Like skydiving, childbirth and a root canal, baseball games between the Yankees and the Red Sox are life experiences that are impossible to fathom vicariously. So when New York first baseman—DH Jason Giambi was asked by new teammate Alex Rodriguez over dinner in spring training to describe what was in store for him the first time the two rivals met this season, words failed Giambi. � "I just told him, 'I can't explain it,' " Giambi recalls. "Until you're a part of it, you can't understand what it's like to go out there knowing there's a chance you'll do something that will be remembered forever. Look at Bucky Dent." � The rivalry, like the fists that were flying throughout the stands at Fenway Park during last weekend's four-game series, tends to introduce itself to the uninitiated with a smack upside the head. For Rodriguez the formal introduction occurred hours before the Friday opener as he and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter ate lunch at a windowside table in a Boston restaurant. Numerous passersby facing Rodriguez greeted him with the middle-finger salute and the amplifying epithet, only to repeat the display upon catching sight of Jeter. Those traveling in the opposite direction acted out the same pagan ritual—the sign of the crass—in reverse order: Jeter, then Rodriguez. � For Yankees pitcher Javier Vazquez, the you're-not-in- Montreal-anymore moment came shortly thereafter, when a friend dropped him off at Fenway Park for his start. Vazquez had pitched there in an interleague game as an Expo in 2000. "There was nobody around then," he says. "This time, there were millions of people in the street." � Hyperbole is another Yankees-Red Sox genetic marker, which explains why more members of the media (450) covered a series three weeks into the season than the American League Division Series last year between Boston and Oakland. The mid-April set, the first of 19 games between the American League East rivals (who meet in New York for three more starting this Friday), was framed as an extension of the two clubs' epic seven-game League Championship Series six months earlier.
"It's like the theater of the absurd," Boston general manager Theo Epstein said after Friday's series opener.
This rendition, in which the Red Sox won three of four games, including a 5-4 thriller on Monday, included 15 players new to the Yankees-Red Sox phenomenon. Some, such as Vazquez and Rodriguez, stumbled badly. One in particular, though, a fast-talkin', heat-packin', belt-hitchin' extrovert who practically begged to pitch for either side, fit as if he were born to the role. Curt Schilling was made for Yankees-Red Sox the way John Wayne was for Westerns.
It was one o'clock on Saturday afternoon, a spring day so glorious with light and warmth that it seemed all winter in the making, when the magnitude of the rivalry hit Schilling. It was then that he emerged from the Boston dugout to walk to the bullpen for his pregame warmup. "As soon as my foot hit the top step of the dugout, the place started cheering," Schilling said. "I hadn't felt that kind of emotion and energy in a regular-season game since I pitched against the Yankees for the Phillies in front of 67,000 people [at Veterans Stadium] seven years ago. Awesome."
Schilling has a name for this kind of over-the-top, leave-the-women-and-children-home kind of game: East Coast baseball. That's all he wanted when Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo, seeking to pare payroll, asked him last November for a list of teams to which he would waive his no-trade clause. In order, Schilling named the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox. Philadelphia, which had traded him to Arizona in the first place, wasn't interested. New York, G.M. Brian Cashman said, never came close to a deal because Arizona's asking price was "way too high," a multiplayer package that reportedly included first baseman Nick Johnson and second baseman Alfonso Soriano.
Then in late November, as Yankees executives were meeting with owner George Steinbrenner at a Tampa restaurant, Cash-man received a message by telephone that the Red Sox had arranged a trade for Schilling, contingent on working out a contract extension. Cashman decided this was not the kind of news he should break to Steinbrenner in person; later, by phone, would be much safer.
Epstein and two associates flew to Schilling's home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., to hammer out a two-year extension that would pay Schilling $25.5 million beyond the $12 million he will get this season. Six days after Schilling joined Boston, Cashman returned fire. New York traded Johnson and two spare parts, outfielder Juan Rivera and pitcher Randy Choate, to Montreal for Vazquez, a 27-year-old righthander with an inventive repertoire of pitches that reminded the Yankees of a young David Cone. Vazquez, however, often pitching without much run support, crowd noise or pennant-race pressure, was 64-68 lifetime.
Vazquez pitched eight exceptional innings to win his New York debut 3-1 in the team's home opener against the Chicago White Sox. But Fenway, rest assured, would be a different story. Rodriguez was welcomed with a huge banner in centerfield that read A-FRAUD; Giambi was serenaded with chants of "BAL-CO!"; with light-hitting Pokey Reese filling in at short for the injured Nomar Garciaparra, Jeter heard chants of "Po-key's bet-ter!" and at least 30 people were thrown out of the park for brawling. An uncharacteristically wild Vazquez was sent packing in the sixth inning after getting cuffed for six runs, two of them tied to errors by Giambi and Jeter, and Boston won the main event 6-2.
"It's gotten worse over the years, their hatred for us," Jeter said of the fans afterward. Then he admitted, with a wry smile, "This was one of their better performances."
"For me it wasn't anything special," Vazquez said. "It's just another game I'm trying to win. I know about the rivalry. But whether I'm going up against the Red Sox or White Sox, I'm trying to get people out."