Editor's Note: This column appears in the May 24 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
Nobody mangles celebrity names like my mom. Who else would call Tupac "Shupac Tukar," or P.J. Carlesimo "Pietro San Giacomo?" So last week, when she started a baseball conversation by asking about "A-Job," I should have known better.
"A-Job? Who's A-Job?"
"The new guy on the Yankees. A-Job. Doesn't seem like anyone likes him very much."
Only Mom could make A-Rod sound like a Bond villain. But that's beside the point. Mom has always been a sports litmus test for me. If she's asking, it's probably a big deal. And this Yankees-Sox rivalry has officially reached Mom Status. You could argue that it's the No.1 running story in sports, bigger than steroids, bigger than the Kobe saga, even bigger than the Christies. Call it the cold war of sports.
Like every other Sox fan, I was riding high after my team grabbed six of seven in April. There was a different feel to those games, a nastier edge, like those crazy soccer matches in England. A friend of mine attended the Saturday game at Fenway and sat next to some maniac wearing a "JETER HAS AIDS" T-shirt. A-Rod and Jeter ate lunch downtown that same weekend, sitting at a window table as Sox fans strolled up to the glass and waved middle fingers. Welcome to Boston. When dozens of these stories made the rounds, Yankee fans vowed revenge for the rematch in the Bronx. Some radio stations even told Sox fans not to wear red at the Stadium. This had become baseball's version of "Boyz N the Hood."
Maybe Sox fans were always insane, but everything that's happened since October, including the surreal A-Job saga, has pushed our devotion to another level. Sometimes I worry that we're becoming a clichè. Just last month, somebody released a documentary about Sox fans. "Outside the Lines" devoted an entire show to the Boston faithful. And BusinessWeek (BusinessWeek?!) stuck Pedro on the cover. Everyone pimped the same angles: tortured fans, decades of frustration, blah blah blah. When Fox televised the first Yanks-Sox game, they mentioned Babe Ruth at least 10,000 times. Enough already.
To me, the Yankees are much more interesting. With all those "After the game, Steinbrenner was sobbing uncontrollably ..." anecdotes, he must be ready for a room at Whispering Hills. More tapioca, Mr. Steinbrenner? Would you like one of the attendants to wheel you outside? He's clearly a lunatic. This could be the year that Brian Cashman stands up in the owner's box, calmly dumps a plate of chicken fingers all over The Boss, and tells him to screw off.
And who could blame him? Because of George's ill-advised spending sprees, this isn't a typical Torre Era team. Those clubs had hard-nosed guys who respected one another and valued winning over everything else. Whether it was bigger stars (O'Neill and Pettitte) or role players (Brosius and Sojo), the old Yanks rose to the occasion when it mattered. One by one, those reliable soldiers have faded away, making room for a group of overpaid guys who haven't proven anything. The Contreras meltdown symbolized that. This isn't the same team. They can be taken.
I attended the Sunday Sox-Yanks game at the Stadium, a drizzly and lifeless afternoon that inspired memories of the Mel Hall years. The crowd was dead. And it wasn't just the weather. They don't like this current team very much. Listening to the rightfield fans performing their ritual in the first inning-chanting the names of Sheffield and Giambi, especially -- you could tell their hearts weren't in it. Rodriguez was treated like a substitute teacher, with polite respect masking a twinge of rebellion in the air. In the eighth, Yankee fans even did the unthinkable and booed Jeter. It was like watching Tony Montana shoot Manny.
They may grow to love these guys, but it won't be the same. Not with A-Rod aboard. He left Seattle; they won 25 more games. He left Texas; they transformed into the hottest team in baseball. This can't be a coincidence. When I wrote about the "Ewing Theory" years ago -- where a team improves after its best player disappears -- I never imagined Rodriguez would become the poster boy. Here's a guy who took an absurd contract from Texas, then wondered why there weren't enough resources left for a competitive team. He's the kind of guy who says things like, "I've come to a point in my career where winning is the most important thing." And yes, that's an actual quote. Maybe you can win with guys like this, but it always feels tainted, like you sold a little of your soul in the process.
I think I'm glad the Sox kept Manny, Nomar and Williamson. I think there is a reason A-Rod never carried a team to greatness. I think he quit on the Rangers and the good people of Texas. I think he symbolizes all that's wrong with the 2004 Yanks-hired guns with no real connection to one another.
And most of all, I think I like it when Mom calls him "A-Job." Maybe he's not a Bond villain yet, but, frankly, there's still time.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine