The first fight of the 2004 season between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox did not occur on a warm, pleasant April day at Fenway Park. Instead it took place during the previous harsh, cold November, when the teams' general managers -- sensing the teams might face each other again in the American League Championship Series -- decided that pitching would decide the rematch.

The object of their affection was Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling, who when asked if he was willing to move to a playoff contender, insisted it must be the Yankees or Philadelphia Phillies.

But as he has done with an entire team and city, Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein convinced Schilling that Boston was ready to abandon its cursed existence. Schilling will start Game 1 of the ALCS tonight for Boston as perhaps the one player most likely to end 86 years of Red Sox frustration.

"I don't know that I've ever pitched in a game that will have the atmosphere that [today's] game will have," Schilling said. "In Arizona during the World Series it was electric and all that it could be here. But I think the Yankees and the Red Sox is a step above everything else."

Schilling's arrival strengthened an already formidable team, and the failure to acquire him has caused the Yankees' pitching staff to become a cluttered mess. Without a true ace, the Yankees enter this year's ALCS as an underdog, an almost unknown scenario in this storied rivalry.

A year ago the Red Sox had a 5-2 lead entering the bottom of the eighth inning in Game 7 of the ALCS with Pedro Martinez on the mound, a lead that disappeared with the help of a celebrated miscalculation by then-Boston manager Grady Little, and an unlikely game-winning home run from Aaron Boone.

"You just have to say that it's a game that didn't swing in our favor," Boston center fielder Johnny Damon said. "We know how close we were. You're never going to forget [that game]."

If ghosts truly do inhabit Yankee Stadium, then their howling was certainly heard through New York's five boroughs that night. But there is a reason to believe in this year's Red Sox, who believe last year's disappointment taught them about the fragility of the postseason.

"Last year we were a real giddy group," Boston first baseman Kevin Millar said. "We had a lot of fun. It's the same group this year, but we're a prepared group."

Nothing brings Boston more confidence than Schilling, who in any other year would be the AL Cy Young Award favorite. But his 21-6 record and 3.32 ERA likely will place him second behind the Minnesota Twins' Johan Santana.

The Yankees are without a single reliable starter. None of their first three starters in this series -- Mike Mussina, Jon Lieber and Kevin Brown -- won 15 or more games. Their fourth starter remains undecided. Twelve different players started for the Yankees, and by the end of the season their most consistent was Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who was signed in the offseason to a minor league contract and began the year on the disabled list trying to recover from shoulder surgery. Hernandez's shoulder began to ache in the last few weeks of the season and he was unavailable for the Division Series. His status is still unknown for the ALCS.

Of bigger concern to the Yankees is the availability of closer Mariano Rivera. Shortly after Saturday's clinching win against the Twins, Rivera was told two family members were electrocuted in his pool at his home in Panama. Rivera flew to Panama on Sunday and will remain there for the funeral Tuesday morning before flying back to New York on a plane chartered by the Yankees. He is expected to arrive in New York sometime Tuesday night. If he is unable to pitch, Tom Gordon will assume the closer's role.

"We'll do the best we can," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said Monday. "We certainly don't want to think if things don't go well for us that this is the reason it didn't go well."

Should Schilling lead the Red Sox to the World Series, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner certainly will bristle at the thought that New York had the first opportunity to acquire the ace.

Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman first approached the Diamondbacks regarding Schilling during the GM meetings in Arizona in November. The Yankees seemed encouraged when Schilling listed New York as one of the two teams to which he would accept a trade. Arizona asked for Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson.

"The initial asking price was extremely high," Cashman said. "I think in terms of our discussions with Arizona, they didn't go very far ultimately because Boston swooped in and made a deal to convince Curt to go to Boston. I think that was something that was unanticipated, at least by me. When a player comes out publicly and says he won't go somewhere, I never expected really Boston to come out and try to make a play and convince him otherwise."

On Nov. 25 Arizona agreed to trade Schilling to Boston for Casey Fossum, Brandon Lyon, Jorge De La Rosa and a minor league player to be named. The deal hinged on whether Boston could convince Schilling to accept the trade. Epstein and several team executives flew to Arizona to talk to Schilling.

"We went out on a limb," Epstein said. "I think that got his attention. When we were out there, we told him that we really wanted him. After the first day, it was clear he wanted to be a Red Sox. It just became a contract issue."

Boston gave Schilling a two-year deal worth $12.5 million a year plus a third-year option. Schilling gives Boston its best chance at a title in years.