Starr Gazing: The Curse of the Rivalry

I don't know any Boston Red Sox diehards who weren't rooting almost as fervently for the Minnesota Twins against the New York Yankees as they were for their own team against the Anaheim Angels.

Yet each confessed to a nagging suspicion that if our cursed championship drought is ever to end--86 years and counting--it might require the fire and brimstone, the cataclysm that a Red Sox-Yankees series brings to town. So within minutes of David Ortiz's game- and series-winning home run that swept Boston into the American League Championship series, the cheers that rocked ancient Fenway Park had transmogrified into a chant. Though the New York-Minnesota series would not be settled for another 24 hours, the Fenway faithful bellowed their choice and challenge for the baseball world to hear: "We want Yankees. We want Yankees."

In their delirium, these fans seemed completely oblivious to that old admonition: be careful what you wish for. For me, older, perhaps wiser and certainly more scarred by Red Sox shortfalls and Yankee spankings than these zealots, the scene appeared more than a little foolhardy. It was as if Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were standing at the gates of the Alamo and taunting the enemy in the Texas night: "We want Santa Anna. We want Santa Anna."

OK, perhaps that's a little melodramatic. I don't expect any lives to be lost in the Red Sox-Yankees series that kicks off this week. Then again, with memories of last year's engagement still vivid--hit batsmen, brawling players, 72-year-old Don Zimmer's mad bull charge at Pedro Martinez who sent him sprawling on the field, arrests of two Yankee players for bashing a field attendant in the bullpen--I do worry about grievous bodily harm. Suffice it to say I don't expect this Fenway and Yankee Stadium experience will reconnect us to the lyrical, "field-of-dreams" fantasies of our childhood.

It will be hard for the rematch to rival the drama of last year's Sox-Yankees epic, which climaxed with another miracle comeback by the Yankees, another extraordinary heartbreak for the Red Sox (and, in former manager Grady Little, another goat-for-all-time for a team that already has an incredibly huge herd). Nor is it likely to match last season's ugliness, though fans in both parks (not to mention Fox TV) seem enchanted by that prospect. I used to find the Fenway chants of "Yankees suck" mildly embarrassing--unworthy of the sophisticated Boston baseball fan as well as distressingly untrue. But I now find that adolescent notion rather endearing, if only by comparison with the vulgar abuse hurled from the stands in both parks. I have long preferred to pay my own way and sit with my Boston brethren in the stands. But the escalating nastiness there makes me cringe--"Gay-Rod," "Jeter is a faggot"--and has me contemplating a permanent retreat to the sanctuary of the press box. (Yankee fans' dead-on chant of "1918," the last year Boston won the World Series, is much smarter and far more wounding than anything mustered by my hometown wits.)

Fortunately, amid all the sturm und drang, there is real baseball to be played. I don't know a single Boston fan that doesn't believe the Red Sox at this particular moment in time is the superior team. (Most of my Yankee friends, incidentally, concur.) Its starting pitching is better and healthier, its bullpen is deeper and its lineup is so strong that defending A.L. batting champ Bill Mueller bats ninth. At the same time, I don't know a single Boston fan, at least none of a certain age, who doesn't believe that the Yankees will somehow manage to pull this series out--and to triumph in a fashion guaranteed to maximize our pain. They imagine some 2004 version of Bucky Dent's 1978 heroics (think Miguel Cairo) or of Pedro Martinez's 2003 implosion (think Pedro Martinez). And none of them are entirely convinced that Red Sox Manager Terry Francona isn't just Grady Little redux with no hair and no folksy, Southern drawl.

Our dour Puritan heritage, distilled over centuries, and our decades of bitter disappointment with the Red Sox's inevitable failures have prepared us for nothing but the absolute worst. When we slip by the A's or Angels in dramatic fashion, it is only to set us up for some bigger heartbreak. If we somehow get by the Yankees, well then ... never mind, the Sox have never gotten by the Yankees so I haven't the foggiest what might happen then. Surely something too horrible to contemplate: Armageddon or possibly a new Ben Affleck movie. (Some of my faithful correspondents with more foresight have already sussed out the dreaded scenario: they picture Roger Clemens, who repeatedly failed to win the big one with Boston, besting the Red Sox in Game 7 for the Houston Astros.)

If I don't have a scenario yet, I do have a theory about the World Series that doesn't involve ghosts of seasons past. I believe that no matter which team wins, the AL champion will lose to the National League champ. That is now the price of this unique rivalry. For many years Red Sox-Yankees was a totally one-sided rivalry, both on the field and off. New York players and fans never took Boston seriously as a perennial challenger and rightfully so. We were strictly loudmouthed neighbors and very occasional pretenders to the A.L. throne. But then new ownership took over in Boston and baited George Steinbrenner with talk of his "evil empire." And when the Boss bit, he discovered that BoSox management had actually built a team that was worthy of challenging baseball's great dynasty.

The problem now is that the rivalry has become so ferociously intense, so much bigger than others in the game or in other games, that it appears to suck every bit as much life from the winner as it does from the loser. I was stunned by how listless the Yankees were against the Florida Marlins last year, how anti-climactic the Series felt after the drama of the AL encounter. But I became convinced of my theory this summer after the Yankees swept three from Boston in the Bronx--and then were immediately swept by the lowly Mets. That is an unimaginable outcome for any baseball team past Little League age, let alone the Bronx Bombers--and is only explicable by what I will dub "The Curse of the Rivalry."

"The Curse" will assure that the St. Louis Cardinals or the Houston Astros will beat whichever emotionally spent survivor emerges from the American League wars. And I'm not sure that Red Sox fans would grouse too much about being the beaten survivor. It seems folks here would prefer to drive a stake through the Yankees' heart and lose the World Series than to win it all by a route that skirted New York. As for this lifelong Boston fan, frankly I am more ambivalent than I could have ever imagined. I'm just not sure, at my rapidly advancing age, that I still have the stomach for this life-or-death conflict.

I am beginning to realize that my best pals, many of them Yankee fans, and I now reside in an alternative baseball universe. We are fervent about our team loyalties, but we revere the game first and foremost. Thus real Boston fans think Derek Jeter is among the handful of greatest clutch players in history, that Mariano Rivera is the best reliever ever and that Boston's prospects would be improved if Joe Torre sat in our dugout. My Yankee friends think that David Ortiz is a true stud, that Manny Ramirez is strangely endearing and that they would love to have Curt Schilling on the mound for game one. We all want to see stellar baseball, not another twisted Fox reality series.

I just spent a few days in another great baseball town, St. Louis, and discovered that the frenzy of Cardinals fever hasn't yet completely overwhelmed Western civilization there. (That's especially true if you ignore any remarks about the Cubs and their fans.) And I admit I was completely enchanted watching the Cards and Dodgers end their series Sunday night in shockingly civil fashion--with handshakes and hugs all around. I can't imagine that happening under any circumstances between the Red Sox and Yankees. This has become more blood feud than baseball rivalry. Perhaps the very best I can hope for is that the AL Championship Series concludes without any ugly, beaning incidents, injurious brawls, player arrests or lawsuits. If in addition to all that, it might possibly end with a Red Sox victory, well that too would be swell.