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Poor Barry Bonds expects us to feel sorry for him because he's decided to take time off to rest his sore knee. I suspect he's going away to treat a wounded ego and guilty conscience. Whatever the case, Bonds' departure is the best thing that could happen to baseball, and a cause for celebration for Red Sox fans.

Now, we can begin a new season without having to deal with Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth on the career home run list -- and the joyless debate over Bonds' steroid use. The shadow of steroids will hang over the game regardless, but at least it will be muted with Bonds gone and the TV people not following his every move.

That'll allow us to concentrate on the real story -- the Red Sox' defense of their first World Series championship since 1918. Their ride to the title was the best story in sports in 2004. Boston's historic comeback from an 0-3 deficit to the Yankees in the ALCS was an inspiration to sports fans everywhere, a triumph of faith and determination.

The "Curse of the Bambino" has been lifted at last. We don't need any more of Bonds' snide remarks about Americans not wanting him to pass Ruth, because the Babe is a white man's hero. Too much of Bonds' whining might convince the Babe to reinstate the curse, for heaven's sake.

Red Sox fans are still aglow over the events of last October. The title was an affirmation of everything that's good and pure in baseball. No current Red Sox player has been implicated in the steroid scandal. They refer to themselves as a bunch of "idiots", but they're not cheaters. Johnny Damon needs a haircut and shave, but otherwise he's clean.

When Congress held hearings on the steroid situation, whom did they summon from the beleaguered pitchers' fraternity? Boston's Curt Schilling. I'll bet he was bleeding courageously from his sock while giving his testimony.

So nothing can spoil the good feeling for Sox fans. Not Bonds. Not steroids. Not even George Steinbrenner and the evil Yankee empire -- the only thing standing in the way of Boston's first repeat championship since 1916 -- can ruin it.

And really, should we even call the Yankess an "empire" anymore? The Yanks haven't won the World Series since 2000. There are 4-year-old kids walking around who have never experienced a Yankees world championship. I'm almost starting to feel sorry for Steinbrenner. Almost.

The Yankees' payroll, which rises nearly as fast as gaso
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A-Rod fits with Sheffield, Brown
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line prices, is up to $198 million. Gee, do you suppose Steinbrenner could have tossed an extra $2 million at one of his backup infielders, just to round it off at an even $200 mil?

A year ago, Steinbrenner spent $180 million and got a mediocre starting pitching staff for his money. He tried to get it right during the offseason, lavishing $100 million or so in contracts to Randy Johnson, Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano.

Johnson is 41 years old, which is roughly the average age of the Yankees' starting lineup. Five minutes after arriving in the Big Apple, he abused a photographer. Later, after coming to his senses and apologizing, he said, "Anything less than a World Series isn't acceptable."

How can anyone root for these guys? Gary Sheffield used to work out with Bonds and admitted using steroids -- accidentally, of course. Jason Giambi apologized to Yankee fans at the start of spring training but wouldn't admit to steroid use. That's like a man coming home at 6 a.m. with lipstick on his face and telling his wife he's sorry -- for no specific reason.

No one in baseball seems to like Alex Rodriguez. His detractors call him a phony and "not a real Yankee." What, he's not enough like Giambi and Sheffield? Or Kevin Brown, who punched a wall after a loss last year, breaking two bones in his hand?

The experts say the Yanks could win 110 games this season. Fine, they're the favorites. When you spend $200 million, you ought to be the favorite, even if Bernie Williams has to play center field in a walker and Giambi shrivels into the world's highest-paid singles hitter.

But they're looking up at the Red Sox now. The Red Sox, defending world champions. The Red Sox, the hunted instead of the hunter. It feels strange, but it feels awfully nice, if you want to know the truth. How's the view down there, Yankee fans?

Barry who?

Who cares?

It's not about home runs and individual records anymore. The greatest joy for any fan is watching a team strive for a common goal, not seeing some pumped-up freak hit home runs. The Red Sox are the team to embrace, and the team to beat.

Fittingly, they open their title defense with three games in Yankee Stadium. Then it's back home to Fenway next week for three more. David Wells on the mound for Boston against Johnson. How sweet is that, Boomer Wells pitching the opener against his old team? Babe Ruth was his all-time hero. The Babe reverses the curse and Wells comes over to the good guys.

The tone of the new season will be set in the first two weeks. We all know where it's heading. Red Sox fans can dream of a Yankee collapse. There is a certain fragility about the Yanks, despite their All-Star cast and their big payroll. There's no depth in the organization. The farm system is a shell. If injuries strike, they could be in trouble.

But in all likelihood, we're looking at another 162-game prelude to a Yankees-Red Sox ALCS. They've had epic series the last two Octobers. A rubber match is inevitable. The Red Sox have issues, too. Pedro Martinez is gone to the Mets and Schilling won't be ready by Opening Day. But they're still very good, and deeper than the Yanks.

Recently, a group of school kids in Acton, Mass., offered a proposal, asking that the Yanks and Red Sox shake hands before the Fenway Park opener April 11. No offense, kiddies, but it's a bad idea. The Red Sox finally win the Series, and suddenly they're supposed to make up with the enemy? What's next, Steinbrenner and Sox President Larry Lucchino singing songs by the campfire?

To heck with shaking hands. Let the Yankees shake in their boots, instead. Let them wonder when Jason Varitek might shove his catcher's mitt into A-Rod's perfect teeth again. This is serious stuff. This is the best rivalry in sports.

By the way, the Yankees are attempting to become the first team in history to win 100 games in four straight seasons. As a Red Sox fan sees it, the Yanks could become the first team to win 100 four straight years without winning the World Series.

Here's hoping the streak reaches 86 years.