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Yankees and Red Sox Fans Catch Connecticut in a Squeeze Play

Die-hard partisans in heated rivalry battle in this town between Boston and New York. A weekend series ups the feud to fever pitch.

August 29, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD, Conn. — On a damp morning this summer, Mike Silkoff strolled into a neighborhood barber shop and made a bet with the woman who cuts his hair: That evening, he said, New York Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens would win his 300th game.

Ann Marie Vacarella, a passionate Boston Red Sox fan, scoffed at the notion and agreed to give Silkoff a free trim if he won. She paid up when Clemens reached the milestone -- but this was no casual sports wager, and the Barber Seville shop, on a busy highway between New York City and Boston, is no ordinary salon.

Here in the suburbs of southwestern Connecticut, an invisible, uneasy border separates the partisans in one of baseball's most enduring rivalries. Tensions between New York Yankee and Boston Red Sox fans have been festering for more than 80 years, and the animated little barber shop on Fairfield's main street is on the fault line of a feud that seems to become only more inflamed with the passage of time.

"I've been working in this shop for more than 44 years, and baseball -- the Red Sox and Yankees -- has always been the thing that people talk about," said owner Joe Vacarella, putting the finishing touches on a boy's crew cut. "People argue about this stuff, they all live together in the community, and this summer it's hotter than ever."

As he left the shop after collecting on his wager, Silkoff told an afternoon crowd that he expected to win other free haircuts. "Yeah, right," said Ann Marie, Vacarella's daughter, slapping the chair with a towel. "I hated every minute of it."

The friction in Fairfield mirrors feelings that millions of Northeast baseball fans are experiencing this summer. Although New York has long held the edge in this rivalry, Boston is fielding its best team in years. And tensions will heat up this weekend, when New York invades Boston's Fenway Park for a three-game series. Partisans on both sides are bracing for an epic showdown, because the two teams have been locked in a close race all season. The Yankees have a 4 1/2 -game lead over the Red Sox in the American League East division heading into the series.

History casts a shadow whenever these rival franchises take the field. Their antagonism is rooted in a 1919 player transaction that may be the worst business blunder in baseball history. Ever since Boston sold a slugger named George Herman "Babe" Ruth to the Bronx club for $100,000, the Yankees have gone on to win 26 World Series championships. The Red Sox, suffering from what many call the Curse of the Bambino -- Ruth's fabled nickname -- have not won a title in 85 years.

The rivalry has sparked a mutual dislike in the two front offices, which is unusual in baseball's increasingly corporate arena: Decrying the Yankees' free-spending ways, Boston chief executive Larry Lucchino last year referred to them as the "evil empire." New York owner George Steinbrenner fired back that Lucchino was "sick," and Brian Cashman, the Yankee's general manger, said that Red Sox officials should "stop whining."

Earlier this summer, when the Yankees played in Boston, two Red Sox fans approached New York manager Joe Torre in his hotel lobby and said that they wanted Boston to sweep the series more than they wanted U.S. forces to capture Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. "I really wanted to think they were kidding," Torre told reporters.

The rivalry has historically dominated sports coverage here and spawned dozens of books, with new titles on the way during the off-season. In September, HBO will broadcast a documentary about Boston's long-suffering fans, and, the following month, Yankees officials will host a glittering hotel banquet in New York to salute the 25th anniversary of their championship 1978 team, which came from 14 games behind the Red Sox in July to win the division in a thrilling one-game playoff at Fenway.

"There's New York versus Boston in the world of baseball, and then there's everyone else," said author Harvey Frommer, who has written several books about the feud. "I can't think of a more bitter sports rivalry between fans, owners and players."

In Connecticut, the frictions between Yankeeland and Red Sox Nation, as the two sides are known, frequently color daily life. They divide families. They affect politics, where local elected officials -- uncharacteristically throwing caution to the wind -- declare allegiance to one team or the other.

And at the Barber Seville, they can even determine which side of the shop you sit on to get your haircut.

While there are no strict rules, some Yankee fans sit in chairs facing south, toward New York, while Red Sox fans get trimmed on the opposite side, facing New England. Yankee and Red Sox memorabilia adorn the walls, and in the window a chessboard with players in Red Sox and Yankee uniforms sets the mood.

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