NEW YORK When the Yankees play the Red Sox, it's baseball's version of the Hatfields versus the McCoys and that's when they meet during the regular season. Starting Wednesday night, the AL pennant will be on the line.
And if you listen to Boston's Todd Walker, the title of best team in baseball is at stake in the AL championship series.
''The team that wins this wins the World Series. We're the two best teams in baseball,'' he said Tuesday. ''No disrespect to the Cubs and the Marlins, but we're the best two teams.''
Traveling across the country after its dramatic win at Oakland on Monday night, the Red Sox arrived in New York at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday to take on the team Boston president Larry Lucchino called the ''Evil Empire.''
The Yankees, coming off a first-round win over Minnesota, are seeking their 39th AL pennant, trying to get to the World Series for the fifth time in six seasons.
And their always-demanding fans are looking for their team to restore luster to a franchise that hasn't gone to the World Series in two long years since the seven-game loss to Arizona in 2001.
Losing to the Red Sox would bring unthinkable shame upon Yankee fans, who weren't pleased their team won the season series by only 10-9, getting outscored 109-94. To them, beating Boston is a rite of nature, a close-to-annual event since former Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to New York in 1920 for $125,000 plus a $350,000 loan that helped finance his Broadway musical, ''No, No Nanette.''
While the players might not know the history of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio or Carlton Fisk or Thurman Munson, they understand the importance of advancing.
''Do I hate the Boston Red Sox? Do I hate their players?'' Derek Jeter asked rhetorically. ''No, I don't hate their players. I want to beat them, though.''
When Boston's Tim Wakefield takes the mound against Mike Mussina in the opener, the Red Sox will try to continue the roll that began when they overcame a 2-0 deficit in the first round against Oakland, sweeping three straight games to advance to the ALCS for the first time since 1999 when they lost 4-1 to the Yankees.
The Red Sox are looking for their first AL pennant since 1986, trying to lift their curse and win their first World Series title in 85 years.
''If you hear '1918' once, you'll hear it 10,000 times over the next seven days,'' said Derek Lowe, their scheduled Game 2 starter. ''But until you win one, the Yankees fans are going to keep on saying it.''
Not winning the World Series since 1918 has left carousels of emotional baggage in Beantown, where the mere mention of Munson or Bucky Dent is likely to start an argument at the Cask 'N Flagon, the bar behind Fenway Park's Green Monster.
''In Boston, they've got places like yankeehaters.com,'' Gabe Kapler said.
In New York, derisive and often profane chants about the Red Sox are as common as bagels. No need for extra playoff hype in this series.
''The atmosphere was like this when we came here in May, and it will be like that any time the Red Sox come to New York, or anytime New York goes to Boston,'' Red Sox manager Grady Little said. ''All they have to do is walk around the street and get breakfast, they will know what the atmosphere is going to be like.''
New York manager Joe Torre knows about intense rivalries, having grown up when there were three major league teams in New York, having managed the St. Louis Cardinals against the Chicago Cubs and the Yankees against the Red Sox and the Mets.
''The only thing that would come close to this rivalry for me is when I grew up in the '50s and having the Dodgers-Giants rivalry,'' he said. ''It was warlike.''
There will be several individual dramas:
Roger Clemens returning to Fenway Park one final time to pitch Game 3 against Pedro Martinez.
Jeter on the same field with Nomar Garciaparra, his shortstop rival to the north.
Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer back at Fenway Park against the team he managed in the loss to Dent and New York in the infamous 1978 one-game playoff.
Throughout the season, the Red Sox have played up the ''Evil Empire'' angle. Boston promoted a series against New York with music from ''Star Wars'' and had actor James Earl Jones the voice of Darth Vader recite the national anthem. Lucchino called the Yankees the ''Evil Empire'' last winter after New York beat out the Red Sox in the competition to sign Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner didn't seem pleased.
''I though it was a semi-clever reference to Star Wars,'' Lucchino said. ''The commissioner (Bud Selig) has asked us to cease and desist after George responded by calling me everything but an ax murderer.''
Notes: The Red Sox won't know until Wednesday whether OF Johnny Damon, who sustained a concussion in Monday's crash with Damian Jackson, will be available. Damon returned to Boston on Tuesday and was to see a neurologist. Boston also was waiting test results on RHP Byung-Hyun Kim, who has a sore arm. ... Torre said New York might make roster changes but wasn't sure.
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