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Rivalry must be chopped

New York, Chicago, and two Californias (Dodgers-Angels, Giants-A's) own the true regional rivalries this weekend. It is the ninth year of interleague play, an idea that has never really taken hold and probably should be abandoned.

Here in Boston we are supposed to be agog over the presence of the estimable Atlanta Braves because -- don't you know? -- the Braves played here from 1876 through 1952, and there are supposedly still pockets of New Englanders who never stopped rooting for the team with the tomahawks.

In truth, it's difficult to find Braves loyalists around Boston in 2005. They're like the Japanese soldiers who were found in the Philippines, still fighting World War II years after VJ Day. There is no group known as The Sons of Sibby Sisti. If you know anyone who still goes to the racetrack every day, he's probably one of the last of the Boston Braves fans.

Our city this weekend is jammed with out-of-towners but few are here to see the Braves. It's cap and gown time. That bunting you see on the facades at the Braves' old ballpark off Commonwealth Avenue is there for Boston University's graduation ceremonies.

The Red Sox beat the ever-division-leading Braves, 4-3, at Fenway last night on the strength of Wade Miller's right arm, Bill Mueller's first homer of 2005, and Jason Varitek's May 20 bat.

Miller picked up his first Red Sox victory with another 6 1/3 innings of solid work. Meanwhile, Varitek continued his torrid hitting on May 20. Since 2001, Varitek is batting .611 (11 for 18) with seven homers with 13 RBIs on the magical date. He has at least one homer in each of the last five May 20s. He must like David Wells (42 yesterday). Or Cher (59).

Meanwhile, Keith Foulke picked up an embarrassing save (three hits and two runs in another heart-attack outing) and Edgar Renteria left seven men on base and heard some boos at the yard.

As you would expect, Sox manager Terry Francona still believes in Foulke (7.29 ERA) and said, "The first ball [Chipper Jones double] was not crushed and he gave up a bunch of ground balls after that. I thought he pitched much better than the line is going to look tomorrow."

Regarding Renteria (.247), Francona said, "The one thing I think we need to remember is that when he goes out to shortstop, he's not taking those at-bats with him. That's good. He's a good player. Sometimes you just have to be patient. Sometimes it looks like he's going to get real hot. It hasn't happened, but it will."

Sox fans must not have listened to book-touring Tony La Russa, who told everyone that Edgar will not respond well to the hoots and hollers of an impatient fandom.

Renteria, like every Sox starting pitcher this weekend, and half of Boston's everyday lineup, is no stranger to the National League. Free agency, cable television, and the interleague play experiment has de-mystified the senior circuit -- even for the provincial fandom in Boston.

Now would be a good time for the Red Sox to start treating these games like something more than spring training jousts. Interleague play has not been the Red Sox' friend. The Sox are 66-74 since it started. They are a dismal 12-22 against their Atlanta cousins, only 4-12 against the Braves at Fenway.

The Red Sox have a checkered history with the National League. Boston's young American League franchise (when the Sox were the Pilgrims) won the first World Series, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903. A year later, the NL champion New York Giants refused to play the AL champion Red Sox. The Sporting News anointed the Pilgrims ''World Champions by default."

Far as we know, it was Babe Ruth who first insulted the NL while wearing a Sox uniform. The Babe didn't pitch in Boston's five-game World Series victory over the Phillies in 1915. A year later, Ruth shut out the Dodgers over the final 13 innings of a 2-1, 14-inning Game 2 World Series victory, sometimes cited as the greatest Series game ever played (Carlton Fisk fans might argue). After the game, the Bambino allegedly said to manager Bill Carrigan, ''I told you a year ago I could take care of those National League bums, and you never gave me a chance."

After Ruth and Co. cleaned up on the NL again (Cubs) in 1918, the Sox fell on hard times against the senior circuit, losing the World Series four times, always in the seventh game. Interleague play did nothing to change the tide as the Sox annually stumbled against assorted Marlins, Expos, Mets, Dodgers, Braves, Rockies, and Giants.

But like everything else involving Red Sox Nation, the 2004 World Series changed everything. The Sox swept the vaunted Cardinals and last night beat the Braves. This bodes well for the Red Sox first visit to Wrigley Field next month.

More than the Braves, the Cubs would seem to be the Red Sox' natural NL rivals. The fact that the two haven't yet played speaks to the absurdity of the time-to-say-goodnight interleague experiment.

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

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