Wednesday, October 13, 1999

For Red Sox, facing Yankees is facing history




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEW YORK — Harry Frazee had a cash problem. He was a theatrical producer with more expenses than income and the owner of a baseball club that couldn't cover his obligations. Frazee wanted to put on a play called, No, No, Nanette, but the financing was tricky.

        So he sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

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        On the list of baseball's greatest blunders, Frazee's 1920 inventory clearance ranks No.1, and the next worst transaction comes in at about No.64. The Boston Red Sox last won the World Series in 1918 — with Ruth as their left-handed pitching ace — and the famine that has followed is widely ascribed to The Curse Of The Bambino. The Yankees, meanwhile, have won 24 World Series in a ballpark colloquially called The House That Ruth Built.

        Baseball is a game that can never be taken completely out of context. The history is too detailed and the memories run too deep. When the Red Sox begin the American League Championship Series tonight at Yankee Stadium, they must contend not only with the reigning world champions but with The Babe, Bucky Dent and eight decades of envy.

        They stand on the threshold of a new century, battling demons that developed before they were born. It's a silly notion — that a modern ballclub can be haunted by the failures of earlier generations — but it is as much a part of New England lore as the first Thanksgiving or Paul Revere's ride.

Curse? What curse?
        The Red Sox are to the Yankees what anguish is to achievement; what disappointment is to dominance; what bugs are to windshields. Thus this best-of-seven series represents not only the route to the World Series but the possibility of poetic justice.

        “If you're a student of history, you have to love it,” Yankees pitcher David Cone said. “It's 1999 and the Yankees and Red Sox are playing in the postseason for the first time. It's an opportunity Boston fans have been waiting for since Babe Ruth. It's kind of eerie when you think about it.”

        The Red Sox would prefer not to think about it. They would rather take their shot first and answer questions later. Many of them are too young to recall the homer Dent hit to win the 1978 AL East tiebreaker, and they don't understand how it could have any bearing on today's ballgame. Neither do they reveal much concern about the implications of 1949, when the Red Sox came to Yankee Stadium one game ahead with two games to play, only to lose both games. “I'm just going to do my job and forget about the fact Babe Ruth was traded .. ” Boston pitching ace Pedro Martinez said. “I don't even know the story.”

No denying this is huge
        Ballplayers are notoriously poor students of history, but they are fairly proficient at current events. They may not understand all the root causes of this rivalry, but they can't help but notice how these games take on a different tone.

        “This is so much more deep-seated,” said Red Sox catcher Mike Stanley, a former Yankee. “It has such a stronger root than any rivalry I'm aware of in baseball. Unless you have lived in either city or played for either team — or both — it's hard to appreciate and understand what it means ...

        “It's going to be loud. It's going to be boisterous. There are going to be fights in the stands — I'm not condoning that — but it brings out the best in the fans and the worst. It's hard not to feel the energy from the crowd that you don't get when you play any other team.”

        Probability favors the Yankees. The Red Sox won eight of the 12 regular-season games between the two teams, but Jimy Williams' pitching rotation is out of alignment after the division series against Cleveland. Journeyman Kent Mercker will start Game One for Boston, though he failed to finish the second inning in his last playoff start.

        Whatever that's worth.

        “I don't think the past will get a hit or make a pitch,” said Yankees coach Don Zimmer, who managed Boston in 1978. “The best team's going to win.”

        But what about The Curse Of The Bambino?

        “I don't believe in that,” Zimmer said. "I don't even discuss that. I think it's crazy.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE