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JONNY GOMES straddled the first base line like a bouncer at a biker bar, Mohawk stretched across his scalp, barbed wire tattooed around his biceps, beard hiding half his face. As the last verse of the national anthem hung over Tropicana Field before Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, Gomes turned toward the third base line and doffed his cap to the Boston Red Sox, who doffed their caps back, baseball's version of an armistice. ¶ The Tampa Bay Rays did not include Gomes on their playoff roster, but he sits on the bench in full uniform, just in case anybody needs a mediator. Gomes is the Rays' part-time outfielder and full-time enforcer who in the past two years has scuffled with the Red Sox, the New York Yankees and the Red Sox again. When a Rays batter takes a fastball in the ribs, players on the bench look to Gomes for their cue—should I stay or should I charge? "It's not a reputation I want to have by any means," Gomes says, "but it doesn't hurt to have it on your résumé."
Gomes is perhaps the most active member of the Red Sox--Rays fight club, which in the past eight years has produced eight altercations resulting in 25 ejections and 22 suspensions totaling 98 games. There have been allegations of hair-pulling, eye-poking, bat-throwing, sucker-punching and "hitting like a woman." There have been threats, hospital visits and repeated warnings from the commissioner's office, most of which have not been heeded.
"This isn't the WWF," says Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. "It's not like you're going to meet up in the parking lot." However, after a spring training game in 2006, Rays leftfielder Carl Crawford did challenge Red Sox relief pitcher Julian Tavarez to "go one-on-one in the parking lot" after Tavarez stepped on the right arm of Rays centerfielder Joey Gathright, leaving cleat marks in his skin, and punched him in the face.
The Rays and the Red Sox long ago developed the enmity required of all great rivalries. Now they are throwing in some meaningful, not to mention wildly entertaining, baseball—loads of it. The first two games of the ALCS took a total of eight hours and 52 minutes, and they produced a pitcher's duel, a slugfest and a 95-mile-per-hour fastball that Rays reliever Grant Balfour uncorked in the direction of Boston rightfielder J.D. Drew's face, appearing to violate the cease-fire.
Drew turned quickly enough to take the pitch in the shoulder, and the Red Sox did no more than bark at Balfour. They are versed enough in postseason baseball to recognize that this is no time to settle vendettas. That is what spring training is for. The Red Sox retaliated in more understated fashion, getting a split of the first two games of the series and swiping the home field advantage that the AL East--champion Rays worked six months to win. On Monday, Tampa Bay regained that edge with a 9--1 thumping of Boston, the third straight series between the two teams in which the Rays lost the opener but bounced back to win the next two games.
Given the Rays' financial constraints (a $44 million payroll, second-lowest in baseball in 2008) and their competition in the American League East, it is easy to assume that this is their best chance for a championship. But the winning pitcher in Game 2 was 23-year-old Rays rookie lefty David Price, and the winning run was scored by 25-year-old rookie outfielder Fernando Perez, neither of whom had ever been in a major league game before September. The Rays, in other words, are young enough to give the Red Sox—everybody, for that matter—problems for a while. "I'm talking two, three, four seasons," says Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd. "With the way we hate them, and the way they hate us, this could be a great rivalry for a long time."
The Red Sox and the Yankees used to be just as outspoken, back when Pedro Martinez was throwing Don Zimmer to the ground and Jason Varitek was shoving Alex Rodriguez in the face. But at some point in the past four years, the Red Sox and the Yankees started treating each other with a disarming level of respect, like CEOs who cross paths at the country club 19 times a year. If those teams remain so disgustingly professional, Red Sox--Rays could become the new Red Sox--Yankees, with far less tradition but a lot more vitriol.
FROM THE time the Rays were born, in 1998, they lost to everybody, but they lost with exceptional regularity to the Red Sox, dropping 111 of the first 169 meetings. "It was a rivalry, but it wasn't a rivalry," says Gomes, a Ray since 2003. "They beat us every time." The Rays, in turn, tried to beat them up. They became the goons of the AL East, unskilled but undaunted. "We didn't feel like we were getting a whole lot of respect—nor did we deserve any," Rays reliever Trever Miller says. "In that situation guys can get bitter." Nobody brought out the Rays' inferiority complex quite like the Red Sox, who, by winning a World Series in 2004, had finally reached the big time.
The history of violence between these teams dates back to the night of Aug. 29, 2000, when Rays centerfielder Gerald Williams took a fastball from Pedro Martinez off his left hand. Williams rushed the mound at Tropicana Field, Red Sox and Rays following closely behind. Whatever happened in the middle of that mosh pit helped spawn eight years of animosity. The Rays claimed, without much evidence, that Red Sox first baseman Brian Daubach was throwing punches under the pile. So Rays pitchers took aim at Daubach, though aim was never really their strong suit. They threw at him five times, hitting him only twice.
"The only problem was our pitchers kept missing the guy," said then Rays manager Larry Rothschild, who was ejected from the game along with his replacement (bench coach Bill Russell) and Russell's replacement (first base coach Jose Cardenal). When home plate umpire Tim McClelland went looking for another potential Rays manager to eject, he asked third base coach Billy Hatcher who was in charge. "I don't know," said Hatcher, neglecting to mention that he was.