees in 2004.

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