A FAIR SHAKE 


In a story nauseatingly saccharine enough for The Family Circus, a group of kids at Merriam School in Acton, Mass., have requested that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees shake hands before their season opener April 11 at Fenway Park. See, these kids with too much time on their hands found themselves in the midst of a brouhaha when the Red Sox finally vanquished their long-standing rivals in last year's American League Championship Series. The Sox fans, obviously trained in the art of poor sportsmanship by their long-suffering daddies, taunted the Yankees fans mercilessly and thus drained the enjoyment out of what should have been a good-natured contest. These junior Sox fans were likely sick to death of being bullied by the success of the Yankees, and given their chance to retaliate, did so tenfold. The incessant chants of "1918" (before 2004, the last year the Sox had won the World Series) still ringing in their prepubescent ears, the mini-Sox finally had an arrow in their quiver that they could fire at the boorish Bronx-rooters. Rather than the usual playground torture of headlocks, noogies, wedgies and such, there was genuine venom being spat back and forth between these factions. Instead of allowing this adversity to permanently draw a line of demarcation between them, these children put their differences aside after a series of school assemblies that addressed sportsmanship.

That should have been sufficient, right? Far from it, I'm sorry to say. Just like the adult version of most do-gooders, these little snotty-nosed rugrats weren't satisfied with their own goodwill and had to attempt to drag the rest of the world into it. They got a few faculty members and advisers to help them put together a PowerPoint presentation, and e-mailed it to the Red Sox and Yankees organizations. The slideshow includes a picture of Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek brawling with the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and a caption that reads, "We follow your example." Oh, really? You kids follow the example of major league baseball players? I guess we should start examining your milk for performance enhancers, then? Are you vertically-challenged peewees consuming copious amounts of Skoal or driving to school in $50,000 tricked-out bicycles with spinning spokes? No, you're not. The sooner you learn that some grown-ups, especially disgustingly well-paid professional athletes, engage in activities that children shouldn't even know about (let alone emulate), the better off we all are.

The kids' intentions are certainly noble. In the interest of encouraging sportsmanship, these youngsters just want to see the Red Sox and Yankees line up and shake. The parents of these children clearly have failed to impress upon their spawn how intense the rivalry is between these two squads. Had the Red Sox fought back from a three-games-to-zero deficit to beat any other team in baseball, it wouldn't have carried the same weight. The fact that such a comeback came against the hated Yankees made it nothing short of magical. In today's "me-first" world of professional sports, where individual accomplishments are heralded and occasionally exceed the team itself, it is refreshing to see teams that actually loathe each other.

The greatest moments in sports occur when nemeses are forced to match wits and skills against each other. John McEnroe was at his best when he played against his rival, Bjorn Borg. The Florida Gators seem to take their performance to a higher level when matched up on the gridiron against Florida State. The passion of a Michigan-Ohio State game is virtually impossible to put into words. Nothing turns my stomach more than seeing an athlete engaging in friendly banter with an opponent before or during a game; that just shows me that both athletes' heads are not in the right place, and that they're simply in the game for a paycheck.

When it comes to amateur athletics, I don't need to see hatred to show me that the participants are intensely focused on the task at hand. The spirit of sportsmanship should be celebrated before and after a game, with players on both sides exchanging handshakes, congratulations and condolences. Once the sport is taken to a professional level, however, the frame of mind should shift a bit. Fans pay a pretty penny to watch their chosen team and/or athlete try his or her hardest to vanquish the opponent, and taunting a rival fan is part of the experience. For the Red Sox and Yankees, last year was an anomaly. Instead of being the Yankees' bitch like they had been for so many years, the Red Sox finally grew a pair and fought. The Yankees outspent the Sox in the previous off-season for free agents like Rodriguez, and it looked like owner George Steinbrenner (who, by the way, loves the handshake idea) would once again prove that money can buy baseball supremacy. The Red Sox refused to buy into this ideology, and believed in themselves enough to earn a trip to the World Series.

Watching the American League Championship Series, the animosity between the teams was palpable. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, the elation of watching my team finally get back to the Big Dance was nearly matched by the joy of seeing the boorish New York faithful choke on their tears. Seeing the assembly of overpaid underachievers like A-Rod, Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield have to hold back their sobs made the victory taste even sweeter.

Will we see the Yankees and Red Sox players participate in a circle-jerk before their season opener at Fenway Park? I surely hope not.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona called the Merriam School to say he liked the idea, though he did add that he wouldn't force it on players. In other words: "Why don't you kids stick to playing video games?" See, little dudes, there's a big-league policy that frowns upon fraternization with opposing players while in uniform. Get a grown-up to teach you about the phrase "sanctity of the game" (though they may want to ignore the recent hullabaloo about steroids). Things operate differently in the adult world than they do in the schoolyard.

If the Red Sox and Yankees players do line up and engage in the empty gesture of shaking hands before their season opener, I hope at least one Red Sox player will have the guts to go for the dreaded "stinkpalm." You know, just to keep the scent of competition lingering.

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