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No longer just bad memories at old haunt

NEW YORK -- Tonight they return to the place where the magic unfolded on those cold October nights a little more than five months ago. The last baseball game at Yankee Stadium was played Oct. 20, 2004, which is now Boston baseball's Bastille Day, a New England holiday commemorating the liberation of the suffering souls of Red Sox Nation.

Tonight the world champion Red Sox play the Yankees again (weather permitting) and Sox fans who dare venture into the Bronx can cite the parade-day words of captain catcher Jason Varitek, who told them they can forever hold their heads high in future visits to The House That Ruth Built.

We witnessed the ultimate demonstration of the alternate universe last autumn when it was the Yankees who folded and the Red Sox who broke the hearts and spirit of the arrogant New York fans. There will be no chants of "1918" tonight and no Yankee fans holding signs with the ghostly image of the great Bambino.

As if this uber-rivalry needed any more hype, the Red Sox will send the 21st century Babe to the mound in the fat form of 41-year-old David Wells, a collector of Ruth memorabilia and a man who owns one of the best winning percentages in the storied history of the Yankee franchise. The portly portsider will wear the Babe's No. 3 on his Boston jersey, channeling the Big Fella who pitched against New York the last time the Red Sox were defending world champs back in 1919.

The Yankees, meanwhile, will counter with 41-year-old Randy Johnson, a future Hall of Famer who once teamed with Curt Schilling to beat the Yankees in a World Series. The Big Old Unit is still capable of throwing a no-hitter every time he steps on the mound, and his presence in pinstripes says something about New York's offseason commitment after the historic collapse in the 2004 ALCS. The Red Sox got off the mat to win four straight games after falling behind, 3-0, but got plenty of help when the Yankees ran out of pitchers in the final two games. George Steinbrenner responded by acquiring Johnson, Carl Pavano, and Jaret Wright, and the Yankees on paper are downright frightening.

In addition to Wells, the Sox have added flossy shortstop Edgar Renteria, who wore No. 3 in St. Louis and made the final out of Boston's first World Series win since the doughboys were winning the war in Europe.

This is the 27th time the Red Sox and Yankees have played one another on Opening Day.

Both teams were at the Stadium yesterday, hitting in cages and watching their tans fade while the rain came down and hungry media members groveled for fresh material. Not much needs to be said anymore. The Sox, for the most part, have stopped pinning the tail on the A-Rod, and seem mindful that this is a new season.

But there's always a connection to the past, and it's easy to remember last April when Tim Wakefield and friends traced the tracks of their 2003 tears back to the Bronx, only to be asked about Aaron Boone and He Who Must Not Be Named (Grady Little) a couple million times. So now the cleat is on the other foot and it is the Yankees who will be reminded of October failure with no place to hide until/unless they come back to beat Boston in October 2005.

"They just lost," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "I don't think humiliation is the word. We just came back and beat them in a situation where nobody had been beaten before."

He's not worried about reckless remarks firing up the Steinbrenner AC.

"I don't think the number of games they're going to win will have any correlation with how we act or what we say," said the manager. "We know they're good. I think they've probably gotten better. Even when our guys do stuff that maybe I'm not just terribly thrilled with, I still feel like it's my responsibility to take our side. I can talk to guys on the side, but they're still our guys."

Still, it is impossible to forget what happened here last October and how the Sox celebrated on the Yankee infield. Boston's owners posed for photographs with one another and Sox players poured champagne on the Yankee lawn. Then they carried the American League championship trophy onto their bus parked outside Yankee Stadium. They never trailed in any of their final six games, starting with the last two in New York.

If you believe in carryover, then the Red Sox take an eight-game winning streak into tonight's opener. And the greatest winning streak in postseason history was kick-started by the Yankee fold.

"I really don't think about it that much," said Francona, before conceding, "but I had a hell of a time. Those last eight games, I had a ball. Game 4 of the Yankee series with Dave Roberts on first was probably the funnest sequence of my life. It was just so much fun. I knew we were going to score. It really wasn't like we were down, 0-3. You watch it unfold and he gets to second and if Billy Mueller wouldn't have got a hit, I would have been shocked.

"That whole time, it was the best I've ever seen a team. Unbelievable. They had to be exhausted. The amount of concentration and energy was incredible. You were always one pitch away from going home. I don't think it's humanly possible to do that for 162 games. The focus was so incredible."

The focus is still on these two teams as baseball begins after a winter of steroid controversy, Yankee embarrassment, and utter euphoria in Red Sox Nation.

Friday's New York Times stated, "The city once again follows three baseball teams: the Yankees, the Mets, and the Boston Red Sox." Yesterday's Daily News featured a 32-page pullout section on The Rivalry, promoting the feature with "The News goes deep inside the hatred and history . . ." Meanwhile, Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon are on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Varitek is on the cover of ESPN the Magazine.

Before leaving Florida, Yankees manager Joe Torre told the New York writers, "It's baseball for real and we'll see if we are as good as we think we are."

Starting tonight. In Yankee Stadium -- no longer the House of Horrors for Hub Hardball.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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