Homecomings spice up ultimate rivalry

BOSTON -- Bostonians who are inclined to grouse about shorter library hours, gaping potholes or leaky $14.6 billion highway construction projects are no doubt pleased to know that local law enforcement is doing its best on behalf of the city's baseball team.

Catcher Doug Mirabelli, re-acquired by the Red Sox from the San Diego Padres by trade on Monday, flew all day from California and disembarked his plane in Boston at 6:48 p.m. Considering the Red Sox and Yankees were scheduled to begin a two-game series at Fenway Park about 20 minutes later, the chances were slim that Mirabelli would be in a squatting position in time for the first pitch.

Enter the police, who arrived with a squad car and Mirabelli's No. 28 uniform and spikes. With lights flashing and sirens blaring, Mirabelli dressed in the backseat during the 10-minute drive from Logan Airport to Fenway. He sprinted through the gates and arrived in time to catch Tim Wakefield's first warmup toss.

Asked later if it was the first time he'd ever been in a police car, Mirabelli smiled.

"First time naked in a police car,'' he said.

It makes you wonder what kind of reception Mirabelli might have gotten if he had a career average higher than .240.

Boston and New York resumed baseball's most high-profile and (with apologies to Dodgers and Giants fans) heated rivalry Monday, and suffice to say that the Patriots' selection of Laurence Maroney in the first round of the NFL draft is now old news. The Red Sox sold out Fenway Park for the 237th straight regular season game, and beat the Yankees 7-3 behind a tie-breaking single from Mark Loretta and a late three-run homer by David Ortiz.

But this is May, and the teams have 18 games left this season, so the first Red Sox-Yankees meeting of 2006 should be remembered for what it really was -- a tale of two homecomings.

There was Mirabelli, the career grunt coming home to a warm reception on a chilly night in May. Red Sox fans, who have a weakness for blue-collar workers, greeted him the same way they greeted Lou "The Governor'' Merloni during his second incarnation with the club -- with a standing ovation.

Then there was Johnny Damon, once adored, now scorned as center fielder and leadoff man for the hated Yankees. Sox fans waved signs with messages reading "Johnny is a $ellout'' and "Johnny Who,'' and vendors outside the park sold T-shirts with the inscription, "Looks like Jesus, acts like Judas, throws like Mary.''

The jeer-to-cheer ratio was at least 80-20, but that didn't stop Damon from doffing his batting helmet to the crowd in acknowledgement before his first at-bat. He proceeded to settle into the batter's box and deliver a message to his former teammate, Doug Mirabelli.

"He told me, 'Welcome back,' '' Mirabelli said.

The Red Sox and Yankees are at the top of the AL East standings, as usual, but both teams have their issues. While Ortiz already has 11 homers, the Red Sox rank a mere ninth in the league in slugging percentage. Boston is also thin at the back end of the rotation, and nobody knows if David Wells can fill the void. After recently suggesting that knee problems might force him to retire, Wells told manager Terry Francona that he feels much better and might be able to start in a week.

"He's somewhere between a week away and retirement,'' Francona deadpanned.

The Yankees rank second in the league in runs scored and team ERA, but they're playing without Gary Sheffield, who injured his left wrist in a collision with Toronto's Shea Hillenbrand on Saturday. And it remains to be seen how the rotation will hold up over 162 games. A scout at Fenway raved about Mike Mussina's increased velocity and crisp stuff this season, but said there are nights that Randy Johnson pitches "like he's 42.''

Damon has had a positive impact on the Yankees with his .299 average and his fly-chasing ability in center field. He's also refreshingly un-corporate-like in his demeanor. Much has been made of Damon shaving his beard and cutting his hair to conform to Yankee code. But Damon walked into a press conference Monday with his hair going in umpteen different directions. He looked Sid Vicious with a bad case of bed-head.

In some respects, he's Johnny Conflicted. During four seasons in Boston, Damon rapped out 730 hits, scored 461 runs, made two All-Star teams, wrote a book, was credited with coining the term "Idiots,'' and made a cameo appearance in the movie "Fever Pitch'' in which two female fans ogled his backside. He had gradually attained the level of folk hero in Boston.

But his decision to sign a four-year, $52 million deal with the Yankees just before this past Christmas elicited the obligatory cries of "traitor.'' Damon figured things might get ugly enough during this series that he told his wife, Michelle, not to come to the park.

"She wanted to be here to support me, but things can get crazy,'' Damon said. "My wife stands out -- that's the bottom line -- and people say things. She's very defensive of me when she hears things. I told her, 'Now is not a good time to be here.' ''

Before Damon entered the Fenway Park interview room before the series opener, he bumped into Manny Ramirez, Matt Clement, Wells, first-base coach Bill Haselman and a Fenway Park security guard named "Joe'' and renewed old acquaintances. He proceeded to go hitless in four at-bats against Wakefield and Mike Timlin, but all the 0-fers in the world won't kill his warm memories of his days in Boston.

"There have been many books written, and they're always going to say in 2004 the Red Sox were World Champions,'' Damon said. "My time here is always going to be remembered for that.''

Mirabelli loved it in Boston, too, as Jason Varitek's backup from 2001 through last season. But business is business, and the Red Sox shipped him to San Diego in December when they had a chance to acquire Loretta in return. That left Josh Bard to catch Wakefield's knuckleball, and it wasn't a pretty sight.

The Red Sox universally praised Bard for his professionalism and work ethic, but Bard had 10 passed balls in five games. Although Boston management believed Bard would get the hang of catching Wakefield's knuckleball eventually, the pressure to win immediately made it impossible for the Sox to play wait-and-see.

When rumors of a trade began flying several days ago, Mirabelli told Padres GM Kevin Towers that he would be more than amenable to returning to Boston. Towers and Boston GM Theo Epstein made it happen with a swap of Mirabelli for Bard, right-handed pitcher Cla Meredith and a player to be named or cash.

The Boston-New York rivalry being what it is, Yankees GM Brian Cashman put in a feeler or two during the process just to "run interference.'' Even if the Yankees were driving up Boston's price or delaying the Red Sox's acquisition of Wakefield by a day or two, Cashman figured it was worth a shot. "If you can turn a one-horse race into a two-horse race, you have to look into it,'' Cashman said.

With an assist from the local cops, Mirabelli made it in time to catch seven innings from Wakefield, and he looked as if he never left. Francona says there's a knack for catching the knuckleball that's difficult to define. You let the ball get deep, relax enough not to stab at it, and if things work out according to plan, you're not on a first-name basis with the fans behind the screen.

"It's kind of an art, and [Mirabelli] knows how to do it,'' Francona said.

Mirabelli even threw out Bubba Crosby on an attempted steal of second base in the third inning. Not bad for a guy who was fried from flying coast-to-coast.

"The whole time on the flight I'm thinking, 'There's no possible way this is going to work out,' '' Mirabelli said. "I'm glad I got through it, because I was as nervous as anything. I don't think I've ever been that nervous in a ballgame before in my career.''

All in all, it was a pretty good ending to a crazy day. No passed balls. One standing ovation. One productive homecoming. At least for the Boston guy.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.