BOSTON -- From the day he became a Yankee, Alex Rodriguez has been inching closer to baseball's best rivalry -- wondering how much different his at-bats will be in Fenway Park, wearing pinstripes. A-Rod hasn't been shy about the topic. He's asked around the clubhouse, talked to team officials and has spent this past week addressing a single, burning question about this weekend's four-game series with the Red Sox:
Is Rodriguez prepared for this northeast-corridor turf war?
A-Rod insists he's bracing to be treated as a public villain, but nothing on his professional résumé has ever come close to a Yankee-Red Sox collision. Of course, no series in April can possibly clone Game 7 of last year's AL Championship Series, but teammates say Rodriguez would be wise to take a deep breath before stepping into the batter's box Friday night.
"There's no escaping how much different it is (at Fenway) once you become a Yankee," says Jason Giambi. "When I was with the A's, the games were good ones, but nothing like it is now. I guess the A's didn't matter very much to the (Red Sox) fans. No one really cared about Oakland."
Now, Rodriguez matters. He'll become the new target for an entire Red Sox nation - a symbol of Yankee excess, and George Steinbrenner's impossible wealth. Not that A-Rod actually deserves such scorn. After all, he was traded to the Yankees, not lured as a free agent, and Rodriguez himself was ready to accept a trade to Boston last fall.
But as he said the other day, "that's all in the past now."
Now, Rodriguez is part of the multi-headed beast: Steinbrenner and his cash, Derek Jeter and his Mr. Yankee aura, Mariano Rivera and his maddening stoicism, Jorge Posada and his temper. It's all part of the same living, breathing organism, which has absorbed Rodriguez, too. That's why, as much as A-Rod knows he would've been popular in Boston, he'll be just as hated as Jeter's partner.
"Am I going to be Public Enemy No. 1 or Public Enemy No. 2? I guess that's what I'm wondering," Rodriguez said with a laugh the other day. "It's going to be me and Derek (Jeter), 1 and 1A. Whatever it is, we'll find out pretty soon."
This much seems certain: Rodriguez's past successes at Fenway won't count for much, considering he compiled those numbers with the Mariners and Rangers. Since 1994, A-Rod has a .294 batting average (47-for-160) with 10 homers and 26 RBI at Fenway, and has a career .289 average against Red Sox pitching.
On his best days, the Green Monster has been a powerful temptation to the slight upper-cut in Rodriguez's swing -- practically a check-swing away from a sure double. But he's batting only .212 with the Yankees, and admits he's pressing. That means four games with the Red Sox could either jump-start the engine of Rodriguez's run-producing machinery, or else the end-of-the-world atmosphere the Yankees and Sox create will only serve to deepen Rodriguez's slump.
The answer could depend on how Rodriguez is treated by Sox fans. The Yankees are split as whether the slugger will replace Jeter as the most hated Bronx star. Giambi, for one, believes Rodriguez will be spared because, as he put it, "it's not like he ever said, 'I don't want to play for the Red Sox.' He never said, 'my dream is to be a Yankee.' "
But Mike Mussina disagreed, telling the New York Post, "He's going to be treated like a former Red Sox and he was never even in uniform for 15 minutes. He's going to be treated like a deserter."
Either way, Jeter's advice to Rodriguez is to prepare for the worst. And even if Rodriguez does, in fact, become a Fenway target, the shortstop has no illusions that Red Sox fans will ever go easy on him.
"There's years of hatred, that doesn't just disappear," Jeter said, adding, "regardless of how they feel about me, there's enough to go around."
In other words, it should be a weekend of vitriol and score-settling, although no one in the Yankee clubhouse dared to assume these April games -- four in Boston this weekend, three more in the Bronx next weekend -- will truly impact the real race in September. Although the entertainment value is high, and Friday's game will be nationally televised, the Yankees still believe last October's Game 7 represented the greatest moment between the two clubs in the last 25 years.
"Nothing can top that," Jeter said. "The only way the games could be more intense than that is to have one of us go to the National League and we meet in the World Series."
Still, Rodriguez knows what's waiting for him -- or at least he thinks he does. He's understandably sought Jeter's advice, and the shortstop has tried to make A-Rod understand what Fenway sounds and feels like during a Yankee weekend. Loud and aggressive. Thrilling. Breath-taking. Sneering. Rude. Unforgettable.
But words only take the imagination so far.
"At some point, you just have to experience it first-hand," Jeter said.
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.