A-Rod deal stokes Boston-New York rivalry

New York is gloating. The Yankees have landed the best player in baseball, Alex Rodriguez, already tagged "The New Sultan." Newspapers are filled with "A-Stories." Rodriguez T-shirts went on sale only a New York minute after his arrival in the Bronx to try on his pinstripes.

But in Boston, a front-page headline in the Globe may have summed up the mood, "Say it ain't so."

Rarely has a baseball trade encapsulated more than a sport, but the stakes here are greater than next year's pennant race and even greater than the two teams' historic rivalry, built on a trade made more than 80 years ago for a man named Ruth.

For fans in Boston and New York, the A-Rod acquisition is a metaphor for the interplay of two cities that, since the days of Adams and Hamilton, have contended like jealous brothers for East Coast bragging rights.

"It's sort of mythic in its proportions," says Bruce Johnson, a sports economist at Centre College. "The rivalry has even gotten bigger."

Most fans in these cities can tick off the watershed moments in the rivalry like a chronicle of family history. The 1920 trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, which many say began a curse that, since 1918, has prevented the Sox from winning a World Series. Bucky Dent's jarring and climactic 1978 home run in Fenway Park that ended Boston's best chance at a Series berth in decades. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the year in which the Boston Red Sox last won a World Series.]

And, most recently, a 2003 baseball season in which the teams faced off 26 times, more than any two clubs in the history of the game. The season was punctuated by a seven-game playoff series so heated that an octogenarian coach for the Yankees sought to pummel the Sox all-star pitcher, Pedro Martinez, during a a game 3 brawl.

Once again, the Yankees took the series, and the Red Sox were left waiting for another year.

The one constant in these memories: the Red Sox lose, the Yankees win. In Boston, feelings toward the Bronx Bombers are easily encapsulated by classic labels: The bigger brother, the school-yard bully, the aggressive colleague at work who nabs the new client before everyone else grabs their morning danish.

"There's the weight of all those decades of not winning. They really can't banish it from their psyche," says Mr. Schechter. "It's like some relative did something horrible 85 years ago and the whole family can't live it down."

Like a younger brother, the Red Sox have recently strived like never before to catch up to their New York neighbors. During the off season, the team acquired Curt Schilling, one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. It signed the hard-throwing South Dakotan Keith Foulke as a reliever, and a few savvy veterans to fill weak spots in the line up.

"They've really been trying to make a serious run at the Yankees," says Gabriel Schechter, a researcher at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The moves kept the Sox on target to compete fiercely with the Yankees, which they have done more often than not for the past century.

But it wasn't until just before Christmas when the Sox made a startling move. Their surprise effort to acquire Rodriguez, one of the best all-around players the game has ever seen, sent a signal that the team from Boston was no longer simply planning to keep pace with their rivals, but to knock them off their championship-laden throne.

For weeks the Sox publicly courted A-Rod from the Texas Rangers - a brash and risky flirtation for a team and city unaccustomed to the sort of headline-grabbing tactics of New York's George Steinbrenner.

And, for a brief fortnight, this tiny red-brick city known more for bookishness than big deals looked as if it would land the game's superstar. The Sox even put their most respected player, Nomar Garciaparra, on the trading block, risking reputations to make their dream come true.

But like a whisper from the past, word came that the team had lost its grip on the deal. The Sox couldn't muster enough cash to pay A-Rod's contract, and the league would not allow a deal in which the shortstop's contract would be reduced to accomodate a move.

The failure was a bitter one for the team's owners, which had bought the club in 2001, bringing with them a savvy business sense and appreciation for high stakes deals. But after a few weeks, the city and its long-suffering fans seemed to adjust. All was familiar, if not well, in Red Sox nation.

And then tragedy struck. As if to spurn the Sox for even contemplating equality, Steinbrenner picked up A-Rod in an effortless show of strength, taking on more than $110 million of the shortstop's contract as if he were paying for a doughnut and coffee. Once again, the Sox, like their city, looked small next to the big budgets and booming confidence of Gotham.

Meanwhile, in New York, the Yankees Clubhouse, the team's retail outlet, has already started selling Rodriguez jerseys. Near the store, Yankee's fan Dominic Ponce, declares, "What I like about [Steinbrenner] is that he puts down his checkbook and he's not afraid to put down the figures."

Sports analysts believe the addition of Rodriguez should help the Yankees considerably. "He adds some extra confidence and swagger by having him on the team," says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports historian at Smith College.

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