Dom Amore: Stolen bases, slow trots and Ben Rice; the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is revived

NEW YORK — Ben Rice was a gutsy little fellow, showing up at Fenway Park dressed head to toe in Yankees garb.

He stood out like a blue thumb on class trips to the ballpark, and this was hardly an outfit for winning friends in elementary school in Cohasset, Mass., just southeast of Boston. The kid even had the temerity to scribble “Yankees Rule” on Pesky’s Pole.

“My dad would be able to verify that for you,” Rice said. “That’s 100 percent true.”

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The Rice family would go to a fair number of games at Fenway, “and if we were going to get tickets,” Ben said, “we were trying to get into the Yankees games, because I liked the Yankees.”

This kind of thing, sacrilege when a lot of us were growing up around here, is more common nowadays. A Red Sox family like the Rices could have a random Yankee fan in the pride like Ben, who liked Derek Jeter, or now one who admires Aaron Judge. A Yankee family could have a kid who grew up idolizing David Ortiz. It might’ve been forgivable before Ben Rice hit three homers against the Red Sox.

Born in 1999, Rice is too young to remember the first games he witnessed, probably some of the knock-down, drag-out affairs of 2003, 2004. But he saw some doozies, because that is what Red Sox-Yankees games were, and are, supposed to be.

Summer in Connecticut isn’t summer in Connecticut when you can walk into a coffee shop near the town green, or into a bar anywhere in the state and not see — and hear — fans of both chirping away.

And when Dan Hurley, Alex Karaban and the UConn men’s basketball champs arrived at Fenway Park on the 15th, the rivalry was barely flickering, with the Yankees, who won 8-1 the night before, were on a three-month rampage and there was radio silence regarding a .500, nondescript Red Sox team on the other side. It was a little melancholy, truth be told.

The course of history of this rivalry, you may remember, the 86-year curse and all, turned on a stolen base in 2004. On June 16, the current tenor changed with a slew of them. The Red Sox, who are second in the AL in steals, pulled off nine of them to beat the Yankees, winning the series, and exposing a vulnerability. Yankees pitching, best in baseball at that point, has been worst in MLB since.

Three weeks later, the Red Sox came to New York surging and within sniffing distance and, with the slumping, sagging Yankees one out away from a badly-needed win Friday, Masataka Yoshida homered to tie it, and Boston won in extra innings. Through an interpreter, he called it “one of the biggest highlights” of his career.

“He said it, right? New York Yankees, one pitch away from losing the game,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “It was THE moment for him. It was WBC-like.”

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Yoshida has represented his country, Japan, in the World Baseball Classic. For a night, he represented Red Sox Nation and embodied its latest blow to Yankee prestige.

“It stings,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone, who once delivered an October knockout punch for his side. “It was a gut-punch.”

How would the Yankees, who’d lost 13 of 17 and often looked lackadaisical doing it, respond Saturday? Enter Dan Hurley, back to celebrate the UConn men’s basketball championship with and deliver another first pitch.

“To win championships, you’ve got to go through some hard (stuff),” Dan Hurley said, “and (the Yankees) are going through it right now.”

Hurley, a George Brett-Royals fans against the grain of his father and brother, donned Thurman Munson’s No. 15 and threw his pitch. Then, as far as we know, he, his father, Bob Sr. (in Yankees garb), and the rest of the Jersey City Hurleys moved up to an owner’s suite, where Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, who was known for getting the last out at Yankee Stadium, posed for pictures with the Huskies’ ceremonial closer, Andrew Hurley.

Not even Dan Hurley, atop of the sports world as he is, could take credit for what happened next. (I mean, he couldn’t, could he?) But the Yankees finally played as if somebody lit their hair on fire.

Alex Verdugo, unpopular as a Red Sox player after Boston acquired him in the Mookie Betts trade, now a Yankee, hit a game-tying home run and took his sweet time getting around the bases. In fact, he may just be rounding third as you read this.

Shortly thereafter, Rafael Devers, who owns Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, hit his eighth career homer off him, and took even longer to watch it, toss away his bat and make his trip, appearing to gesture toward Verdugo.

“You don’t like to watch home run trots,” Cole grumbled. “Maybe I shouldn’t give up home runs.”

The along came Rice, in his 17th game since being called up from the minor leagues, who had led off the game with a homer. He blasted two more, both three-run jobs, to bury the Red Sox, 14-4. He got around the bases pretty quickly, but, urged by his teammates, acknowledged a curtain call after No. 3. First rookie to hit three in a game for the Yankees.

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“Honestly, it was all happening so fast,” Rice said. “I think I was still just coming off the high of hitting the home run. I was just walking through the dugout and then I heard everyone yelling at me to do something. I didn’t even know what they were talking about, but as they slowly guided me toward the steps, I was like, ‘Oh, dude. A curtain call. That’s pretty cool.’”

When he was through playing for Dartmouth, Rice got word that both the Red Sox and Yankees were interested. We’re used to seeing them fight over high-priced free agents, this time the Yankees moved first and drafted Rice, a catcher at the time, in the 12th round in 2021. Who’d have guessed Anthony Rizzo would get hurt in a collision against the Red Sox on June 16 and Rice, converted to first base, would be in the Yankees’ lineup the next game, and eventually lead off?

But there he was Saturday, giving the Yankees the last word — this time. Going into the series finale on Sunday Night Baseball, the Yankees (55-36) were three games behind Baltimore, still 5 1/2 ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East. Fortunately (or unfortunately) this is not 1949 or 1978; both ancient rivals can be in the postseason, even if neither wins the Division.

That doesn’t mean we can’t have ourselves a smack-talking summer here in Connecticut, following as these teams fight it out like old times, with Aaron Judge, Juan Soto (and Ben Rice?) providing the headline-grabbing power for New York, and Boston, taking advantage of the new rules, playing aggressive, heads-up baseball, getting better-than-expected pitching. The Yankees are back at Fenway for three starting July 26, the Red Sox are back in New York for four starting Sept. 12. In between those series will be the trade-deadline chess match.

Stolen bases, ninth-inning comebacks, slow, annoying home run trots and a curtain call for a Cohasset kid with three home runs in pinstripes? It’s on. Rivalry Revived.

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