Same show, a few new characters
NEW YORK -- You may call it Game 1. Some of us prefer to think of it as Game 8.
Much has happened since Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003. Major names who were watching on television last year when Aaron Boone hit that Tim Wakefield (non)knuckler into the left-field stands are now featured performers in this year's production of baseball's greatest rivalry. Aaron Boone himself is far, far away. As for Grady Little, supply your own punch line.
It was a wild and crazy offseason for both teams. Curt Schilling came east. Keith Foulke came east. A-Rod came north and east. Gary Sheffield came north. When all the maneuvering was done, the team that won last year's confrontation actually had made more roster changes than the team that lost. The Yankees have 14 new faces. That's a lot.
The Red Sox are not the same team that lost in the American League Championship Series last year. They have a better balanced lineup, better depth, a better closer, and better starting pitching. They are better, period. In their minds, they are significantly more than five outs better than they were last year, and five outs are what they needed to get to the World Series.
The Yankees are constructed differently this year. Starting pitching has been their calling card during the nine years constituting the Joe Torre Era, but starting pitching is their major area of concern this year. But they have made up for a rather unYankeelike pitching staff by having a better lineup. Primarily because of a superb quick-strike capability, the Yankees came from behind a record 61 times during the regular season and then twice more in their Division Series with the Minnesota Twins.
However the Red Sox and Yankees did it, they did it. They got themselves back to face each other in October.
Each is answerable to a crazed constituency. These teams were not asked to get back here for another ALCS. Each was expected to do so. It almost has gotten to the point that the other 143 games these two play against mundane American League opposition are annoyances that keep everyone from getting to the only thing that matters.
And these games are different. No, it's not just our own little Northeast Corridor, I-95 conceit. What is produced when the Red Sox and Yankees get together is significantly different from what anyone gets when either plays Baltimore or Anaheim, or when, God forbid, Kansas City plays Seattle.
"It's just different," says Mike Mussina, Torre's obvious choice to start tonight's Game 8 -- OK, Game 1, if you insist. "It's not like the other series. It just isn't. It's a combination of the competition and the atmosphere. I think the atmosphere of the Red Sox in Yankee Stadium or the Yankees in Fenway Park just kind of picks everyone up, and you just play at a different level. I mean, I don't know how many games people dive into the stands face-first in Yankee Stadium, but we had guys doing this, and that was July."
No current principal in this extraordinary rivalry appreciates the difference between these games and Everything Else than Torre, a student of baseball history who grew up on the Dodgers and Giants. To him, these games remind him of those good old days, and he could not pay anyone in baseball a higher compliment.
"I hated the Dodgers even though I lived in Brooklyn, which wasn't safe to do because I was a Giants fan," he explains. "It was on 12 months a year and you were arguing with your friends and it was an intensity. Jackie Robinson was traded to the Giants and then quit, all right. That gives you an idea that it was the last thing he wanted to do."
As we know, the modern player is not quite wired that way (see Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens). But we know for sure that the fans are. I know from verifiable anecdotal evidence that things can get physically ugly when Red Sox fans and Yankee fans are thrown together in social circumstances.
Torre doesn't hate anyone on the Red Sox (I suspect he could forgive and forget should Pedro, the bete noire of the current rivalry, ever report for Yankee duty). What he does is respect them. "Every single [Red Sox] game is one you have to forget the next day," Torre maintains. "Whether you win it in the last at-bat or get your brains beat out, it certainly doesn't give you a free meal for the next game. You've got to go out there and start all over again. Every single game takes on its own life. It is draining; no question."
This was not an easy year for Torre. Having been blessed with great starting pitching, year in and year out, he had to deal with a far more offensively oriented team than he would prefer. And it did not get off to a great start, either.
"Normally, when you bring so many high-profile people together, it takes a little longer," he says. "But I think we got a wakeup call when we didn't play well early and nobody performed well. It was time to look around, and either trust or go home. I think it caught on real quick in May or so that we needed to go out there and just forget about everything else and just play hard and don't worry about what to say. In our case, we've won so often, and the expectations are so high, sometimes people try to reach heights that they are not capable of, and that's what I sensed early on."
Every athletic team in existence has to establish a new personality annually. Roster turnover is part of it, but sometimes the same person has to reinvent himself in some way as new job descriptions arise. A manager has to learn what makes each group tick, and this has been a very interesting season for Torre.
"This club is as tough as any club I've ever managed here for the nine years I've been here, and we have a little more thump than we've had in the nine years, and that's saying something without Jason [Giambi]," Torre says. "But we have a pretty versatile club where they can put the ball in play and get some sneak stealing in there and they pretty much know how to play the game. They don't take anything for granted."
The Yankees and Red Sox don't take anything for granted, but that never stopped the rest of us. When Aaron Boone hit that home run 362 days ago, we all knew that it wasn't over between the Yankees and Red Sox, that it was merely an interruption. And here we are, getting ready for Game 8.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.