FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Aaron Boone took his first steps behind enemy lines Saturday when the Yankees traveled south down I-75 to play the Red Sox at JetBlue Park, a spot-on replica of its Fenway grandad.
Wearing a Yankees uniform among New Englanders, even the snowbird variety, is like donning a sirloin tuxedo on safari. And that’s just for your ordinary, run-of-the-mill backup infielder or base coach.
Boone, however, holds a special place in Boston’s pantheon of sports nightmares, thanks to his clobbering of that Tim Wakefield knuckleball way back in 2003, when The Curse of the Bambino still held its icy grip on Red Sox Nation. That instantly transformed Boone into a Bucky Dent for a whole new generation of Yankee-haters and fed the Sox narrative of doom for another calendar year.
As it turned out, Boone’s pinstriped playing career dissolved a few months before The Curse did, with his offseason basketball injury opening the door for Alex Rodriguez and a rising Fenway icon named David Ortiz changing the tone of this ancient rivalry forever in 2004.
Almost 15 years after his home run put the Yankees in the 2003 World Series, Boone is back in a Yankees uniform, and he again faced the Red Sox on Saturday, if only in a Grapefruit League game.
As an ESPN analyst, Boone frequently visited Fenway for work, but that was dressed like a civilian, in jeans and sneakers. Without those sinister road grays and the interlocking NY, it was easier to skate below the radar, and Boone was asked Saturday how he had been treated in Boston.
“Honestly, well,” he said. “Maybe I’m delusional. But they’ve won three World Series championships since those days, so it always feels a little more good-natured. I’m sure that’s maybe by the wayside now that I’m back here, but I’ve always enjoyed going to Boston.”
Those three Red Sox rings, after a drought that stretched to 1918, have done plenty to strip Boone of his all-time villain status in Boston, dropping him far behind King George III and Magic Johnson. Nothing was quite the same after the Ortiz-powered Sox rallied back from an 0-3 deficit to shock the Yankees in 2004, so Boone’s homer sort of closed one era of this border war and ushered in another that put these teams on more equal footing for the next century.
This could be the season that lights the fire anew, with Boone at the helm and the Yankees — after falling one victory short of the World Series last October — rebooting the Evil Empire by acquiring Giancarlo Stanton. The Red Sox did their part to rekindle the arms race by signing J.D. Martinez to a five-year, $110-million contract late last month, and Boone already is sensing the early rumblings of their AL East grudge match brewing.
Other than the uniforms, Saturday wasn’t much of a preview of what awaits these two teams when the Yankees visit Fenway during the second week of April. The Red Sox had five regulars in their lineup — but no Martinez — and Boone went with a mostly young roster headlined by Aaron Hicks, Greg Bird and Didi Gregorius.
The notable omissions were Stanton and Aaron Judge; excusing them from a two-hour bus ride is standard spring training protocol. This was basically a dry run anyway, and there’s no way to truly grasp the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry until you’re immersed in it, as Boone learned when the Reds traded him to the Bronx in 2003.
Boone relayed a story about his conversation with Tim Naehring, a former Red Sox infielder who was the Reds’ director of minor-league operations at that time. Or was it more of a warning?
“You have no idea what you’re walking into,” Boone recalled Naehring telling him. “Sure enough, he was right. My first trip to Boston, it was another level.”
Naehring, now the Yankees’ vice president of baseball operations, laughed when told about Boone bringing up that post-trade chat between the two. He also was on Saturday’s trip to play the Red Sox — a team he still is connected to after spending nine seasons in Boston — and Naehring believes the echoes from the old blood feud continue to resonate these days. They’ll be there waiting for Boone when he emerges from that creaky dugout runway at Fenway.
“It’s dynamic,” Naehring said. “And it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. A lot of the old-time baseball scouts talk about East Coast baseball being a little different, and needing a little different mentality to be able to handle it. There’s probably a lot of truth in that.”
JetBlue Park had a few reminders in the house Saturday. Carl Yastrzemski showed up and sat on the bench with new manager Alex Cora before the game. Ortiz, who serves as a special assistant, stood behind the cage, just being Big Papi during batting practice. Even Wakefield was in attendance, as a broadcaster for NESN, and Boone stopped by for a photo with him as he walked past the Sox dugout.
A snapshot from a bygone era, when the hatred felt more real? Maybe Boone will help stoke those flames again, and Wakefield seemed ready to welcome his former nemesis back to the rivalry.
“Awesome,” Wakefield said of Boone’s re-entry as the Yankees’ manager. “It’s pretty cool.”
Circle April 10, when Boone walks into the actual Fenway Park, not just a replica. What happens next will let us know just how real this is going to be.