FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was only spring training. You could tell from the palm trees.
It was only spring training. You could tell from the Moynihan Lumber billboard.
It was only spring training. You could tell from the presence of Mike Vento, No. 79 in your desperately needed program, in the starting lineup of the New York Yankees.
Yes, it was only spring training. And we know that in the grand scheme of things, spring-training games are about as meaningful as "Leave It To Beaver" re-runs.
But the beauty of sports is that we get to decide for ourselves what's meaningful and what isn't. So what we witnessed Sunday, at exotic City of Palms Park, was either:
A) An extravaganza that the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan so eloquently described as "the most anticipated meaningless sporting event in New England history."
Or B) a clear indication that the Yankees and Red Sox have now elevated their always-crazed rivalry to such lunatic-fringe heights that it is no longer possible to distinguish spring from summer, March from October, or Mike Vento from Gary Sheffield.
This was a spring-training game that inspired a couple of dozen people to actually sleep in the parking lot -- for the right to be first in the standing-room-only line.
This was a spring-training game that people were willing to pay 500 bucks on eBay to see.
This was a spring-training game that broke whole new ground in American capitalism -- because it featured the first opportunity anyone has ever had, in Grapefruit League history, to purchase a real, live commemorative $6 pin. (Naturally, they sold out every stinking one of them.)
"A commemorative pin?" gulped Red Sox outfielder Adam Hyzdu afterward. "Uh, what were they commemorating?"
Well, that was obvious, of course. As the ever-vocal Manny Ramirez put it, this was "Game Ocho" of an ALCS that began four and a half months ago -- and apparently is still in progress.
"I know one thing," said Boston's Brian Daubach, after his team's heartbreaking 11-7 loss in Game Ocho. "There's no preseason football game anybody is paying $500 for."
Boy, no kidding. Matter of fact, it's very possible that there has never been any preseason sporting event in any sport that got people as worked up as this game did.
We can't recall Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier ever holding a pre-Thrilla in Manila sparring match, on live television, in Frazier's old high school gym.
We don't remember Duke and Carolina playing any September pickup games in a Chapel Hill playground.
And when was the last Ohio State-Michigan summer scrimmage, anyway?
But Yankees-Red Sox, on March 7, was the TV event of the day in New York and New England.
And the announced paid attendance (7,304) happened to be 314 more people than are supposed to fit in the ballpark.
And 268 members of the media signed in at the press gate -- which is probably about twice as many as covered the New Hampshire primary.
"You know, Yogi (Berra) rode with us on the bus today," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "And we were talking about this. I said to Yogi and Mel Stottlemyre, 'Remember the days when we'd go play a spring-training game and nobody really cared?' "
Yeah, when was that, anyway? Oh, that's right. It's still every day in places like Bradenton and Dunedin and Winter Haven.
But if the Yankees and Red Sox are going to show up in the same zip code on any day, it's time to mobilize the satellite trucks -- even if it happens to be the 33901 zip code they have to truck on over to.
We've always thought rivalries are the best thing in sports. But this one now has reached the point where, as Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling put it Sunday, "it transcends sports."
For that matter, it even transcends the traditional definition of "rivalry." A more accurate description of it these days would be more like "obsession."
Asked what he considered to be the closest he'd ever come to Yankees-Red Sox before he arrived in Boston, Schilling thought about it a second, then replied: "Playing against Greg Colbrunn's fantasy football team" back in Arizona.
Hold on now. It was this heated?
"Oh yeah," Schilling retorted, his voice practically quivering.
But eventually, we were able to wear him down. And just moments later, he was back to calling Yankees-Red Sox the greatest rivalry in sports. Forget Army-Navy. Forget Buckeyes-Wolverines. Forget Duke-Carolina. How do you top this?
"I haven't brought the ball upcourt for Duke recently," Schilling said. "But I haven't been involved with anything that's ever gotten this much hype."
Heck, who has? Once upon a time, back around the third week of last October, it would have been hard to imagine that this rivalry could possibly get more insane. But somehow, it has, for reasons that can best be summed up as, well ...
We no longer care anymore how or why the great Mr. Rodriguez wound up as the Yankees' new third baseman instead of Boston's new shortstop. Doesn't matter now.
All that matters is that when the Yankees took the field Sunday, the man running out to third base couldn't have been greeted more unappreciatively if he'd just changed his name to Steinbrenner.
Asked later how loud those boos sounded, Rodriguez chuckled: "I don't know. I get booed so often now, I can't really have a good barometer on who boos better."
Then again, he'll have plenty of opportunities to get his barometer back in working order. He gets to visit Fenway Park 10 times this year, starting with a nationally televised weeknight game on April 16. And that doesn't even count his numerous October booing opportunities.
So this was just his warm-up act. And he gave the citizens of what he called "Boston Nation" just three decent opportunities to stretch their vocal cords Sunday.
Once when the starting lineups were announced ("boooooo"). A second time when he came to bat the first time ("BOOOOOOOOOOOOO") -- and bounced to short on the first pitch. And a third time in his second, and final, at-bat of the day in the top of the fourth inning ("BOOOOOOOOOOOO") -- when he smoked an infield single in the middle of a six-run inning that made a four-run Red Sox lead disappear faster than you could say, "Aaron Boone."
But A-Rod -- clearly a smoother politician than, say, Howard Dean -- had nothing but love to dole out to all his New England admirers. After running in the outfield, he actually stopped by the right-field corner, sat down on the rolled up tarp and signed autographs for the rest of the inning. What a guy.
"Collectively, Boston fans will boo you," he said afterward. "But individually, they're some of the classiest people you'll ever meet. ... It's great to hear their passion, because I share that same passion."
Well, maybe not exactly that same passion. They do share a passion for baseball. It's possible they don't share the passion that most Red Sox fans who want to see the Yankees lose every game they play for the next 7,000 years -- give or take a century.
To A-Rod's credit, though, he wanted to play in this game, even if it meant a 2½-hour bus ride and at least 100 more questions than at-bats. He probably could have talked his way out of it all. But in case you're wondering, he has "never been a get-out-of-the-way guy," he said.
"I like taking things face-on," he said. "I'm proud of where I am. I'm proud of my actions, both now and in the past. And I like where we're going. I like where I am in my career right now."
Hmmm. So maybe he and his favorite New Englanders don't share that sentiment, either, judging by all the "Yankees (bad word for Not Good)" and "Aaron Bleeping Boone" T-shirts in the stands. But that's OK.
This A-Rod element has taken a rivalry that already was out there in a solar system all its own and launched it into a whole new galaxy. And if you love great sporting spectacles, how can you have any problem with that -- especially if you can be the first to get the patent on the Yankees-Red Sox commemorative space suits?