Photo: AP World Photos

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.

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.