Granderson getting first taste of rivalry

Granderson getting first taste of rivalry

TAMPA, Fla. -- Curtis Granderson needs no refresher course on playing at Fenway Park. He is already intimately familiar with that walk through the concrete corridors, into the cramped visiting clubhouse and down a rickety dugout runway that perpetually smells like lemon disinfectant.

No, Granderson has a pretty good idea of what the experience of opening the season in Boston might be like, even though this will be the first time he has passed through the ancient ballpark wearing the hated 'NEW YORK' stitched across his road gray uniform.

Yet as the center fielder prepares for his first Opening Night with the Yankees, coinciding with his immersion into the storied rivalry between the Bombers and the BoSox, Granderson recently pulled a couple of trusted teammates aside for a most important question -- will it be safe to chow down?

"Hey, do you guys go get stuff to eat? Is it crazy like that? Are people messing with your food?" Granderson asked Derek Jeter and CC Sabathia.

Between laughs, Jeter and Sabathia told Granderson that he didn't have anything to worry about. The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry might still seem like baseball's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys, but the relationship on the field comes across as pretty civil these days.

"They said, 'No, it's not that bad,'" Granderson recalled, with a grin. "Of course you're going to have fans that are true fans, and that's to be expected. But you can still be OK out there."

Just to be safe, it still might be advisable to double-check anything coming across the table when dining away from the comfort zone of the clubhouse spread.

For the first time since 2001, the Yankees will be coming to Fenway Park as the defending World Series champions, and the Red Sox will be looking for a measure of revenge after finishing the season with eight losses in nine tries against New York.

While most of the cast of characters from the playoff run remains intact, general manager Brian Cashman's offseason moves will re-expose a couple of experienced Yankees to the New England faithful -- designated hitter Nick Johnson and right-hander Javier Vazquez.

Johnson's last at-bats in pinstripes came in 2003, and while he wouldn't admit to salivating at the idea of jumping back into the rivalry, the 31-year-old -- born 12 days before Bucky Dent's home run cleared the Green Monster -- is thrilled to be playing meaningful games again.

"It'll be fun," Johnson said. "It was fun watching when I wasn't here, the Sunday night games or whatever, and it was fun playing in them. It was a good time. Those games are fun to watch and always pretty exciting. I'm happy to have that opportunity to be in them again."

On the December day that Vazquez was acquired from the Braves, untold amounts of fans across New York tried to brush off the same miserable memory -- Vazquez on the mound, in the pivotal Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, serving up a grand slam to Boston's Johnny Damon.

It was one of the darkest moments in the franchise's history, completing a monumental collapse at the hands of their most hated rivals, and Vazquez had just entered trying to save the day in relief of a faltering Kevin Brown.

"We got beat, four straight," Vazquez said. "That's the bottom line. It was a tough four games at the end there, and they beat us."

It would be years before Vazquez publicly admitted how his right shoulder had been nagging him since the All-Star break, when he had been tabbed to help comprise the AL's pitching staff.

There would be no opportunity for a do-over in '05; Vazquez never wanted to leave New York, but the stinging Yankees shipped him to the D-backs in a deal for Randy Johnson.

The teams hardly resemble their '04 counterparts -- indeed, on the Yankees' side, Damon has come and gone over that span -- but Vazquez said he still knows what shipping up to Boston is all about.

"Yankees fans want us to beat the Red Sox and the Red Sox fans want to beat the Yankees; that's the bottom line," Vazquez said. "As players, we want to beat everybody. For the fans, it is a great rivalry. We understand the magnitude of it, but for us, we're trying to beat everybody else too."

Vazquez won't pitch in that season opening series on Yawkey Way, instead drawing the opening game of New York's set at Tropicana Field against the Rays on April 9. That will give him some time to take in the atmosphere, and he might sneak a few glimpses into the seats during lulls in the action.

"I've played in some good rivalries," Vazquez said. "When I was with the White Sox, playing against the Cubs was something similar, but not quite. I've always said it's not quite as much, but it's similar. It's fun. Those rivalries are always fun. I've always thought the Red Sox have a great team, but we play with some great teams in our division."

Maybe that's the resounding lesson that Johnson and Vazquez, among others, can deliver to a newbie like Granderson. As much as one loss can seem like the end of the world to the fans, between the lines, they only count for one game in the standings. The spotlight just happens to be a little bit brighter.

"No matter which team was good or bad in that rivalry, you always see it," Granderson said. "I think everything, just being over here in New York, there's a lot of things you just get thrown into. That rivalry is one. It is going to be a little different going there as a Yankee."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.