Commentary

New zoo review: Boston is burning

Yankees to visit rival Sox, whose public turmoil is straight out of Boss' book

Updated: April 19, 2012, 5:44 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

While the Yankees waft along looking like the Island of Peace -- they're not thrilled but not exactly grinding their teeth at night over their early won-lost record, either -- the Red Sox team they will face for the first time this season, beginning with Friday's 100-year anniversary celebration of Fenway Park, has turned into the sort of circus act The Boss' Yankees used to be.

How long now before somebody gives the Sox some spin-off nickname like the Back Bay Zoo?

It fits.

"Honestly, I haven't been paying attention to what's going on up there," Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher claimed as he sat by his locker Wednesday, mixing a pregame nutritional drink.

[+] EnlargeBobby Valentine
J. Meric/Getty ImagesIs everything OK for Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox? Hardly.

So he didn't see what Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said?

"That something Bobby Valentine just tried might work in Japan, but not as a manager here?" Swisher shot back, his memory miraculously restored.

And it was hard not to laugh.

The Yankees always know what's going on with the Red Sox, and vice versa. The two teams are joined by invisible leg irons every season. It doesn't matter who else is contending in the American League East. But in the last week alone, even the capsule summary of the dramas going on in Boston is complicated, and goes something like this:

Pedroia, the team's unofficial captain, upbraided Valentine for tweaking the commitment of slumping third baseman Kevin Youkilis, who was already under suspicion among some teammates for being the anonymous rat who exposed the in-game beer and chicken potlucks the pitching staff had last season, even as the Sox were going through their historically bad September free fall out of the playoffs.

"Worrying about beer and chicken is for amateurs -- for kids!" scoffs Yankees legend Reggie Jackson. Speaking Wednesday as he watched the Yanks take batting practice at Yankee Stadium, Jackson added: "So what if it happened? They're all grown men."

If the Red Sox's hangover from the September meltdown were all that was happening, that would be enough. But pitcher Josh Beckett is still vowing to find the locker room rat that exposed him, Jon Lester and John Lackey for dialing up Popeye's Chicken, now and then anyway. Last year's MVP candidate, Jacoby Ellsbury, is out two months with the shoulder he injured over the weekend. Carl Crawford -- who learned last year not all of top management wanted to sign him to the monster contract he still hasn't lived up to -- is still battling a bad wrist.

Terry Francona -- who quit the Sox in disgust after last season -- initially said he wouldn't be attending Friday's big celebration of Fenway because he had a phone fight with team president Larry Lucchino. The same Lucchino who pushed for the hiring of one Bobby Valentine over the alleged objections of his new GM, Ben Cherrington, who only has the job because Theo Epstein bolted town after last year's rancorous collapse, too. (On Monday, Cherrington didn't have Valentine's back, either. Like Pedroia, Cherrington said he didn't understand what Valentine was thinking when he tweaked Youkilis.)

The season is barely two weeks old and already there's enough drama to fill a book.

Suggested working title: "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fens is Burning."

Francona, now an ESPN analyst, has reconsidered since giving his brutally frank interview to The Boston Globe detailing his lingering bad feelings about how he was smeared when he left. Francona, who presided with Epstein over Boston's two curse-busting World Series wins, now says he will attend Friday's celebration of Fenway after all -- which may create yet another opportunity for public embarrassment for Valentine if the Fenway crowd breaks into a loving ovation for Francona that rolls on and on. (Gentlemen, start your stopwatches.)

The Red Sox had an off-day Thursday after being swept by Texas to fall to 4-8.

All of this is a great contrast with the Yankees, whose biggest drama right now is, well, what? What's wrong with Phil Hughes? Some water-cooler talk about whether offseason acquisition Hiroki Kuroda can cut it in the AL East?

Even those early concerns are nothing that can't be solved by Andy Pettitte's effective return from the minors, where he's getting into shape after unretiring a little late, and Michael Pineda's comeback from the shoulder tendinitis that put him on the disabled list.

Swisher -- explaining he's "always been a big rivalry guy since I was a kid growing up watching Ohio State and Michigan football" -- says he's looking forward to getting back to Fenway and taking part in the anniversary celebration because, "You just know they're going to do it right. It's Yanks-Sox, which is the only matchup it could be on a day like that. And I think it's going to be great."

Both teams are going to wear throwback uniforms. Red Sox management has invited back every living player to be part of the celebration. Though the Red Sox have been tight-lipped about most of the exact details beyond that, Swisher says he was told the game's start time was moved to 3:15 p.m. because that was the exact time the first game at Fenway started 100 years ago.

New York's and Boston's baseball teams feel as if they've been locked in a 100-year war ever since. But all of a sudden it's the Yankees who are looking like the beige team -- move along people, nothing to look at here -- and it's the Red Sox who are batting down controversies involving a volatile manager and clubhouse, firebrand ownership and zoolike atmosphere that inspires tall tales.

The other day, River Ave. Blues blogger Mike Axisa jokingly suggested that Sox pitchers Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon (whose 49.50 ERA unmercifully froze in place when he was sent down to Triple-A Pawtucket Wednesday) are actually "embedded" ex-Yankees "paying dividends" early on.

It was a delightfully cockeyed, outrageous observation of how the Sox-Yanks rivalry is trending right now. Which is to say, it fits.

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