Annual ritual begins anew

Annual ritual begins anew

And, so, they meet again. Hoping to raise a pennant at the other's expense, and absolutely certain to raise emotions along the way.

Seasons come and seasons go, and the leaves on trees lining Boylston turning green can mean only one thing. The smoke spiraling from sausage grills along Yawkey Way will only confirm it.

Time for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the Rush Limbaugh-Jon Stewart of American sports culture, to resume their love-hate-admiration-scorn relationship.

Oh, yes, we have been here before. Seventy-one times the last three years alone! Since 2003, and counting their two epic American League Championship Series, the Red Sox lead by 36-35, or by the width of Jonathan Papelbon's mohawk.

But while the stage may not change, the actors do, maintaining individual drama as an inset to the big picture.

In this latest renewal, the spotlight clearly falls on Johnny Damon, who gave the Red Sox spunk before the Yankees gave him $52 million. Brightening the glare on Damon will be the absence of the man chosen by Boston to replace him in center field, Coco Crisp, still disabled by a fracture in his left hand.

The reception accorded Damon by the Fenway Faithful is one obvious theme of the reunion. (Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens, the two comparable Boston icons who switched sides, might recommend ear plugs and blinders.) However, this complex rivalry is never about one man (no matter how hard David Ortiz sometimes tries).

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the rivalry is that both teams continue surviving it, despite the focus and energy vested in it. Since the 1995 advent of three-divisional play, the Yankees and Red Sox have combined to claim 17 of 22 possible AL East and AL Wild Card playoff berths.

This, even though they clearly distract each other, the latest evidence coming just the other day when the Yankees lost to Tampa Bay by failing to convert any of 14 walks into runs. Meanwhile, the BoSox were dropping one in Cleveland partly because catcher Josh Bard kept dropping Tim Wakefield knuckleballs.

They also empty each other, as was quite evident last October. The Red Sox (by the White Sox) and the Yankees (by the Angels) dropped simultaneous Division Series -- days after a surreal end to the regular season that saw both teams dance in Fenway Park on consecutive afternoons.

On the season's penultimate day, the Yankees celebrated a division title following an 8-4 victory. An in-your-face and at-your-place revenge for having absorbed the worst beating in 105 years of the rivalry twice in a six-week span: 17-1 losses to Boston on May 28 and July 15.

The Red Sox's response came overnight. The next day, they nailed the Yankees, 10-1, nailing down the Wild Card and spraying their own champagne.

We got along without them for the six months since, but we're about to fall off the wagon big time. Monday night's reunion in Fenway Park will be the first of eight games in a 24-day stretch between that have spent a decade trying to lose each other, failing at that miserably.

In raising a historically intense rivalry to hysterical heights, they've crossed over from Papi to pop culture. Ham and eggs. Burger and fries. Siegfield and Roy. And, the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Thus, the curtain is about to rise on the first of 19 acts in a play not even a Shakespeare-Hemingway collaboration could conjure.

The central character is Damon, under whose "leadoffship" the Red Sox had won 381 games in four years.

As far as Red Sox Nation is concerned, having Damon in pinstripes is heresy. Or to put it more appropriately, given the trademark locks that rippled in Fenway along with the flags he helped raise, hairesy.

Boggs, who gained an 11-season leg up on his Hall of Fame candidacy in Boston before five years in the Bronx, recently appeared on ESPN's "Cold Pizza" with some advice for Damon's return to Fenway Park:

"He'd better change his name to Lou before he gets there."

Any adverse reception would dismay Yankees manager Joe Torre, who recalls hearing a preview when the Bombers bused to Fort Myers in March to engage the Red Sox in an exhibition.

"I was surprised to hear shouts of 'Traitor.' After what he gave the people of Boston, I'd be disappointed -- for him -- if that's how he's received," Torre said, adding of Damon, "He takes the game seriously. He doesn't take himself seriously."

Torre, of course, also remembers Clemens' pinstriped return to Boston, even after a two-year detour to Toronto. It was vicious, vocal, vindictive for years -- then turned into sentimental mush following an Aug. 31, 2003 swan appearance everyone thought was definitely the last Fenway sighting of his career.

So Fenway forgave The Rocket. And it will, in time, forgive the former CEO of Idiots, Inc.

But both clubs would seem to have more to worry about than each other's feelings. Although they have reclaimed their rightful places high in the AL East standings, both have to persevere through issues.

The Yanks have shown flashes of the same offensive inconsistencies that held them back in 2005, and team defense remains a liability. But Mike Mussina's splendid opening month endows them, next to Randy Johnson, with a premier one-two punch atop their rotation.

The Red Sox, remade by general manager Theo Epstein close to a fundamental vest, have shown both sides of that transition. Defense and speed have greatly improved, yet the AL's scoring leader each of the last three seasons has often scrounged for runs. Hence, Boston has already won five times when scoring four runs or fewer, something it could do only 15 times all last season; the flip side is the Red Sox scored five-plus only 10 times in their first 21 games.

And this is a team that averaged 5.8 runs a game from 2003 through 2005. That's when Johnny Damon was lighting the fuse. Now as he returns, sparks will fly again.

Tom Singer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.