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Jerkball

The Yankees–Red Sox rivalry is as spectacularly nasty as ever because both teams are loaded with contentious characters.

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Harry frazee . . . Red Ruffing . . . the summer of 1949 . . . Bucky Dent . . . Aaron Boone . . .

By now, even the casual sports fan has been flooded with Yankees–Red Sox arcana, including descriptions of the ghost that haunts Babe Ruth’s old Boston hotel room—a room that (dum-dum) overlooks Fenway Park. There’s lots of column inches and TV and sports-radio airtime to fill between the actual games, and a rivalry that’s been raging for most of the past century provides a surplus of material. And for those who have somehow avoided all the mythologizing—or somehow haven’t gotten enough of it—there’s even a handy, synergistic new book, The Rivals, filled with essays by sportswriters from the Times and the Boston Globe. (The New York Times Company not only owns both papers but a sizable chunk of the Red Sox.)

The trivia, the historical ironies, the Joe D. vs. Teddy Ballgame debates—it all contributes to the richness of the Yankees–Red Sox melodrama, and stokes the animosities. For the fans, that is. Pro athletes, by and large, don’t know the history of their sport and don’t care. Hitting, pitching, and catching a baseball are hard enough without cluttering your mind with Johnny Pesky anecdotes. The transient nature of free-agent-era rosters also works against learning the details of the franchise you happen to be playing for this year—the 2003 Yankees won 101 regular-season games and went to the World Series, yet half the roster was ditched during the off-season; the team entering the playoffs this week retains only 10 of the 25 Yankees from last year’s playoff squad. For the Yankees and Red Sox players, the deep, tangled history between the two franchises is mostly an annoyance, because they have to answer tedious media questions about it.

But history isn’t what makes the current Yankees–Red Sox rivalry so fierce. It will be tough for either team to get past its first-round playoff opponents, but should they both succeed, the American League Championship Series will be imbued with rare, genuine hatred. Never mind the literary essays and the 84-year-old curse. What fuels the hostility is plain old-fashioned bad attitude.

“This year’s Yankees are a testy, defensive bunch, and despite their talent, they look plenty vulnerable.”

For most of the Joe Torre era, the Yankees have maintained a relatively jerk-free roster. Torre has known from the beginning of his tenure that George Steinbrenner would try to stir the pot, so the manager has done everything possible to insulate his players from the turmoil. One key has been weeding out malcontents. Torre doesn’t choose players according to their chances of achieving sainthood—he was, after all, the chief in-house advocate of acquiring the prodigiously nasty Albert Belle in 1998. But he’s had little tolerance for most troublemakers. He rapidly shipped a younger, crankier Ruben Sierra out of town, and dressed down Chad Curtis when the reserve outfielder had the temerity to appoint himself team spokesman. David Wells could certainly be childish, but most of his destructive behavior was turned inward. The boorish reliever Jeff Nelson became expendable more because of his ineffectiveness on the mound last year than his punch-up with a Red Sox security guard. Throughout, though, it’s been the preternaturally adult Derek Jeter who’s defined the team’s personality.

But the Yankees haven’t won a World Series since 2000, and last winter, Steinbrenner again began making moves without regard to team chemistry. This year’s Yankees are a testier, more defensive bunch—perhaps because, despite winning about 100 games, they have always looked distinctly vulnerable. Kevin Brown, picked up in a trade crafted by general manager Brian Cashman, epitomized the new churlishness even before committing the ultimate selfish-jerk act of breaking his left hand by punching a wall. But the uncharacteristic Yankee insecurity also shows in the Boss’s two prize recruits, Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton.

Sheffield has been an irritant on five previous teams. He’s a prickly presence in the Yankees’ clubhouse, but Sheffield has largely channeled his anger into the batter’s box; when a pitcher starts his windup, Sheffield doesn’t so much wag his bat as menace the pitcher with a club. The tactic seems to work; Sheffield deserves consideration as the American League MVP this year.

Lofton, on the other hand, has been a bust, his part-time contribution hardly worth the disruptiveness of his caustic demeanor. In his fourteen-year, eight-team career, Lofton has been consistently surly, picking fights with reporters and opponents. In Lofton’s defense, he’s been in an awkward spot from the moment he put on pinstripes in February: Steinbrenner wanted Lofton, but the rest of Yankees management hasn’t hidden its lack of enthusiasm, even when Bernie Williams missed spring training after an appendectomy and Lofton briefly looked like a worthy insurance policy.

Two weeks ago, Lofton embarrassed himself in a blowout loss to the Red Sox. The incident started when Lofton hit a routine grounder. First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz caught the throw with one foot a bit in Lofton’s path; the Yankee responded with a sharp elbow into Mientkiewicz’s back. Later in the game, brushback pitches were exchanged, thus ensuring that more bad feelings get stowed away until the next time the two teams meet.


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