Friday, April 20, 2007

Let the Games Begin...

There really is nothing quite like it.

I'm talking Sawx-Yanks here.

I've been immersed in the rivalry for as long as I have followed baseball, and that brings me back to about four years old I would guess. For thirty-three of my thirty-seven years I have been through the ups and downs - the 1978 meltdown, Yaz's last game at Yankee Stadium, the mid to late 1980's when the rivalry stalled a little due to fact the Yankees didn't compete at the highest level when the Sox were going to the post-season every other year, the mid-1990's when the same was going on the other way, and of course 2004.

2004 was a very cathartic year for Red Sox fans - and at the same time it was somewhat anti-climactic. After the gut-wrenching drama (The Sox never do anything the easy way) that was the American League Championship Series between the Yanks and Sox (really, the way it needed to happen too), the World Series win over the Cardinals (which was also appropriate considering 1967) was...nice, but not momentous...well, not as momentous as the AL Championship win. That might have been why the dismantling of the Cardinals seemed almost an afterthought in that post-season.

The irony of that post-season is not lost on me either. Up until that point, the Yankees were the Beast in the East, Goliath to the Red Sox' David. They owned all the great post-season records - more World Series trophies than any other team, and more than many teams combined. The Sox? They hadn't won since 1918. The post-season record - no - the post season reputation of the Sox since? Epic collapses - 1967,1975, 1978, 1986 (and my brother is a Mets fan), 1988, 1990, 1996, 2003 (what were you thinking Grady, what were you thinking?).

But in 2004, and this must absolutely eat at George Steinbrenner, the Red Sox turned the table on their nemesis. The Yankees were just three outs away from the World Series and up three games to one over the Sox. No team in major league baseball had ever come back from down 3-1, let alone 3-1 and only three outs away from elimination. But the Sox did it, and against the pitcher universally accepted as the best closer in baseball.

Suddenly, not only were the Sox in the series, but they bequeathed their legacy upon the hated arch-rival Yanks. Suddenly the worst post-season collapse in the history of baseball was in The Bronx. There was a weird sense of relief and joy among Sox fans...even the doomsayers were looking at the nature of the rivalry with new eyes - and having trouble trying to tell fellow fans how the (Sox) world was going to end at the hands of the Cardinals. Hell - if we could beat the Yanks, the Cards would be easy.

Sure, Steinbrenner has driven up salaries around the sport. He has created a multitude of problems for small market teams trying to compete. But he has been good for the sport. He has given us a bad almost cartoonish evil villain sans any true evil. His biggest sin is that he wants to win at any cost and will try to buy a championship - but he doesn't do anything against the rules. He is the owner of the Indians in the movie Major League, or the owner of the Washington Sentinels in "The Replacements." He is the owner who lacks any real expertise, but is trying to win no matter the fiscal cost. And he is a great villain - I will miss him when he is gone.

But all of that is incidental. Tonight begins the Fair in the Fens, the Carnival by Kenmore Square. It is the only rivalry in professional American athletics that evokes a virtual post-season atmosphere for every game. Tonight and for the next three days John Updike's, "little lyric bandbox of a ballpark," will become a rocking juke joint with pilgrims from New York going to the Park with the Fenway Faithful.

With Sox-Yanks, it's not a game. It's a religion.

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