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Yankees-Red Sox Really a Hate-Game Series

East Coast rivals will battle for the American League pennant with Boston still looking to end that infamous 85-year title drought.

October 08, 2003|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Jose Contreras probably won't pitch in the American League championship series. The New York Yankees sure hope he won't. And that's too bad, because the unsuspecting Cuban pitcher ignited anew the rivalry between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, all by himself.

He did this in December, when those who consider baseball sport rather than blood feud turn their attention to football, basketball, hockey and Santa Claus.

Contreras spurned the Red Sox to sign with the Yankees, prompting Boston President Larry Lucchino to label the Yankees as "the Evil Empire" and New York owner George Steinbrenner to retaliate by calling Lucchino "baseball's foremost chameleon" and describing his remark as "how a sick person thinks."

Peace on Earth? Goodwill to men? Not here.

There is no team Steinbrenner would rather beat than the Red Sox. There is no team the Red Sox would rather beat than the Yankees. The teams meet at Yankee Stadium tonight, in the first game of the AL championship series.

To the winner, a berth in the World Series. To the losers, a bitter winter, with hate, taunting and tabloid shaming to accompany snow, depressing gray skies and freezing temperatures.

This is baseball's foremost rivalry, with fans whose grandfathers watched the teams play 80 years ago, in the very same ballparks in use this week. These fans never forget, never switch allegiances and never miss an opportunity to declare their loyalty.

When the Yankees played in Boston in July, Manager Joe Torre found himself sharing an elevator with two Red Sox fans, a husband and wife. The husband recognized Torre and spoke up.

"You know, if I had a choice between the United States capturing Saddam Hussein or the Red Sox beating the Yankees, I'd pick the Red Sox beating the Yankees," the husband told Torre.

Said Torre, who shared the story with reporters at the time: "It doesn't get any stronger than that. I thought he was joking, but there was just enough edge to his voice that he was serious too."

The Yankees invited the Red Sox for the inaugural game at Yankee Stadium, on April 18, 1923, and the crowd swelled to 74,200 before the fire marshals ordered the gates shut. The Yankees won, 4-1, behind a three-run home run by a guy named Babe Ruth.

Ah, Ruth. The over-under on how many times you will hear the words "Curse of the Bambino" during this series: 714.

The Red Sox used to be a dominant team, at least before the Harding administration. The Sox won the first World Series, in 1903. They won five of the first 15 Series. In 1918, they won for the third time in four years, with Ruth pitching the Sox to victory twice as Boston defeated the Chicago Cubs.

That brings us to Harry Frazee, a trivia answer outside New England and a cursed soul within. Frazee, the Red Sox owner, fed up with Ruth's off-the-field antics and eager for cash to help finance his theatrical empire, sold Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000 on Jan. 3, 1920.

The Yankees told Ruth to hit, not pitch, and the slugger emerged as the most celebrated player in major league history. Since the Red Sox sold Ruth, in World Series victories, the scoreboard reads: Yankees 26, Red Sox 0.

Did Ruth really curse the Red Sox? Was it his fault that, 38 years after his death, the Sox coughed up the World Series when a meek ground ball rolled through the legs of first baseman Bill Buckner?

Of course not, but Dan Shaughnessy's book "The Curse of the Bambino" has been through 18 printings. If the Yankees win this series, beware of a new chapter, another reprint and another showing of the HBO special inspired by the book.

If anyone has been cursed this season, how about Contreras -- or Steinbrenner, for supposedly outfoxing the Red Sox by spending $32 million to sign him? In April, the Yankees demoted him to the minor leagues. He is strictly an emergency pitcher in this series.

When the Yankees signed him, however, the war of words between the teams so escalated that Commissioner Bud Selig finally told everyone to shut up.

In July, the Red Sox invited James Earl Jones to recite "The Star-Spangled Banner" before a game against the Yankees.

Jones, you may recall, was the voice behind Darth Vader. The "Star Wars" movies. The evil empire. Lucchino didn't have to say a word.

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