Yankees-Red Sox rivalry renewed

When we last left our fierce combatants, the New York Yankees were splashing around on their new field, awash in championship afterglow. CC Sabathia came, saw and delivered, the ace the Yankees hadn't had in years, vanquishing his past postseason suffering and any notion that his laid-back, California cool could not handle the hot New York summer and even hotter fall.

Alex Rodriguez, at least where his on-field legacy was concerned, was finally redeemed, blistering through the autumn with fearsome power and staggering heroics, the big stand and his big talent coalescing once and for all into a memorable championship month.

Randy Levine, the combative Yankees president, mugged and hugged and squeezed every hand when the World Series was over. The Yankees had won a championship, which is always sweet, and it was made sweeter by beating the prideful and valiant Pedro Martinez twice. That the Yankees had won a title without Joe Torre gave Levine's smile even more wattage.

Meanwhile, a few weeks earlier, the Boston Red Sox, a standard-bearing team hurtling toward inevitable transition, said goodbye to the 2009 season unevenly: losing eight of 10 games to end September, rebounding to win their final four, only to be swept out of the postseason by the perpetually tormented Los Angeles Angels, the finale coming at home after blowing a 5-1 lead to a motivated Angels team that rallied for three ninth-inning runs off the previously unhittable Jonathan Papelbon. If the Yankees finished the baseball season restored, the Red Sox were left somewhat diminished, their aura dimmed, the thunderous, legendary comebacks that defined the prior eight years for once unrealized, the reputation -- for the first time in years -- bigger than the final results.

Winter is over in New England, according to the calendar at least, and so is last year, and now the best rivalry in professional sports will resume when the Red Sox host the Yankees on Sunday night, introducing the 2010 baseball season.

For those who grind their teeth with annoyance that the Red Sox and Yankees forever move the needle -- in influence both with the television networks and with the executives who run Major League Baseball, given the considerable number of big-name players who know the brightest lights and the biggest paydays exist along Interstate 95 -- the return of the rivalry (on Opening Night, no less) is not a welcome sight. Statistically, though, it has suffered a merciful lull.

Before last season's title, the Yankees hadn't played in a World Series since 2003; meanwhile, over the past two seasons since the Red Sox won it all in 2007, they have been a dramatically less fearsome offensive team, if not statistically then certainly in the minds of their opponents. In addition, the two-time defending National League champion Philadelphia Phillies, if not easily better than both Boston and New York, have muscled into what had been for years an exclusive club. The Sox, Phillies and Yankees have won the last three World Series.

Were it not for its formidable reach as a superpower and its ability to regenerate through money and influence, the Boston club would not be nearly as interesting. The eight years from 2002 to 2009 were the greatest, most successful run since the seven years beginning in 1912 -- the year Fenway Park opened -- until 1918, the infamous Last Championship Season. During those years, essentially the dawning of the Age of Ruth, the Red Sox won the World Series four times and won 100 games twice (and they have won 100 games only three times in 110 seasons).

The Red Sox have averaged 94 wins since 2002 -- the most victories on average during any eight-year stretch in the franchise's history -- and made the playoffs six times, winning two World Series. And even though the Red Sox have won exactly one division title since 1995 -- no one should thank Bud Selig for the wild card more than Boston -- the last eight years had turned the Red Sox into something more: a superpower with as much influence as any team in the league.

Between Boston and New York, free agents and players with no-trade clauses know where to go for their paydays: Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Johnny Damon (twice), Jose Contreras, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Gary Sheffield, and now John Lackey, who joined the Red Sox rotation after his last appearance in an Angels uniform, a no-decision against the Yankees in Game 5 of the ALCS. The effect on the league has been the perception that there is one matchup that trumps every other in baseball, and it resides in the American League East.

But the Red Sox, even while winning 95 games in 2009, were not the fearsome team of the recent past. Time has taken its toll on these championship Red Sox -- on Jason Varitek (who hit .209 and is now the captain as backup) and on the team itself, which is now transitioning post-Manny Ramirez, post-Damon, post-Schilling and post-David Ortiz (as a ferocious, Hall of Fame-level prime-time player) into the team of Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis. The Red Sox are dangerous, certainly, but the old aura is gone.

That aura, which engulfed the Torre Yankees and Angels, like all others, began to fade in 2008, when the Tampa Bay Rays proved they could take the Red Sox down in the postseason, winning a memorable seven-game series in the ALCS. Last year, the Angels, who could do nothing in the past but scare the Red Sox during the season only to lose to them in the fall, also exorcised Fenway Park demons. And the Yankees finally recovered from 2004. The Red Sox destroyed the Yankees until the All-Star break, and then the Yankees got healthy and better and ran right past them, leaving the Red Sox, the American League, and lastly, the Phillies in a vapor trail.

That is not to say the Red Sox will not be a winning team, but it's a new era. The time when recording the 27th out at Fenway Park was the hardest out in the game has passed. The old faces are, for the most part, gone. Lackey, Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron will begin a new chapter.

The Yankees, naturally, provide the other half of the superpower bookend, and their chapter, too, is one of transition. World Series heroes Damon and Matsui are gone. The outfielders are not recognizable as true Yankees. Javier Vazquez, he who gave up the first-pitch grand slam to Damon in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS at Yankee Stadium, is back in the Bronx for a second act.

If there is a player who is a staple of his time, it is Derek Jeter, 253 hits from 3,000, career .317 hitter, averaging 208 hits per season, the player who vanquished all competitors (at shortstop there was once also Nomar and A-Rod and Tejada, but Jeter is still there). He has risen in stature. The discredited steroid era has left baseball hoping and praying for an ambassador, and after attaching itself to every suspiciously muscle-bound slugger, the game finally realized last year that it had its man all along, standing where he's been since his debut in 1995.

And while it does seem implausible that either the Yankees or Jeter, who will be 36 this summer, will engage in a dangerous game of cat and mouse, it is nevertheless true that Jeter will be a free agent at the end of the season. So, too, will the 40-year-old Mariano Rivera (Rivera, 40?). The curtain on this era's edition of Yankees-Red Sox is rising and closing simultaneously.

And yet, Red Sox-Yankees still contains a certain appeal, with the expectation that sometime during the 19 games these two teams play one another, the new cast on both sides will be indoctrinated deeper into the rivalry, while the old guard -- Ortiz and Jeter, Jorge Posada and Varitek -- remain for last moments. The renewal is days away. Or maybe a surprise awaits us in the American League, and Tampa Bay will realize it took 2009 off and return to its dangerous state of 2008 and break up this two-party system.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter @hbryant42 reach him at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.