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Red Sox-Yankees rivalrygetting insane, but fun

Commemorative pin for an exhibition game? C'mon, people!
YANKEES RODRIGUEZ SHAKES HANDS WITH BOSTONS GARCIAPARRA IN FLORIDA
New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, right, shakes hands with Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra on Sunday.Gary I. Rothstein / Reuters

As heaven is a witness, they were selling commemorative pins to Sunday's spring training game between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. They looked just like the "collectibles" you see for the World Series, Final Four or Olympics. There were the official team logos, MLB authentication and, right under City of Palms Park, Spring Training and Ft. Myers, FL., was the date: March 7, 2004.

"God, that's sick," said Yankees Manager Joe Torre.

"There's no such thing. I don't believe it," said Reggie Jackson until he was shown.

"Wow," said Yankees coach Mel Stottlemyre. "How far does it go and when does it stop?"

"I just hope this was thought up by somebody in New York," said Red Sox President Larry Lucchino.

At this point, there's no ceiling on how high this biggest of all sports rivalries can go -- both in the sublime and the ridiculous. Fans stood in line all night for a couple of hundred standing room only tickets. Parking lots were half full three hours before game time, before attendants even arrived. A pair of tickets was going for $500 on e-Bay, though actual "I Need One" prices outside the park seemed lower.

"They stood in line since 10 p.m. [for a 1 p.m. game]," said Jackson, summarizing the pro ballplayer view of Fanaticus Americanus, "but they'll all be driving home by 2 o'clock after Jeter and A-Rod leave the game."

In what was only half-sarcastically called "Game 8," the Yankees beat Boston, 11-7, and get to keep spring-training laughing rights on top of 86 consecutive winters of bragging rights. Did the two teams care? Plenty of Yankees stars took the five-hour round-trip bus ride. And the winning pitcher was Mariano Rivera, who hasn't made a single spring "road trip" since he became an established star.

Yet, in its bizarre way, this game epitomized the best that baseball offers. How can you over-hype a game, even in spring training, if it took a century to create the passions that envelope generations of fans on both sides?

For example, Rich Glenke, Sr. and Jr., wouldn't have missed this game for the world. Both fans wore Red Sox jerseys personalized with "Glenke" on the back. I asked the father and son how they would characterize their lifelong feelings toward the Yankees: 1) dislike, 2) hate or 3) willing to risk jail time if it would help beat the Yanks.

"Yeah, let's go there," said Rich Jr., indicating he'd risk the felony rap to help the Red Sox.

"So, what do you guys do for a living?" I asked later.

"Chicago cop. Retired," said the father.

"What about you?" I asked the son.

"I'm a police detective out of Chicago," he said, pulling out his badge.

"Want to take back answer number 3?" I offered.

"Let me clarify," said the burly detective. "I'm a Red Sox fan first. But I'm also a Cubs and White Sox fan. I'll take care of the Yankees for each of 'em and give them a group rate."

Note to the Chicago Chief of Police (and George Steinbrenner): They were laughing.

Not far away, three generations of men all named Joe Cooney -- grandfather, father and grandson, ages 77, 53 and 27 -- were decked out in Yankee gear. "Three guys just asked me if I had any extra tickets. And I did," said Cooney Jr., who lives in Arlington, Va. "I said, 'How much will you give me for them?' They said, '$35 each.' I said, 'Well, how about just $15 each?' "

"Why'd you give the tickets away so cheap?" I asked.

"Because they were Yankee fans," said Cooney, as if the answer should be obvious.

When teams have fans with such passions, combined with such roots, every detail of the history of the rivalry -- not just last season's epic seven-game American League Championship Series installment -- is universal knowledge. As a result, every nuance on the field, right down to body language, is grist for the rivalry.

For example, Nomar Garciaparra declined to play. That'll require a week of deconstruction in New England. Was it an act of indignant protest at being used as trade bait when the Red Sox thought they could trade Manny Ramirez for Alex Rodriguez? Or, as he claimed, did his heel really bother him? (With Achilles, it's always the heel, isn't it?)

When the Yankees took the field for batting practice, every Red Sox player disappeared. These teams rarely "fraternize" in public, even for a moment. This time, however, Garciaparra sought out Derek Jeter, then A-Rod, then finally Yankees Manager Joe Torre for big hugs, slaps on the back, grins and whispered chat. Photographers swarmed around Garciaparra as he consorted with the enemy. Nomar, you shameless flirt.

"Are the Yankees recruiting you?" Garciaparra was asked, since he'll be a free agent after this season.

"You never know," said Garciaparra. "In this game, anything can happen. Why, I didn't know I was going to be traded last winter."

Now, Nomar, you weren't traded. You were just almost traded.

How did the Red Sox brass feel about Garciaparra showing them up with all his public Yankee hugs? You didn't have to look far. They were all in the box seats -- watching. "Nomar's agent was in town Friday and Saturday, so this may not have been entirely unpremeditated," said one Red Sox executive.

This whole day was almost too rich in anecdote to believe. Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, saber-metric theorist, said a statistical simulation had been done of the entire '04 season. "It came out 100.6 wins to 100.7 wins."

So, who had the 100.7?

"They did, I think," said Epstein.

Oh, you think.

As he entered the park, Lucchino met a woman selling "Evil Empire" T-shirts, a phrase he coined for the Yankees. "I almost bought a couple for Christmas presents," he said. Earlier this weekend, Lucchino bumped into Yankees GM Brian Cashman. "I told him that if anybody took a picture of us having a civil conversation it might be a bad career move," quipped Lucchino.

Every sentence when these teams meet is loaded with intensity, humor and one-upmanship. "East Coast fans are the best," said Rodriguez. "I get booed so often now I don't know who boos best." One Boston fan walked with a sign bearing a recent quote by Jeter but with a twist: " 'A-Rod's hands are so soft -- Jeter.' "

Meanwhile, back in the Red Sox clubhouse, Curt Schilling was explaining to the Boston media for the umpteenth time that he is very offended when they go to the Red Sox fans' chat room (sonsofsamhorn.com) and take the quotes he posts there and put them in the newspaper. After all, he writes "off the record" beside the quotes.

Curt, if you rent a billboard and post a quote on it beside your picture, do you think that's "off the record," too? What is it, a disease? A smart player goes to Boston and within months his brain cells disintegrate. "I never anticipate that any of the stupid things I say will be turned into more than they are," explained Schilling. Sort of.

"Curt wants to pick a fight [with the media]," said an exasperated Red Sox executive. "We don't know why."

Good thing it's only spring training. Just 19 regular season games, and maybe seven more in October, left to go. Issue the flak jackets.