A rivalry that's second to none

Greg Fuller was born into Red Sox allegiance. But it wasn't until first grade that he fully understood what that meant. His teacher, a Red Sox fanatic, would air playoff games in their classroom in Portsmouth, N.H.

It was there, in between story time and math drills, that he was initiated into the burden of becoming a lifelong fan:losing.

"If you love the Red Sox," his teacher would soberly inform the class, "you have to be prepared to suffer with them."

Tuesday night will begin another series for the Red Sox that will help determine whether their long-suffering fans will add to their tragic narrative or find eternal redemption. Finally.

The Red Sox meet the Yankees in the American League Championship Series in the latest installment of one of the greatest rivalries in sports.

If this sounds familiar, it is: It's the same time, same place as last year when the Yankees beat the Sox in a seventh game that cost the Boston manager his job and left the city in a funk for months. Millions of baseball fans watched their unique form of hard ball: and if the games are anything like last year, faint-hearted sports fans might plan on watching World Wide Wrestling - it will have less, shall we say, passion.

"There is nothing in sports like it," says Gabriel Schechter, a researcher at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "The cities of Boston and New York seem to have a natural antipathy there."

Although many fans maintain the rivalry started when the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to New York in 1918, Mr. Schechter says the rivalry went up "exponentially" in the 1970s when both sides were just as likely to toss their gloves on the ground and go after each other with bare knuckles. "Both teams had combative personalities, and it's been like ever since," he says.

That includes the regular season as well when the two sides have faced each other upwards of 19 times. So far this season there has been one fight and two near fights.

This year, Boston catcher Jason Varitek initiated a scuffle with Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees who is another almost-member of the Red Sox who instead ended up in New York. "You get a sense watching them is a continuation of the play-offs from last season," he says.

For Yankees fans, the culmination of the 2003 season was watching Aaron Boone smash a home run over the left field wall in the 11th inning to send the Yankees to the World Series, which they lost to the Florida Marlins.

The series has long been dominated by surprise endings such as the Boone home run. Yankee fans are quick to remind the Sox of the Bucky Dent home run 1978 that went over the left field "Green Monster" in Fenway.

The Red Sox nation is divided over whether they really wanted to face the Yankees again. Rachael Sullivan was born near Hartford, Conn., where Red Sox and Yankees fans are equally plentiful, she says. So she is used to the rivalry. But, she says she wishes the Minnesota Twins had won last week. "I can't take it, I get so tense, so nervous," she says. "Yeah, I'd like to pound the Yankees but I'd rather just see the Red Sox win - I can't take it this week."

But, other Sox fans feel that getting to the World Series would have been meaningless without traveling through the Bronx. One of those is Douglas Burpee, a self-proclaimed "die-hard Red Sox fan" who has not missed one televised game this season. "I feel we are going to do it this year," he says, but pauses before admitting he felt this exact same way last year.

One of the reasons the Red Sox fans feel good about the team is the addition of Curt Schilling, who was an ace with the Arizona Diamondbacks last year. Schilling combined with longtime Sox ace Pedro Martinez make a powerful combination.

In addition, the Red Sox had built up a formidable bullpen. And the team's offense has never been in question - in fact the league's best hitter last year, Bill Mueller, is batting eighth.

The Yankees, on the other hand, have one of the weakest starting pitching rotations in some time. Their most successful pitcher, Orlando Hernandez, may miss the series with an injury. Although their fielding remains stellar, their batting has been suspect at times.

Even so, both teams were impressive in getting to the ALCS. Boston dominated the Anaheim Angels, sweeping them 3-0. The Yankees, after losing their opener against Minnesota, took the next three games, including two in the difficult Metrodome.

And the Yankees continued to do it the way they did all year - coming from behind. "In terms of comeback wins, it's a record," says Schechter.

The wins set up the teams to once again continue their postseason rivalry. Last year, after the Sox' heartbreaking loss, Mr. Fuller, a computer programmer still living Portsmouth, N.H., told his colleagues at work they were not to talk about it for three or four weeks until he recovered. Now, he's ready once more for the clash.

"It's like Cain and Abel, good versus evil, the Clash of the Titans," he says. "This is the year."

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