NEW YORK, April 3 -- If you closed your eyes Sunday night and listened only to the sounds of Yankee Stadium -- the piercing roar of the F-18 fighter jets, the cheers for the New York Yankees, the jeers for the Boston Red Sox, the constant and indescribable buzz -- it was easy to make yourself believe it was still October 2004 and baseball's postseason was still careening along on its indeterminate path, searching for a champion.
But then you opened your eyes and saw things that did not compute: Randy Johnson on the mound, in pinstripes. David Wells on the same mound, not in pinstripes. And most jarring of all, the Red Sox walking around completely devoid of angst -- walking around, in fact, like champions. Even when they didn't play as such.
Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez snags a grounder down the first base line hit from Boston's Johnny Damon in the seventh inning Sunday.
(Julie Jacobson - AP)
_____From The Post_____
Yankees throttle champion Red Sox, 9-2, in season opener Sunday.
Devil Rays' Alex Sanchez receives 10-day suspension after failing illegal substance test.
Sidney Ponson finishes spring training strong for the Orioles.
On baseball's Opening Night, the Red Sox and Yankees renewed possibly the best rivalry in sports and pondered its redefined boundaries. The Yankees prevailed, 9-2, behind six dazzling innings by new ace Johnson -- the pitcher they desperately needed but lacked last fall -- while the Red Sox, the defending World Series champion Red Sox, appeared to be in the grips of a giant hangover, the kind that comes after a five-month celebration.
"It's Yankee Stadium, pitching against the defending world champs," Johnson said. "I'm being thrown out there on Opening Day. I didn't see it so much as pressure, but as a challenge."
This was the first meaningful Red Sox-Yankees game since Game 7 of last fall's American League Championship Series -- when the Red Sox completed the most stunning comeback in baseball's postseason history, vanquishing the Yankees for a fourth straight game and earning a berth in the World Series, where they swept the St. Louis Cardinals.
"It was the first game we won since Game 3" of that ALCS, Yankees Manager Joe Torre said. "It was a long winter waiting to get on the field again."
On a 43-degree night, Johnson was borderline brilliant in his pinstriped debut, allowing only one run on five hits while striking out six. Wells, the former Yankee Stadium hero, was borderline brutal in his return to the Bronx, giving up 10 hits and four earned runs over 4 1/3 shaky innings and at one point committing a balk with the bases loaded.
Left fielder Hideki Matsui carried the Yankees' offense, stroking a pair of key singles off Wells, smashing a two-run homer off Matt Mantei in the eighth and scoring three runs. He also robbed Kevin Millar of a two-run homer with a leaping catch at the wall in the second inning. The renewal of the rivalry, baseball's best story, closed the door on one of the sport's worst winters, and it came not a minute too soon. The steroid story continues to grow new tentacles, and right up until first pitch the clubhouses were filled with talk of baseball's first publicly announced positive test, that of Tampa Bay's Alex Sanchez.
But just as baseball had hoped, when the lights went on, the steroid story ceased to exist for three hours.
The Yankees' own steroid-tainted first baseman, Jason Giambi, got a welcome worthy of a returning hero. The home crowd cheered lustily when his name was announced during pregame introductions, then rose to its feet and cheered again when the first baseman made his first trip to the plate.
Giambi, whose reported steroid-use admission over the winter rocked the sport, surely will encounter hostility elsewhere. But here, he soaked in the applause, composed himself and stroked a single. In all, Giambi reached base in three of his five plate appearances, the way he used to.
It had been 86 years since the Red Sox last opened the defense of a World Series title, and a handwritten sign that hung from a railing behind home plate summed up how Yankees fans feel about that prospect: "1918 . . . 2004 . . . 2090," the sign read. "Bet on it!"
Hatred of the Red Sox runs deeper than the love for any individual. A year ago, when the beloved Wells returned to Yankee Stadium as a San Diego Padre, the standing ovation he received left him on the verge of tears.
But no such greeting awaited him Sunday night. Wells, wearing No. 3 for the Red Sox, was booed on his way to the bullpen before the game, booed again during the introductions of the teams and booed a third time when he strolled to the mound for the bottom of the first inning.
Finally, Wells was jeered off the mound when he got yanked in the fifth inning, having already suffered a series of indignities that included his bases-loaded balk in the third -- which occurred when Wells appeared to have trouble getting signs from catcher Jason Varitek.
"The crowd," Wells said, "wasn't good. But I still have to go out there and make pitches."
Perhaps Wells could sense the truth: Love is fickle, and Yankees fans have a new object of affection now. Things have changed around here, and around this rivalry.