This one's for all the marbles

NEW YORK -- It's a game filled with such history, such emotion, such promise and so much anticipation that it may be the first game in baseball history that will require a cold shower before the national anthem. And with so much animosity, they may need water hoses before the final pitch.

Game 7 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium. The Red Sox against the Yankees. Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens. The winner going to the World Series.

Will anybody be watching "Friends" tonight?

Before Pedro faced Clemens in Game 3, Boston first baseman Kevin Millar described it as a once in a lifetime matchup. Now we're seeing it again just five days later. But that's the way this postseason has gone -- the once in a lifetime moment has become the daily routine. It's been a postseason so compelling that it sends 72-year-old men charging onto the field to fight men 40 years younger, an autumn so captivating that fans feel the need to issue public apologies for getting too into the game.

"It's lived up its billing," New York's Jason Giambi said after the Red Sox forced a seventh game with a 9-6 victory Wednesday. "It's had everything in it and now it's on to Game 7. There's even been a brawl in there."

Oh, yes. The infamous Game 3 affair when Pedro tried to hit Karim Garcia in the head and Yankees coach Don Zimmer tried to bodyslam Pedro into the Charles River. The good news is that New York manager Joe Torre promised, "Zimmer is not going to hit tomorrow." The bad news is no one knows what Yankees public address announcer Bob Sheppard has up his sleeve.

Some prissy observers were shocked -- shocked and appalled -- that the two teams could behave as badly as they did Saturday. But this hatred has been cooking even longer than the hot dogs being sold for $4 in the Yankee Stadium concession stands. Back in 1938, in front of the largest crowd in stadium history, New York's Jack Powell and Boston player-manager Joe Cronin got into a fight after some brushback pitches, then continued their fight under the grandstands after they were ejected from the game.

And people think Pedro was a little over the top in Game 3?

As intense as the rivalry is, tonight's game marks a special moment. This is the 26th time the two teams have played this season, but it will be just the second time the Yankees and Red Sox have met in the last possible game before the World Series with the winner taking the pennant. The other time was in 1949 when the Yankees swept Boston the final weekend, a season so special David Halberstam wrote a bestselling book about it.

The Yankees also beat Boston in the infamous Bucky Dent playoff game in 1978 to advance to the postseason and have beat them so many times on so many other occasions that when they played each other in the 1999 playoffs, Yankee great Yogi Berra assured Bernie Williams: "They can't beat us. They haven't been able to beat us for 80 years and they aren't going to beat us now."

Ah, but this year finally could be different. The Yankees had the chance to knock off the Red Sox on Wednesday. They had a 1-0 lead in the first inning. A 6-4 lead after the sixth. And each time the Red Sox came back, with the game's most potent offense finally breaking loose against starter Andy Pettitte and the Yankees bullpen with nine runs and 16 hits. Even Nomar Garciaparra finally broke out of his slump, banging out four hits, including a triple off the wall that led off Boston's three-run seventh inning rally.

"I'm just glad I don't have to answer anymore questions about what's wrong with Nomar," Boston general manager Theo Epstein said. "If you've seen Nomar for a couple seasons, you know there is no such thing as a slump. It's just a matter of the inevitable."

Tonight's game will be Pedro's last start of the season unless Boston wins. It will be Clemens' final start of his career if the Yankees don't.

Game 7 of the playoffs with the World Series and his career on the line. After 4,099 strikeouts, 310 wins and six Cy Young Awards, do you think Clemens is going to be revved up a little for this one?

"He's been pitching for 20 years," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "And being revved up has kind of worked for him."

"We've got to make him work," Boston center fielder Johnny Damon said. "(Roger's) going to be up for this and Pedro needs to be on. This will be the biggest game of his career and there are going to be 60,000 fans booing him to death."

The Yankees fans were already letting Pedro hear it Wednesday afternoon, shouting insults at him so vicious he wouldn't repeat them. "It was really personal," he said. "Let's put it that way."

Obviously, the fans are ready. And the pitcher certainly will be ready. So make sure the fridge is stocked and the cable bill is paid. This one should be a doozy.

Clemens and Pedro may be facing off against each other on the mound, but they won't be alone. It's never just the players on the field when these two teams meet. It's also all the players who have ever played in the rivalry.

Joe DiMaggio will be taking batting practice with Ted Williams. Billy Martin will be challenging Jimmy Piersall to a fight in the stadium tunnel. Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson will be wrestling in the dirt behind home plate. Bucky Dent will be going yard, Reggie Jackson will be admiring his home runs and Carl Yastrzemski will be raising his bat high as he squints at the pitcher.

You won't be able to see them, of course. But if you pause to listen, you'll be able to hear their echoes as distinctly as a "Red Sox suck!!!" chant in the bleachers.

And of course, the Babe will be there as well, swatting mammoth home runs, devouring hot dogs and watching both his teams compete.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.