NEW YORK — They say familiarity breeds contempt, and nowhere is that more evident than in professional sports' most intense rivalry, the New York Yankees versus Boston Red Sox, which resumes on a grand stage tonight when the teams open the American League championship series in Yankee Stadium.
From bickering owners who wage bidding wars over elite players and then rip each other in the newspapers, to players who can't seem to go a series without some kind of bench-clearing incident, to fans for whom no epithet is too vulgar to slap on a T-shirt or chant in a stadium, these teams have a genuine dislike for each other, and their fans a genuine hatred for each other.
Their disdain is born of nearly a century of Yankee dominance over the Red Sox, New York boasting of its 26 World Series championships while Boston wallows in the dreaded Curse of the Bambino, blamed for the Red Sox's endless hardships -- Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, Aaron Boone, et al. -- and failure to win a World Series since 1918.
But the tone of the rivalry went from nasty to downright vicious this last year, when Boone hit a Game 7 walk-off homer to propel the Yankees past the Red Sox in the 2003 AL championship series, and the Yankees snatched Alex Rodriguez after the Red Sox believed they had completed a deal for him last winter, and Boston catcher Jason Varitek shoved his palm into Rodriguez's face to spark a bench-clearing brawl July 24.
And now, all that tension and hostility, all that pent-up frustration of Boston fans and smug superiority of New York fans, will come to a head when the Yankees and Red Sox collide in an eagerly awaited best-of-seven series that will grip the Northeast for the next week or so and determine which team goes to the World Series.
Forget "Play Ball!" They ought to bring in ring announcer Michael Buffer for the series invocation, "Let's get ready to rumble!"
"There's definitely no love lost between the teams," said Boston outfielder Dave Roberts, the former Dodger who was indoctrinated into the rivalry when he was buzzed by a fastball under the chin and saw both benches empty during a game against the Yankees on Sept. 26.
"The fans have had to endure the beatings from the Yankees and playing second fiddle to New York for years and years and generations. That's where the animosity comes from. We have an opportunity right now to change that and put it to bed."
As close as the Red Sox were in 2003 -- they had a 5-2 lead in Game 7 and were five outs from their first World Series berth since 1986 -- they have never been better equipped to knock off the Yankees than they are now.
They added a dominant No. 1 starter in right-hander Curt Schilling, the former Arizona Diamondback who manhandled the Yankees in the 2001 World Series and will oppose right-hander Mike Mussina in Game 1 tonight, to go with erstwhile ace Pedro Martinez, and a more reliable closer in Keith Foulke.
They have baseball's most balanced lineup, featuring power and patience throughout and a devastating right-left combination in Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, and a deep and versatile bench with speed, defense and pop from the left side.
They have a loose-knit, free-spirited clubhouse filled with long hair, dreadlocks, cornrows and all styles of facial hair -- "We're a bunch of idiots," center fielder Johnny Damon declared during last week's division series sweep of the Angels.
They have a chemistry players are convinced contributed to their second-half surge, when they were 42-18 after Aug. 1 to finish 98-64, and is reflected on the various T-shirts they wore Monday, one reading, "Why Not Us?" and another saying, "The Time is Now."
Just as important, these Red Sox seem unburdened by the franchise's checkered past, unfazed by the 86 years of futility they are supposed to erase with a championship, unaffected by all the hype surrounding the series and all this talk of curses.
"I'm not a math major, but I don't think any of these guys were around in 1918," Boston Manager Terry Francona said. "I know there's a lot of interest in everything the Red Sox do, but sometimes I'm not sure these guys even know how many outs there are in an inning. So I'm not sure this other stuff is going to be a factor."
Ignorance can be beautiful, and no player better illustrates the Red Sox mind-set than Ramirez, once a moody superstar, now a happy-go-lucky slugger.
"Manny doesn't have enough brain to be bothered by anything," Ortiz said before Monday's workout in Yankee Stadium. "There's no hype, there's no curse. He's at the same level all the time, and because of that, he helps everyone stay relaxed."
As much as pitching, defense and clutch hitting will decide this series, so could emotions, the team controlling them best perhaps gaining an advantage.
"This has nothing to do with last year -- last year is over," Boston first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "If you start worrying about last year, you lose focus on what you're trying to do."