Now on deck: the most storied rivalry in baseball

It's been a lopsided rivalry for Boston, like watching a younger brother grow bigger and stronger than you, don a pinstripe suit, and then whip you easily at any game you play.

For the first 15 years after the birth of the New York Yankees (early on called the Highlanders) in 1903, the Red Sox (then the Americans) were baseball's dominant team, winning the first World Series in 1903 and following with four more championships through 1918.

But in the last 85 years, the Yankees have more than made up for their humble start, winning 26 World Series and becoming one of the most dominant, successful, and - yes, let's admit it - hated sports franchises in history.

Many New Yorkers love their Yankees. Many other Americans love to see them beaten. Especially in Boston.

Now, in the centennial year of Sox-Yankees rivalry, the older brother has a rare chance to go head-to-head with his successful sibling on the way to an ultimate and oft-postponed goal: The first World Series championship for the Red Sox since 1918. The playoff series starts Wednesday night in Yankee Stadium.

For the calm and rested Yankees, the series is simply another hurdle to leap gracefully on the way to an expected championship. For Red Sox fans, the American League playoff series is not much short of Armageddon: a fight against "the Evil Empire," as Sox president Larry Lucchino called the Gotham gang this year.

The Sox arrived at this opportunity only after beating Oakland in a white-knuckle five-game matchup.

The Yankees easy first-round win over the Minnesota Twins, said Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, shows "the spirit of the Yankees," a "mental toughness that only the Yankees can show. New Yorkers are battlers and so are we."

New England, after all, may have its Harvard and MIT and quaint Concord bridge where "the shot heard 'round the world" began the American Revolution. But New York, Mr. Steinbrenner was reminding the world, was still the Big Apple, the city that expects nothing less than a winner.

That kind of attitude has left Boston fans with a chip on their shoulders, aching for payback. Since the teams split their regular season games nearly evenly, with the Yankees winning 10 and the Sox 9, Sox fans have reason to think this could be their year, even though it was the sixth consecutive season that Boston has finished second to the Yankees in the American League's eastern division. It still sneaked into the playoffs thanks to the "wild card," which lets the best team that didn't win a division into the post-season.

But "sorry" would be a mild way to describe Boston's post-season performance since 1918. In 1999, the only prior time the Red Sox have met the Yankees in a postseason series, the Yanks easily dispatched the Sox. In 1978 the teams tied at the end of the season. Sox fans forever remember how light-hitting New York shortstop Bucky Dent improbably hit a home run over Fenway Park's "green monster" wall in left field to steal the game and earn himself a sobriquet unspeakable in polite company.

Since 1918, the Red Sox have appeared in four World Series, each going the maximum of seven games. More recently, in 1986 against the New York Mets, Boston was on the cusp of victory when a harmless-looking ground ball incredibly skipped between the legs of a first baseman whose name is best not mentioned, and the Sox lost.

To explain away 85 years of frustration, many Boston fans have decided the team must be under the now-infamous "curse of the Bambino." In January of 1920 Sox owner Harry Frazee sold "the Bambino," its troublesome star otherwise known as Babe Ruth, to the Yankees for $125,000 and a $300,000 loan, huge amounts at that time. But winning ways seemed to leave with him - a source of ongoing angst. In 2002, a group of divers searched a suburban Boston pond trying to find Babe Ruth's piano, which the slugger supposedly tossed into the water from his rented cottage. Raising the piano and playing it again, they reasoned, would remove the "curse."

This year Boston fans, aka the Fenway Faithful, have hoped that a concert played by Fenway Park by New Jersey's Bruce Springsteen has exorcised the place.

Boston has "the best fans in the country," says David Halberstam, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who has written several books on the Red Sox and Yankees, including this year's "The Teammates." "The passion level is so high." On paper, he says, "the Yankees' depth in starting pitching is overwhelming, especially with Pedro [Martinez] likely to get only one start. But with this Red Sox team, nothing like that - superiority on paper - seems to matter. It's the most resilient Boston team in a long time."

Should the Sox somehow find their way past the Bronx Bombers into the World Series, more strange doings could occur. They could face the Chicago Cubs, who play the Florida Marlins for the National League title. The Cubs, who like the Red Sox play in a historic stadium and have developed generations of loyal, long-suffering fans, can claim an even longer championship drought, last winning the World Series in 1908. The last title for the Red Sox came in 1918, at the expense of the Cubs.

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