Rivals in Exile: No Worries

Alex Belth doesn’t live in Rochester, NY, but he is a diehard Yankees fan and he fills in for the vacationing Larry Mahnken to discuss the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry with Ben Jacobs.

Ben Jacobs: The Bruins sure do look good. And the Celtics are in the playoffs for the third straight season. And there are only 150 days left until the Patriots kick off the quest for their third Super Bowl title in four years. So, it’s not all bad news in Boston.

Seriously, I’m obviously not giving up on this baseball season already, but there’s not much that’s more frustrating than when you expect your favorite team to have a great season and they struggle out of the gate. Doubts start to creep in, and those doubts grow the longer it takes for the team to get on track.

It’s only been one week (at least on this continent), but both the Red Sox and Yankees have given their fans plenty of reasons to doubt.

The Red Sox offense is seriously suffering from the absence of Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon so far and the Yankees offense is simply suffering right now. I expected both teams to be able to bash most opponents into submission, but it simply hasn’t happened consistently yet for either club.

Both teams have also received up-and-down performances from their pitchers. The Yankees have only had two good starters so far, while the Red Sox didn’t have any starter pitch more than six innings the first time through the rotation. That caused the bullpen to get worn out and ultimately led to Bobby Jones having to stay out and walk four batters to force in the winning run in the 13th inning on Thursday.

I’m not really worried yet because the Red Sox have 156 games left to play and I still think they’ll win 95 or so of them. However, if they’re still hanging around the .500 mark two weeks from now, I may be in full-fledged panic mode.

How about you? Are you already having trouble staying calm this season or are you simply taking the early struggles in stride?

Alex Belth: Well, as far as the complete sports picture looks, I should say that Bostonians have it a damn sight better than New Yorkers do. First of all, you’ve got the Pats, a bonafide championship team that’s given you two Super Bowls in three years. Next, the Celts — left for dead by their self-possessed general manager — are a scrappy eighth-seed playoff team. It would be a surprise if they got out of the first round, but as of last year, the Celtics were a team on the rise.

The Knicks might be better than the Celts right now, but I would be surprised if they could beat either Indiana or New Jersey, too. The Knicks aren’t that good. They might be one of the more appealing Knicks teams in a long time, but they aren’t that good a team yet.

I can’t speak on the Bruins cause I don’t follow hockey. And of course, the Red Sox are right up there with the Yankees. It’s on them to finally beat the Yankees, simple as that. Whether they’ll do it is another thing altogether.

As far as being worried about how crappy the Yankees have played for the last week, I’m not sweating it. They suck, so what? Everybody’s entitled. This early in the season, you’ve got to be able to look kindly on your team when they are inept and constipated and sputtering. If you can’t forgive your team now, at the very start of the season, then when can you?

With the Yankees, it’s been simple: the offense has been terrible. They’ve gotten two solid starts from Kevin Brown, and another fine one from Javier Vazquez. But Mussina got knocked around twice, Contreras was as vague as always, and DePaula wasn’t so hot neither. And the bullpen has been mediocre as well.

What can you say? On Friday, Hideki Matsui walked to start the third inning, and Bernie Williams followed with a walk. Then Matsui was caught sleeping in the late afternoon sun, and got picked off of second.

There was a great picture capturing the play in the Daily News on Saturday (I don’t think it’s available on-line). Matsui is diving back to second base. Fully stretched out, Matsui looks like a cartoon super hero in mid-flight. It is a picture perfect slide.

The only thing is, Matsui is a good foot and a half away from second base, being tagged out easily. Matsui’s head is in the dirt, and as the announcers commented at the time, you can see that Matsui wished he could bury his head deeper in the dirt. How mortifying.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

With one out, Chicago starter Jon Garland would work into more trouble, walking two more batters. But he escaped the inning without allowing a run.

For the Yankees, that pretty much sums up their slump. Four walks in one inning, without bubkus to show for it. Eventually, the Yankees are going to get the big hit, or couple of hits, and they are going to have two or three big innings in one game. I guess it’s just going to take them a little bit of time to warm up. But I’m not doubting whether or not they are a good offensive team.

Maybe the Yankees just have to play the Red Sox before they get emotionally embroiled in the season. After all, it’s the next two weekends: seven games, the real test. The heat will be on Rodriguez in Boston, so it should be intense. Pretty early on, it will get our juices jumping, wouldn’t you say?

Let me ask you this: What about this year’s Yankee team scares you more than last year’s? Which one of the new Yankees scares you the most from a position of “Man, I don’t wan’t to see him in a tight spot, that guy is murder.”

I’ll be the first to admit that Schilling scares me. Scares me in the sense that he can just go out there and dominate teams on a regular basis. And now we’ve got to face him and Pedro. Oy.

I’m not sold on Lowe being as good as he’s been, but if he does turn out to be nasty again, I won’t be surprised. If those three guys are dealing, the Sox are going to be trouble to deal with.

Same goes for the Yankees. If Vazquez, Brown and Mussina are all on top of their game, the Yankees are going to score runs, and they’ll be tough. I haven’t gotten upset at any of the Yankee losses yet — OK a little nudgey, though not really angry.

However, I will be a little concerned if Mussina gets shelled again tomorrow. Maybe not concerned, but a little anxious, restless. If Mikey Moose has a strong start on Easter Sunday, and the Yankee bats can manage to relax and score some runs, then all will be right in Yankee-land for me.

BJ: I’m definitely feeling a lot better now, at 10:30 on Saturday night, than I was when I wrote my last comment about eight hours ago. It’s amazing how calming it is to have Pedro go out and toy with a team like he did tonight.

Pedro is not the same pitcher he was in 1999 and 2000, when you just knew he was going to pitch well every single time out and it was a complete shock if he allowed even three runs. However, the disaster that so many people were foretelling in spring training has clearly not arrived and I’ll still take Pedro over any other pitcher in baseball.

As for which new Yankee scares me the most, it’s got to be Brown. He’s very similar to Pedro, but maybe just a step below. When he’s healthy, you know he’ll give your team a chance to win pretty much every time out, but you’ve always got to cross your fingers and hope he doesn’t hurt anything.

Also, while Yankee fans remember Schilling making three tough starts against them in 2001, I remember Brown outpitching Randy Johnson, Mike Hampton and Tom Glavine in 1998. If Brown’s still healthy in October, he gives the Yankees a kind of Pedro-esque pitcher that they’ve really never had in their recent run of success.

And while I don’t think of Rodriguez or Gary Sheffield as being any tougher in a big spot than any other great hitter, the middle of that New York lineup does scare me. It’s just hard to imagine being able to get through A-Rod, Giambi and Sheffield too many times without at least one of them doing something to hurt you.

Maybe you’re right that both teams will up the intensity a bit when they square off this weekend, but I actually don’t really like them meeting this early in the season. I’m still starting to get into the flow of the season, and I’ve already got to watch seven games that are going to feel like October.

I like it better when they both have about six weeks to establish themselves at the top of the AL East standings and then come together to trade the first really important punches of the season. I generally don’t pay much attention to the standings until mid-May, and it’s nice to have my notion that the records finally have some meaning enforced by the appearance of such weighty games on the schedule.

Of course, having said that, I’ve got to come clean and mention that I’m incredibly lucky that the Red Sox and Yankees are playing each other earlier this season. I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but my best friend is a big Yankees fan and his family has four tickets to every Sunday home game for the Yankees.

My friend’s brother attends Duke University, and he won’t be able to fly back home on the last weekend of April, so they’ve got an extra ticket available. If Boston’s first trip to the Bronx was in late-May like last year, his school year would be over and he’d be at home to use his ticket. Lucky me, to say the least.

I went to three Red Sox-Yankees games at Yankee Stadium with my friend last year, incuding the second game of the ALCS, and two of the three (the ALCS game and the Pedro-Mussina matchup on July 7) were amazingly intense.

If that game on Sunday, April 25 is anything like those two games, then my juices will definitely be going strong after that. Hopefully, the teams will be putting on the kind of show we were all expecting by then.

AB: It’s Sunday night, and I too am feeling better. Mussina wasn’t great today, but he was better. He improved as the game went on, and settled into a rhythm (Mussina gave up three runs in the first, and only one after that).

The Yankee offense wasn’t great, but it was better as well. Jeter and Sheffield each had a couple of hits, and who else but Bubba Crosby hit the big home run. The three-run job off the facade of the upper deck that put the Yankees ahead for good.

Crosby, of course, is a sure-fire fan-favorite. The freakin’ guy is practically made to order: he’s got the big ears, the Charlie Hustle attitude, and his name is Bubba for cryin’ out loud. He even had the chutzpah to “style” his homer a bit on the follow-through to his swing.

Did you see that? He let his right arm dangle for a moment, just like a basketball player does after he shoots a wide-open jumper. Bubba knew it was gone, man. Part of what made it so exciting is you got the sense that Bubba appreciated exactly how big the home run was for the team.

As he was running around the bases, he pumped his fist and yelled, “YEAH!” I love that kind of “aawww, nutzo,” spaz intensity. It reminds me of good ham acting like when Dustin Hoffman or Michael Douglas lets out a good fist-pumping, “Oh, Yeah!” Or Ron Silver or James Woods or Ed Harris, too.

Now that’s the way to help when a team is slumping. Get the unsung scrub with the catchy name to juice the team with a big hit and some energy in the field. Crosby made two nice running catches as well — one was especially good.

Kenny Lofton, meet your worst nightmare.

I hear you about Brown. I’m loving the guy. I much prefer the combination of Vazquez and Brown to that of Pettitte and Clemens personality-wise, stylistically, looks, you name it.

I love watching both Brown and Javy pitch, too. Brown looks like he’s punishing himself with each delivery; the guy is an angst-fest of pitching torment. Vazquez on the other hand is a smooth operator, a stud. He’s got great mechanics, and a simple, textbook delivery. I love how much he uses his legs in his motion. I liked Weaver and I like Contreras, but those cats sling the ball up there and it’s frustrating to watch. Vazquez uses his entire body efficiently, and it’s a joy to watch.

My fantasy is that Yankee-haters fear Gary Sheffield the most of the new Yankees, although you may be right that all the new hitters are equally scary. The thing that impresses me about Sheffield is how much it looks like he wants to hurt the ball. Like the ball did something to him. Not necessarily the pitcher, but the pitch. The guy flat punishes that ball.

In his first at-bat today, he hit the ball so hard that the center fielder had to dive for it like an infielder. When Sheffield hits the ball, all I can think of is the old Bugs Bunny cartoon with the screaming ball.

Piazza does the same thing too, but Piazza is stoic and calm in the box. Sheffield doesn’t stop twitching that bat back and forth. What makes it all so much fun from my point of view is that Sheffield brings this pissed-off disposition to each and every at-bat. Every time he’s up there, it’s like a schlock movie trailer: “This time, it’s personal.”

Paul O’Neill used to love to smash water coolers, Sheffield loves to harm the ball. Hey whatever works.

I remember that he used to dip, or chew tabacco and would spit constantly while he was hitting. It drove me to distraction so much that I had a hard time watching the guy. He was too jittery for me, too hyper. But I noticed that he settled down by the time he got to Atlanta.

Now, as he waits in the box, he bites down on his lower lip like Billy Crystal doing an Ali impersonation. But there is an edge, a “Beware of Dog” vibe about the guy too. Sheffield feels a lot closer to Ray Lewis or some hard-rock linebacker than he does to most baseball players.

Great win for the Sox today, too. Fitting that Ortiz wins it with a walk-off dinger. Everything is a-feelin’ alright in Sox Nation when Ortiz gets the game winer, huh? Talk to me, kid, I know you’re happy.

I hope you have a good time at the Yankee-Sox games you attend. I usually wind up at a couple a year at Yankee Stadium, but I’ve got to be honest, I don’t enjoy them much. First of all, the only time a rival crowd ever shows up in legitimate force at Yankee Stadium are Sox fans. Not even Mets fans get such a showing. Not only that, but the Sox fan is there to make noise, or at least as a collective they are. The irony is that Yankee fans show up at ballparks around the country and make a show of themselves.

And when the Yankees beat the Sox at home, Yankee fans get snide and nasty. I can appreciate the intensity, but so much of the energy is made up of ill will, that it bums me out. It’s hard to enjoy good banter with people who are more interested in finding ways to express that either the “Yankees suck” or the “Red Sox suck.” The WWF mentality which often prevails is a real turnoff for me. All that bitterness is just tired after awhile.

There is a mean-spiritedness on display at Yankee-Red Sox games, and a potential for violence, too. At the Prospectus/Pinstriped Bible Pizza feed this winter, Murray Markowitz said that the next step in the how-hot-can-this-rivalry-get? is for a fan to get seriously hurt. For something really ugly to happen in the Bronx or at Fenway. And I can’t say that I’d be surprised if it happened.

BJ: Easter Sunday was definitely a good day for both clubs. The Red Sox won a game the way they seemed to win so often last year and the Yankees avoided falling two games below .500 for the first time since they started the 1998 season 1-4.

Of course, we all know how 1998 turned out for them, so that’s just another reminder that it’s way too early to panic about anything.

I’m definitely happy that the Red Sox won, but I didn’t get that rush of excitement that you get at the moment of a walk-off homer because I didn’t find out the Red Sox had won until around seven. I was busy watching an individual who I could definitely sympathize with and for whom I’m very happy right now.

I’m talking, of course, about Phil Mickelson and his amazing Masters victory. As most people know, Mickelson had been the best player to never win a major tournament, having gone 0-for-42 in them with some agonizingly close losses.

Sounds kind of like a certain team from Boston, huh? In fact, columnists across the nation have been writing the same stupid stuff about both Mickelson and the Red Sox (and the Cubs, too).

They said that the Red Sox shouldn’t win a World Series because they’ll go from being a special, cursed, even tragic team to being just another team that’s won a title. Just this weekend, Mike Bianchi wrote something similar about Mickelson. Some columnists have even gone so far as to suggest that if the Red Sox win, their fans will be upset by the loss of their special identity. Well, is Mickelson mad about losing his special place in golf? Absolutely not.

If you watched the Masters, you saw Mickelson with a goofy grin on his face almost all afternoon, as though he already knew he’d win and he couldn’t wait to let everybody else know too. And once he did win, that celebration he had was one for the ages. What did he have to say about it afterward?

“I think having, in the past ten years, come so close so many times, to have had putts made on me in the last holes to lose by a shot, to have had good last rounds fall short, to have bad last rounds and fall short, to have it be such a difficult journey to win my first major, makes it that much more special, sweeter, and it just feels awesome.”

That’s exactly the feeling that I expect to have when, not if, the Red Sox win another World Series. And when they do, I want them to do it just like Mickelson did Sunday.

Mickelson didn’t win his first major because somebody else screwed up and he was the next-best option. He won his first major because he shot 31 on the back nine on Sunday, because he made three straight birdies coming out of Amen Corner, because he became just the fourth player to birdie the 72nd hole at the Masters when everything was riding on one putt.

That’s what I want the Red Sox to do. I want them to earn their own way into the playoffs. I want them to beat the Yankees in the ALCS. I want them to win each playoff series on their own merit, not because of a blown call or an injury to the other team or something like that.

Some people might think that’s too much to ask for, that I should just hope for a World Series title any way I can get it and even that might be asking too much of this franchise. Well, people said similar things about Mickelson until recently.

So, Sunday was a fun day for me not just because the Red Sox won, but also because a man provided a stunning reminder that just because something’s never happened before, that doesn’t mean you can’t make it happen. The Red Sox can surely win the World Series, they just need to make it happen.

Just as this was the time for Mickelson, hopefully this is the time for the Red Sox.

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