You thought it couldn't get any bigger after 2003, the year the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox extended the Greatest Rivalry in Sports into October, the year Pedro Martinez threw Don Zimmer to the ground, the year Aaron "Bleeping" Boone won the pennant. You thought the rivalry had reached its pinnacle. And then came 2004.
And then came Jason Varitek's mitt in Alex Rodriguez's face. And then came another October meeting, and the Yankees standing three outs away -- with Mariano Rivera on the mound -- from a humiliating sweep of the Red Sox. And then came the biggest postseason collapse in history, and the Red Sox celebrating on the Yankee Stadium field. And the earth itself seemed to tilt on its axis.
"Last year, when [the Red Sox] won, it took this to a whole 'nother level," said Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams. "It keeps getting more intense, and you don't know where it's going to stop."
Stop? Who wants it to stop?
Certainly not baseball's schedule makers. Unless you think it's a coincidence that on Sunday, when New York opens the season at Yankee Stadium in prime time on national television -- unveiling its newest superstar acquisition, Randy Johnson -- the opponent will be the Red Sox. Or that on April 11, when the Red Sox stage their home opener at Fenway Park -- unfurling their World Series championship banner and receiving their World Series rings -- the opponents will be the Yankees.
Are those just silly little early season games, or is someone trying to turn them into Games 8 and 11 of the American League Championship Series?
"You know one thing," said Red Sox lefty David Wells, the former Yankee who will oppose Johnson on Opening Night. "It's going to be crazy."
Yankees vs. Red Sox is the Greatest Rivalry in Sports because it contains every element required for a great rivalry, and more.
You want history? Try 1,920 head-to-head meetings, not counting the postseason. (For the record, the Yankees lead the all-time series 1,055-865.) You want competitiveness? The teams have finished 1-2 -- Yankees first, Red Sox second -- in the American League East for seven straight years. Since the start of the 2002 season, the teams have played each other 71 times (including postseason), and the Red Sox hold a 36-35 edge.
"These teams were great rivals even before they got good," said Williams, who joined the Yankees in 1991. "I remember when we'd be in last place, or next-to-last, and the Red Sox would come to town, and it would be like the seventh game of the World Series. So now, when both teams are very good, it's off the charts."
You want animosity? Have you been paying attention? At one point this spring, the Red Sox' constant sniping at the Yankees in the media -- directed primarily at Rodriguez -- became so persistent that Red Sox Manager Terry Francona had to tell his players to shut up.
"I would prefer our guys talking about our guys," Francona said. "I think that's the right thing to do."
Tony Womack, the Yankees' new second baseman, has been on both sides of the great Cubs-Cardinals rivalry, but now understands that one is nothing compared to this one.
"This," Womack said this spring, "is a downright dirty rivalry."
Still, the very nature of the rivalry changed last fall. It didn't become any less or more dirty. But some of the dirt was shifted to new places.
Between 1919 and 2003, the Yankees had won 26 World Series championships. The Red Sox had won none. The one constant in the rivalry was that the Yankees always won in the end, a fact that became a significant part of the lore surrounding the rivalry: According to the so-called "Curse of the Bambino," the Red Sox' woes began when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees following the 1919 season.
So last October, when the Red Sox finally trumped the Yankees, becoming the first team in history to overcome a three-games-to-none deficit -- then went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series -- the curse was broken and the rivalry was changed forever. And now, for the first time in 86 years, the Red Sox are preparing to defend a World Series title.
"October baseball tends to toughen people up. And you either sink or swim," said Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein. "The Yankees have proven over time they can swim. And I think we proved we can last year."
And now comes 2005, and you think the rivalry can't get any bigger. But you thought that before, and look what happened.