Monday, April 23, 2007

Game, Set, Match

By Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

7-6, 7-5, 7-6.

Sounds like one hell of a contest, doesn’t it? Like the best possible outcome of a three-set dandy on clay between World Class tennis stars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal?

Try again.

These are the telltale numbers of a three-game sweep by the Boston Red Sox over the New York Yankees, and each score tells a story so compelling, yet so different from each other that each game almost exists like its own private universe.

All right. I getcha, Yankees fans. It’s only April, and the Sox have the perennial habit of leading the AL East through April, May and June, only to see the Bombers gather strength and assume their rightful position as division leaders once the Fourth of July rolls around. I know the pitching staff bears a closer resemblance to a handful of expansion clubs than the well-oiled juggernaut of past campaigns, but it simply doesn’t matter.

The rivalry is what it is, and will always be, regardless of conditions. You can couch last August’s second edition of the Boston Massacre when the Yanks took five straight at Fenway against an equally battered Boston rotation in similar terms. However, since the Yankees are the equivalent to the Dallas Cowboys in positioning themselves as “America’s Team,” any opportunity for any club to complete a sweep in front of three national audiences over the course of any three-day stretch is undeniably sweet.

What else in baseball could possibly match Yankees-Red Sox for pure excitement, drama, and raw hatred between each fan base?

Cubs-White Sox – the struggle between Chicago’s North and Southsiders? You have to wait until Interleague Play resumes each year, sometime in June. The remainder of the rancor is played out in bars across the Windy City. Giants-Dodgers – the eternal series which stretches back into Gotham lore and the 19th Century has tons more history on its side, but come on, does anybody in either half of The Golden State really transmit enough bad vibes to “hate” anything?

There is nothing like three-game series on consecutive weekends, one at Fenway and one in the Bronx, to get the blood flowing back into the baseball-soaked corners of one’s mind. Thanks to ESPN’s constant media blitz it seems like there is no other Sunday night game in the galaxy worthy of coverage except between these two bitter rivals.

The fact that these series are showcased to the near exclusion of all others during the course of a season, and draws ire for both teams equally is of no consequence: you must give in, because the atmosphere of each game, each at-bat, and sometimes each pitch is near mythic – with the weight of history and the expectation of new records hanging in the balance.

From this weekend alone, you saw a rock-solid 6-2 New York advantage go the way of the Bikini Atoll as the umpteenth blown save by Mariano Rivera against the Sox led to a come-from-behind one-run Boston win on Friday.

Saturday was a tense tug-of-war, with both sides trading two runs in their halves of the first two innings until Big Papi provided breathing room with a two-run shot in a three-run fourth inning.

Sunday was the coup-de-grace. Dice-K’s first victory on home soil. A 3-0 Yankees advantage obliterated by the first back-to-back-to-back-to-back homers since 1963. Jeter leading a comeback with another long ball. A 4-4 game unknotted when Lowell’s left-field bullet barely made it above the Green Monster. Melky Cabrera of all people being the key to keeping New York in the game with a double play and a ground out responsible for two runs. Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon staring down the potent top of the lineup in the ninth to nail down the win for the Olde Town Team.

Empire and Rebel. Yin and Yang. Ping and Pong. Where would one be without the other, and where would we be without both? Probably putting our full attention towards rediscovering “The Sopranos” or glumly paying off the final Christmas-related credit card bill.

I fully expect the Yankees to come out blazing this Friday night, and leave a trail of scorch marks across The House That Ruth Built which won’t end until the last out is recorded on Sunday. Professional pride being what it is, Joe Torre’s charges can’t treat the set that just passed as just another meaningless early-season matchup. There will be revenge on their minds, and the baseball world will hang on every play.

More importantly, it will give ten million Yankees fans reason to be even more annoying and patronizing than they already are. Which will lead to more of those cheap T-shirts impugning the sexual orientation of certain third basemen and shortstops being sold on Lansdowne Street, which in turn leads to hubcaps being ripped off cars with Red Sox bumper stickers up and down Walton Avenue, and so forth.

These first three games of 19 head-to-head matches for the year were mere prelude, an appetizer to what we know will be a satisfying six-course meal spread out over six months. It gives everyone a chance to digest what has just occurred, with enough space for the hunger to return.
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