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Rivalry still in warm-up mode

FT. MYERS, Fla. -- So this was Game 8? Not exactly.

Not when there are more fans screaming about getting Kevin Youkilis' John Hancock than cheering when Trot Nixon steps to the plate. Not when the autograph hounds bark louder for Hanley Ramirez to sign their baseball than they do when Jason Giambi strikes out against Tim Bausher. Not when fans jump to their feet faster upon learning there's a short beer line than they do when Jay Payton lines another base hit.

No, this wasn't an extension of the historic Game 7 of the ALCS played in Yankee Stadium last October. Not by a long shot. It didn't even resemble Game 1 of the rivals' 2004 Grapefruit League showdown, when Alex Rodriguez first introduced himself to Sox fans as a Yankee. And it certainly wasn't the high-drama, tension-filled nailbiter that was ... the Red Sox-Phillies game Sunday. This was just another warm-up for the PawSox and Clippers, with a few major leaguers thrown in to get in some work.

Last spring's Sox-Yankees tilt featured the infamous $500 tickets for sale on eBay and frenzied fans busting around the ballpark five hours before the game. Last night, tickets could be had for 10 cents on the dollar outside the park, as has been the usual this spring.

It's hard not to feel sorry for the happy campers, some of whom spent two nights sleeping outside the park for the chance to buy tickets for this over-hyped matchup. When I ran into two-night camper Deborah Kellogg-Van Orden during the game, she was still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and was rewarded for her efforts by getting her prized photo of Theo Epstein, Yankees GM Brian Cashman, and Sox assistant to the GM Jed Hoyer signed by the three of them, who were sitting together behind home plate.

The sellout crowd did get fired up about one guy on Monday night: the Juice Guy. A sea of cameras went off whenever he poked his head out of the dugout to sign autographs, or waltzed up to the plate. When one photographer snuck up behind the Yankees dugout to get a closer shot of Jason Giambi, a fan seated nearby asked him, "What do you work for one of those papers that sells marijuana?" The picture taker answered, "No, why?" The upset fan replied, "Well why would you want a picture of him? He's a [expletive] druggie."

As far as the happenings on the field, the Sox were never really in this game. While lefty Abe Alverez got out of a jam with a double play in the first, he was hit hard in the second as doubles by Hideki Matsui and Russ Johnson, who each scored three runs on the night, had the Bombers off and running with a 2-0 lead.

In the Sox first inning, outfielder Jay Payton (who's looked great so far this spring) got on base again with a hard single, and Edgar Renteria nearly put the Sox on top with a long foul ball to left that was just foul. David Ortiz followed suit hitting a long fly ball that was caught at the track.

Edgar Renteria got the crowd into it for a short time in the fourth when he nearly went into the outfield on a ground ball in the hole by Andy Phillips. Rent made a strong throw to first but Phillips was just safe. The shortstop's play reminded a few of the Ft. Myers faithful of the old Nomar Garciaparra, back when he used to go deep in the hole and got the runner at first on a regular basis.

A quick relay made up for some earlier sloppy outfield defense by Trot Nixon and prevented the Yankees' Bubba Crosby from hitting an inside-the-park home run deep to right center, but suddenly the Yankees were on top 4-0 and the fans grew restless.

The Sox were kept off the board in the early innings and their offense was quiet until Trot Nixon hit a bomb off lefty Alex Graman to make it 4-1 in the bottom of the fourth inning. Nixon can hit lefties, just give him the at-bats, Tito.

The formerly juiced Giambi crushed a home run over the 410-foot sign in right center field off John Halama, which quickly prompted cat calls of "He's juiced, it must be the steroids!" from the frustrated Sox fans behind the Yankees dugout. The "ste-roids!" and "BAL-CO!" chants were pretty tame, however, and they died out more quickly than the ancient "Yankees You-Know-What" chants do at Fenway in the new millennium.

By the time it was 5-1 bottom of the fifth, City of Palms Park sounded like a library. Suddenly you could hear the Yankees fans get their old bravado back for the first time: "Third strings winning. You can't even beat the third string!", yelled one loud New Yorker.

The Olde Towne Team nearly got back into the game in the bottom of the fifth as Nixon came up with Renteria on second and Payton on third with two out, but the old dirt dog grounded out weakly to end the rally.

Suddenly the crowd was on its feet again like the good old days at Fenway, even though the champs were down by four runs, because the PA system was blaring the Neil Diamond favorite, "Sweet Caroline", as fans sang in unison "Whoa-oh-oh!" Good times never seemed so good. And that would be as good as it got for the Sox last night as the fans soon saw Luis Mendoza on the mound and Matsui scoring on sac fly to put the Empire up 6-1 at the top of 7.

The remaining highlight was watching Bausher strike out Giambi on a floater. There was one more brief rally as Ramon Vazquez ripped his second hard hit of the night and a single by center fielder Adam Hyzdu soon made it 6-2 Yankees.

The rally allowed one more chance for the crowd to get into the game and a chant of "here we go Red Sox, here we go" (clap, clap) broke out momentarily as I wondered why this old-school lyric has disappeared from Fenway, replaced by the more pedestrian and lazy "Let's go Red Sox."

Kenny Perez hit nice line drive that almost extended the inning but it turned out to be a double play ball. Suddenly non-roster invitees Jeff Bailey (first base) and Tim Hummel (third base) were holding down the infield for Boston and Kris Wilson got lit up in top of the eighth to turn a 6-2 beating into 9-2 slaughter.

You could hear a pin drop in the City of Palms again until it was replaced by the shuffle of feet leaving the stadium. Sure, Sox fans were disappointed in the final score, but hey, this is spring, they're in Ft. Myers with shorts on, not shoveling snow in Boston.

Good times never seem so good, so good, so good ...

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