Rivalry isn't the same, but it's still No. 1

This thing between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox was better off when Munson and Fisk were raging at each other in a cloud of home-plate dust, and when the teams were staring down each other from opposite sides of a barbed-wire fence.

Nettles and Rivers doing a number on Spaceman Lee. Pedro slamming down old man Zimmer. Varitek shoving that grubby mitt of his into A-Rod's pretty little face.

Time and circumstance and liberating, ghost-busting victories for Boston and Alex Rodriguez have softened the jagged edges of Yankees-Sox. New England is no longer haunted by a championship drought of Biblical depth, and Rodriguez -- the would-be Boston shortstop and by far the most polarizing figure in the current rivalry -- no longer inspires the same degree of ridicule and contempt now that he has a parade to call his own.

But even if these enemy states have tempered their mutual fear and loathing, and even if 18 regular-season meetings have diminished the impact of a three-game series in May, nothing around here represents the essence of pure competition like the Yanks and the Sox.

Not the Knicks and the Heat. Not the Giants and the Eagles.

Not even the Patriots and the Jets, no matter how many different ways Rex Ryan finds to insult Tom Brady.

The Jets and Pats can eliminate each other from the playoffs for 10 consecutive years, and Ryan can keep building a Ruthian profile in the marketplace, and nothing the football players and coaches do will touch the history, tradition, and genuine, no-gimmicks-required division between those who back the Yankees and those who back the Sox.

It's the only rivalry defined by a curse (the sale of Babe Ruth to the Bronx mirrored the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch), and by a curse reversed (the last out of the historic 2004 World Series was made by a Cardinal, Edgar Renteria, wearing Ruth's No. 3).

Of course, on the way to St. Louis the Red Sox did what no other baseball team ever could -- recover from an 0-3 deficit. When the Sox lost Game 3 of the ALCS by a 19-8 count at Fenway, I remember writing that they were a bunch of frauds. I also remember that as I left the Game 7 press box in the Bronx, a Boston public relations official got my attention.

"I guess we're not a bunch of frauds," he said.

"I guess not," I answered, before offering congratulations and shaking the man's hand.

That 2004 ALCS is surely the most absurd event I'll ever cover, with the 2003 ALCS not far behind. The Yanks and Sox brawled in Fenway, with Pedro Martinez and Don Zimmer in the headliner, and ultimately Aaron Boone, of all people, drove an 11th-inning knuckleball into a forever corner of Yankee lore.

Boston pitcher Bronson Arroyo would say this of his Game 7 clubhouse in the wake of Boone's blast: "If you told me somebody just came in here and shot half my teammates with an AK-47, by the looks on people's faces I would've believed it."

Nomar Garciaparra delivered an emotional speech that night, and Lou Merloni, son of Framingham, Mass., ranted on the plane ride home that he'd have to spend an unforgiving winter living and breathing the curse while his teammates escaped for the Florida sun.

When that New England fatalism died its own death the following year, and when the Red Sox won again in 2007, something unique was sucked out of the rivalry. The tormented had become the tormentors, and Sox fans didn't know what to do with themselves.

Suddenly the Yankees were the ones dealing with a drought, dating all the way back to 2000. To the ruling Steinbrenners, it felt like the Yanks hadn't won it all since 1918.

The breakthrough in 2009 stripped away that relatively fresh angle, not to mention the old one that featured A-Rod as a postseason choker -- the slugger started the year as an emasculated chemically enhanced cheat, and ended it as an unstoppable postseason force.

Along the way, Derek Jeter had fun teaming up with Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis in the World Baseball Classic, and more Yanks could be seen fraternizing with more Sox around the pregame batting cage, much to the old-schoolers' dismay.

In Boston, the evil empire doesn't appear so evil anymore, not with the home team holding a 2-1 lead in recent parades, and not with the payroll difference between the Yanks and Sox down to a somewhat reasonable size.

Tampa Bay has also complicated matters by making the AL East a three-team proposition, threatening to reach the postseason for the third time in four years and doing so with a budget smaller than a rosin bag.

So Yanks-Sox isn't quite what it used to be, and that's OK. Opposing teams can punch each other in the face for only so many decades.

But young prospects from both camps are still governed by this unassailable article of faith: When you grow up to be major leaguers, it's unacceptable to lose to the other side.

That's one reason why the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox still make for an untouchable event in the region, and why there's nothing Rex Ryan can do or say to change that.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."