BOSTON -- As the Red Sox embark on the American League Championship Series rematch that somehow always seemed fated to happen, they understand that their reward could go even beyond a trip to the World Series.
By conquering the mighty Yankees, the team they've been linked with ever since that infamous trade that sent Babe Ruth out of Boston, this Red Sox team could be the stuff of legend.
If Boston beat New York and then conquered whichever team they faced in the World Series, baseball history book publishers everywhere would be seeking new editions. All those 1918 references would have to be stricken from the record.
"We enjoy the fact that we're going up against history," said Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon. "Nobody is scared of it. Everyone wants to take it. We like the challenge. We're both great teams. That's why we're in this situation. We're trying to create history and they're trying to stop history."
While the ancient history (everything that led up to Bucky Dent) is largely irrelevant because none of the current players were around for it, the recent stuff is what should put this series over the top in terms of intensity.
The Red Sox nearly conquered all of those Yankee demons last Oct. 16, only to have a furious New York comeback squelch it all in Game 7.
Now, with another ace in tow (Curt Schilling) and a stopper out in the bullpen (Keith Foulke), the Red Sox hope they have the team that can stop another heartbreak in its tracks.
"I think we're the best team," said Damon. "Hopefully, the best team wins. We know they're no slouches. We know [Gary] Sheffield can hit every single pitch. As hard as you can throw it, he can do it. We need to be on our game. If we're not, it's going to be another long winter."
Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees
at New York
NYY 10, BOS 7
at New York
NYY 3, BOS 1
at New York
at New York
* If necessary
If the Red Sox can win the World Series, they will do so with the satisfaction of knowing they got through the juggernaut owned by George Steinbrenner and so smoothly operated on the field by classy manager Joe Torre. There could be no more gratifying way to get there.
"I don't want to speak for everybody else. But I think now that it's here, we can kind of admit that if we're able to win a World Series and go through New York along the way, it'll probably mean that much more," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "But the goal is the World Series. So it doesn't really matter who we have to play to get there. The Yankees are a great ballclub. That means that this series represents a big challenge for us."
If there's one advantage the Sox have on paper entering this series, it is their starting rotation. The Red Sox feel they need to exploit that on the field, otherwise they'll be looking at Tom Gordon's fastball-curve combo in the eighth and Mariano Rivera's cutter in the ninth.
Despite having some spurts of success against both relievers this season, the Red Sox know that overturning leads against that duo is no recipe for a World Series ticket.
Instead, they hope to ride their own dynamic duo (Schilling and Pedro Martinez) to a World Series.
"We have to hit their starting pitching and not allow Gordon and Rivera something to say about it," said Sox first baseman Kevin Millar. "They have a tough bullpen in the late innings and they know that. We have to find a way to score runs off [Mike] Mussina and [John] Lieber and their starters."
For all the hype that will be toppled on these teams the next few days, the Red Sox want to tune everything out and stick to the type of game that has served them so well since they took off as a team in mid-August.
Johnny Damon / CF
Weight: 190 lbs
Bats: L / Throws: L
"This is what we're here for," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "This is what baseball wants, this is what the fans want, this is what the players want. There's no better thing you could ask then two of the best teams in the American league going head to head. We need to pitch well and play good defense. If we don't do those things, it's not going to allow us much of a chance."
When you consider not just last October's epic series, but all the events of the offseason and the ultra-intense nature of the season-series between the rivals, there was a sense it would all lead to another best-of-seven showdown.
"We kind of knew it was going to have to go through New York," said Damon, "so, here it goes."
You can break down all the statistics you want. When it comes to Red Sox and Yankees, it's likely going to come down to who can best handle the heat of the moment.
"Execution and performance in the big moments," Epstein said. "It's probably not the team that hits for a higher average but the team that hits with runners in scoring position. It might not be the team that has the lower ERA but the team that pitches its way out of jams the best. It's going to be performance in key spots that will determine the whole series."
Red Sox owner John W. Henry, as big as baseball fan as you'll find, is ready for the games to begin.
"I just don't know how much more there is to say about it," Henry said. "We all know. We played them even for 26 games last year and another 19 this year. It's hard to imagine two more evenly matched teams. We can't ask for more than that in the playoffs."
The fans certainly can't.
"This is what rivalries are about," said Millar. "Two cities that don't like each other. Two of the best teams in the American League. This is exactly the way it should be. With the Red Sox and Yankees going at it for the American League Championship Series, you wouldn't want it any other way."
All Boston wants is a new ending.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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