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Flying high

Sox raise banner, beat Yankees

All this day lacked was Neil Diamond himself, singing and yielding to the fans, except that the 33,702 at Fenway Park didn't need anyone to tell them that "good times never seemed so good."

Bill Russell, who hadn't set foot in the old yard in four decades, walked out of the Green Monster like a cinematic Shoeless Joe out of an Iowa cornfield. He was joined in similar fashion by Bobby Orr, Richard Seymour, and Tedy Bruschi, the latter of whom had suffered a stroke 10 days after the Super Bowl.

Johnny Pesky was in his spikes once again, walking onto the redone Fenway lawn to a scoreboard message that read: "Years since joining the Red Sox: 64." The Yankees, reflecting the class of their manager and uniform, stood atop the visiting dugout to watch all of this, as if they knew that someday they might regret telling their grandchildren about the Red Sox and having to conjure recollections of this day from a television clip.

They were all here to see a World Series banner tumble over, and conceal, the Green Monster. And to glimpse that ring with the inscription: "Greatest Comeback in History."

"It's better than my wedding ring," mused Johnny Damon. "You can always get wedding rings."

After the hype there was baseball to be played, and the Sox put together a full nine innings like they hadn't in this young season, producing a rewarding and resounding 8-1 beating of the Yankees in the 94th Fenway opener.

The game was decided by the performances of the most alluring character on each team, the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and the Red Sox' Tim Wakefield. Wakefield, the longest-tenured Sox player (April 26, 1995), worked seven clinical innings, conceding only five hits, two walks, and one unearned run. He allowed more than one base runner in only one inning, the fourth, when Rodriguez scored on an Edgar Renteria mental blunder and throwing error.

But the error of note belonged to Rodriguez, who said he was "overaggressive" in playing Damon's two-out grounder in the bottom of the fourth. The ball went through Rodriguez, making possible Trot Nixon's double and Manny Ramirez's single. Those consecutive hits bumped a 4-1 Sox lead to 7-1.

A-Rod also made the error Wednesday in New York with one out, the bases loaded, and the Yankees ahead, 3-2, in the ninth inning. Had he gloved that ball cleanly he probably would have begun a game-ending double play. Instead, the Sox scored five runs, four unearned, to win, 7-3. Rodriguez has been responsible for seven unearned Red Sox runs in the last two games between these teams.

Sox fans, ever appreciative, gave Rodriguez a near-standing ovation in the eighth when he made a routine play on a Doug Mirabelli ground out.

"I think I'm becoming a cult hero in Boston," Rodriguez told reporters. "I don't want that. I don't want that at all."

Wakefield, meanwhile, pitched like an ace, which he transforms into when starting against the Yankees. The 38-year-old knuckleballer now has faced the Yankees 11 times as a starter, postseason included, since Grady Little restored him to the rotation in 2003. In those starts he's 6-2 with a 2.52 ERA. He's allowed three runs or fewer and gone six innings or more in 10 of those 11 starts.

In his time with the Sox, Wakefield never had pitched a home opener, instead watching the honor fall to the likes of Bronson Arroyo, Pedro Martinez, Tomo Ohka, Ramon Martinez, Bret Saberhagen, Brian Rose, Steve Avery, and Tom Gordon. Given the way his 2003 ended, this was a game Wakefield seemed destined to start.

"You can't set up your rotation with your heart," said Terry Francona, a winner in his managerial return after spending some time in the hospital with chest pain caused by a viral infection. "But when it works out like that, it's not a bad thing."

Serendipity, indeed.

"I didn't know how I was going to handle my emotions today," Wakefield said. "It really touches me very deeply that they would have the confidence in me and the respect to start the home opener."

Usually, Wakefield doesn't like pitching with a stiff wind at his back, as was the case yesterday. Despite the wind, the numbing cold, and the benumbing excitement, he was unfailingly focused. He struck out five -- Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui in the first, Jason Giambi in the second, and Derek Jeter in the third and fifth.

Jeter's body all but crumpled on that last Wakefield strikeout, when he managed a hopeless three-quarter swing.

"Typically [Wakefield's] ball breaks down to my right," said his catcher, Doug Mirabelli. "His comfort zone is down to my right. [The pitch to Jeter] went left. I thought I was going to miss it."

It was Mirabelli who put the Sox ahead early, and for good, with a two-run homer in the second inning. It was vintage Mirabelli: weather suited for football, no batting gloves on his hands, no at-bats in five days, and then, in one swing, a momentum-gaining hit. Given Mike Mussina's vast repertoire, and his own rust, Mirabelli knew he was better off swinging early. And when that first-pitch fastball came, he sent it screaming into the Monster seats.

"Dougie hit a two-run homer to make it a little easier for me," Wakefield said.

Mirabelli ambled into the interview room while Wakefield was speaking, then followed him at the podium. About half of the media began to shuffle out of the room, prompting Mirabelli to wonder aloud, "Where you guys going?"

They were off to see the rings. Damon carried his in the official wooden box the size of a lunch box. Curt Schilling wore his Sox ring on his middle finger, right next to his 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks ring. The Sox ring looked twice the size.

"The A ring," Schilling said, looking at the Sox ring, "and the B ring."

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