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Jerkball

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On the night of July 21, the Yankees were sitting comfortably atop the American League East, beating up on the Toronto Blue Jays. In his private box at Yankee Stadium, though, general manager Brian Cashman couldn’t focus on the game unfolding beneath him. “What are the Red Sox doing?” he blurted repeatedly, craning his neck to catch the out-of-town scores scrolling across the scoreboard high above left field. “Where’s the Red Sox score?” Cashman is obsessed with the Red Sox, in large part because of Steinbrenner’s mania about Boston. Cashman makes few road trips during a season, believing it’s more efficient to work from his office, but Steinbrenner requires the general manager to attend every Yankees game at Fenway, and in two days, Cashman would be driving to Boston for a weekend series.

The Red Sox lost that night, for the fourth time in seven games. But it didn’t relax anyone associated with the Yankees, especially Alex Rodriguez. He’d nearly been dealt to Boston last winter; the deal collapsed over money, and the Yankees swooped in seven weeks later to acquire A-Rod from the Texas Rangers. Now Rodriguez, desperate to prove himself a True Yankee, was tighter than a public-school budget. On July 24, he snapped. When a pitch from Sox hurler Bronson Arroyo hit him in the left arm, Rodriguez overreacted, screaming and stalking toward the mound. Catcher Jason Varitek cursed back, then whacked the third baseman in his pretty face, inciting a mêlée.

Rodriguez has been calmer in subsequent games against the Sox. But if the teams meet again this month, the stakes will be higher than ever. It will be interesting to see if A-Rod can handle his first exposure to the October New York baseball spotlight, or if a latent jerkishness rises to the surface. One veteran baseball writer believes A-Rod is another of the “tin men” represented by agent Scott Boras: extravagantly paid, overhyped players who melt under pressure. Unless the Yankees’ starting pitchers improve miraculously, the team is going to have to outslug any postseason adversary. Rodriguez may feel he has to shoulder much of that burden himself, and he risks tensing up again. So a season that began with the Yankees’ practically being ceded the World Series title after they grabbed Rodriguez may come down to how the 252-Million Dollar Man performs with a shot at the championship right in front of him.

Jerks have never been in short supply on the Red Sox. Roger Clemens and Jim Rice set the modern-era petulance standard remarkably high in their Boston years. But this summer the Sox seemed in danger of becoming downright sunny after unloading the sour Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs.

There remains, however, the matter of the team’s ace, Pedro Martinez. Depending on your perspective, Martinez is either a cheap-shot artist aiming at batters’ heads, or a welcome throwback to the old-school days when pitchers threw inside and batters didn’t wear body armor or whine about being knocked on their butts. Sure, Don Zimmer was wrong to charge at Martinez last fall, but the pitcher had better options for defending himself than tossing a gimpy 72-year-old man to the ground. Martinez has always been ornery and peevish, a driven competitor who didn’t care what anyone thought about him and would do nearly anything to win.

Two weeks ago, in an eerie echo of last October’s playoff loss at Yankee Stadium, Martinez coughed up an eighth-inning lead after the Red Sox manager Terry Francona failed to take him out of the game. Martinez looked absolutely bereft in the dugout, his eyes vacant. Ninety minutes later, when reporters entered the clubhouse, Martinez still seemed dazed, and issued his now-famous, weirdly homoerotic “the Yankees [are] my daddy” quote. The same guy who once taunted that he’d like to “wake up the Bambino, I’ll drill him in the ass” now seemed despondent. “I hope [the Yankees] disappear and never come back. I would rather like to face any other team right now,” he said in the aftermath of a 6-4 loss.

In the Yankees’ locker room, there was suspicion: This was a ploy by Pedro. He was setting them up for their next encounter, trying to lull them into a false sense of security—or maybe beginning a campaign to emulate Clemens and join the Yankees during the winter. Who the hell knows? Martinez is a volatile character, with a penchant for saying stupid things and backing them up with bizarre, confrontational behavior on the field.

The core Yankees are a cold lot; they want to win another championship, and they don’t really care who they beat to get there. The Red Sox, too, aren’t going to complain if their path to the World Series doesn’t run through the Bronx. But in a strange way, the Yankees had better hope Martinez pulls himself together, and the Red Sox would be wise to say a prayer for the continued health of Orlando Hernandez’s right shoulder, at least for the next week or so. Like Frazier and Ali, the two teams have brought out the best in each other. And at a time when an ugly real war is raging in Iraq, and a nasty presidential campaign is being waged domestically, the Yankees versus the Red Sox is a lovely diversion. Nobody ever said jerks can’t play great baseball.


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