Red Sox and Yankees: After “The Rivalry”

Baseball’s most celebrated rivalry has passed its peak

BOSTON– In the past few years, when the Boston Red Sox have faced the New York Yankees, a lot of talk has been about when The Rivalry would really kick into gear again.  Long removed from the early 2000s, when the two teams were truly at each other’s throats, games between the Yankees and the Red Sox seem a little less important than they used to.

People wonder what will renew The Rivalry, if maybe something would happen that would get the players, and the fans, back into it again.

From my perspective in Boston, it simply doesn’t seem likely that it will ever be what it was again.  Those days are over.  The Rivalry will never come back to those levels.  I don’t even see how it could.

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For Red Sox fans coming into the 2004 season, The Rivalry seemed like a Chuck Jones cartoon.  The Yankees, led by smug and smirking Derek Jeter, were The Road Runner.  The Red Sox could build whatever Acme weaponry they could order up, but it always blew up in their faces in the end.  More delicately, it was the relentless pursuit of a team that always seemed to be just one step ahead.

Yes, rivalries are born from much more than that.  As the two cities are within driving distance and many employers in the Boston area have an office in New York, Red Sox fans ran into a lot of Yankee fans who did not shy away from reminding everyone of the trophy case differentials.  The two teams played a lot of important late season games against one another as well, which is necessary to creating those long term issues.  It was more than simply chasing a fleet of foot bird off a cartoon cliff every year.

That being said, the coyote only needs to catch the road runner once for that story to end.  Now that Boston knows what road runner tastes like, The Rivalry can’t be the same.  One of the fundamental dynamics has changed.

Beyond that, the amount of things that took place to keep elevating The Rivalry were unsustainable and not easily replicated.  Roger Clemens leaving the Red Sox, getting a second wind, and going to the Yankees sent things in a new direction.  That sort of thing doesn’t get the chance to happen very often, much less with the Red Sox so much more well-heeled now.  Pedro Martinez elevated matters, but Major League Baseball has been experiencing a Pedro shortage since 2009.  George Steinbrenner isn’t around anymore to be a lightning rod.

There was a hotly contested player comparison at the time.  The Red Sox had shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, a traditional hitting machine that played a solid position.  Against him, Derek Jeter.  There was something to argue about, a central jumping off point that both fanbases felt very strongly about.

Alex Rodriguez had agreed to go to the Red Sox before the players’ union vetoed the deal.  He ended up a Yankee.

Most importantly, the teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 2004.  The two met three times in the ALCS between 1999 and 2004, which raised the stakes considerably.

So to sum it up:  The Red Sox’ best pitcher ended up a Yankee, they eventually replaced him with Pedro, both teams had star shortstops who were often compared, the Yankees were owned by a showman, the best player of the moment almost went to Boston but ended up in New York, and they met for the AL pennant three times in six years.

What’s happening this week can’t compare to that because few rivalries in sports could.

Yankee fans feel much differently about this, in that there is no consensus.  While Boston is resolute in their hatred of the Yankees, not every fan of the Bronx Bombers believes the team even has a rival.  Fans of the team who happen to live in Boston do, because it tends to come up, but otherwise circumstances might not necessarily create a ton of bad blood for the Red Sox.

Sure, there have been quite a few specific Red Sox that will live in Bronx infamy.  Carlton Fisk wasn’t popular.  Bill Lee remains unpopular among Yankee fans.  Pedro Martinez got a rivalry out of them.  A few guys, however, are not enough to create a feeling mutual to what comes at them from Boston.

Part of this has to do with how rarely, historically, the two teams were contenders at the same time.  There was 1978, the late 1990s, the 2000s, and right now. Older Yankees fans have a number of rivals.

The simple fact is that the Red Sox have not been as big a part of Yankee history as the Yankees have been a part of Boston’s.  They’ve been one rival out of many.  Boston where once was Brooklyn, or Baltimore.

Today, the AL East itself is the rivalry.  All five teams have some real ill will toward one another.  The Red Sox have had serious fights with the Rays and Orioles since 2004, while the only Yankee they really scuffled with was Alex Rodriguez.  They’ve played Tampa Bay twice in the postseason since they last met with New York in October.  Besides which, Rays fans had an even larger chip on their shoulder regarding Pedro Martinez than Yankee fans.

Buck Showalter, former Yankees manager, has had Boston in his sights since he joined the Baltimore Orioles.  The Orioles and Red Sox already have fought this year, and while they won’t meet again until September expect those meetings to be intense.  Manny Machado has a bone to pick with Boston.  The feeling is mutual.

Meanwhile, the Yankees have had their issues with Toronto in recent years, and I’ve always wondered if the Rays weren’t an eventual rival for New York.

After all, one of the major stories around Rays baseball is that they are always searching for a way to get into a more easily-accessible venue, perhaps in Tampa.  Well, there is a Major League team who has planted their flag in Tampa for quite some time now, and they just happen to be a division rival for the Rays.  If talk of a new stadium starts to really take root and heat up, expect an eventual clash in Tampa between Rays fans and the Yankee fans who pepper the area.

The Red Sox and Yankees’ fan dividing line issues in Connecticut are generally overstated.  The Nutmeg State is not necessarily all that conflicted about which parts of it are closer to New York and which parts are New England Proper.  There is no fan fight for Hartford.  There would, however, be such a fight for Tampa, and that fight is coming.

Really, Florida sets an ideal stage for this rivalry, with fans of all five teams not exactly hard to find on the Gulf coast.  The Blue Jays train in Dunedin, the Red Sox in Ft. Myers, and the Orioles in Sarasota.  Many of my friends and neighbors vacation in Sanibel, the older members of their family living there over the winter as “snowbirds.”  Down there it’s going to be crystal clear that a two team historic rivalry is now a five-way fight.

Do the current iterations of these teams seem like groups that will fight each other to you?  Both teams feature very different groups of talented players, many of them young, but there doesn’t seem to be so much of a clash between guys like Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi against the likes of Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez.  The young Red Sox let their personalities show, but I’ve yet to see many complaints about Xander Bogaerts being a hot dog or anything like that.  Likewise, it seems unlikely that Judge or Sanchez or anyone currently on the Yankees would do something to draw the ire of a David Price or a Chris Sale.

Naturally, all of that could change in a heartbeat, as all it would take is one incident to balloon and become the basis for a whole Thing between two teams.  The fight earlier between the Red Sox and Orioles was started with a questionable slide and grew into a beanball war.  John Farrell has proven he’s the type of manager who does not mind that kind of thing, and while Joe Girardi has shown a little more restraint his baseball history and managing history suggests a proud tradition of keeping baseball’s codes, written or unwritten.  Yet it seems that these teams would be more likely to develop problems with Baltimore, or Toronto.

If the fans have softened, it may be a generational issue.  Red Sox fans who once proudly wore “Yankees Suck” shirts in Boston and on vacation now have children.  They’re not screaming obscenities at the team in pinstripes, they’re simply hoping they can get the kids to sit and watch with them.  Fans younger than that feel a stronger rivalry with Peyton Manning in specific than the New York Yankees.  Local sports fans under, let’s say 30, really only know success on a ludicrous scale.  Young people of the Tri-State Area, likewise, remember Eli Manning getting one up on Tom Brady, and then another, much more clearly than they remember Pedro Martinez matadoring Don Zimmer to the ground in 2003.  Parental-aged Yankee fans are too busy trying to figure out how to describe Mariano Rivera to future generations to prepare anything especially nasty for David Price’s Thursday start.

The steroid era didn’t help.  Briefly it helped Boston, giving Red Sox fans a little closure on the whole Clemens stuff, but it didn’t take very long for Red Sox figures to be painted with the same brush.  I think these days fans of the two teams more or less call it a push.  There’s no opportunity for either side to really ridicule the other over something, let’s face it, no team was too good for.

In the last ten years or so, the only major free agent the teams competed for was Mark Teixiera.  The only fight was between Ryan Dempster and Alex Rodriguez, and only served to make Dempster look bad.  I remember the Red Sox lost that game, but I don’t really care much to remember anything else about it.  It doesn’t leave the lasting impression of that fight in 2004, or the ones in 2003.

The weirdest part has come over the past few years, when the two fanbases have shown specific players a sort of begrudging respect.

Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour made a stop at Fenway.  Rivera ended up more or less transcending the rivalry.  In 2005, during introductions at Fenway Park, the Boston crowd once gave him a standing ovation for blowing those saves in the 2004 ALCS.  Rather than taking it personally, Rivera tipped his hat and laughed, enjoying the joke.  From that moment on, the only time Red Sox fans didn’t like him was when he was specifically pitching against them.

Derek Jeter never rose to that level of, I guess, “favored rival.”  He’ll forever be on that Boston Sports Villain list with Magic Johnson, various members of the Montreal Canadiens, and the brothers Manning.  He went out to respect and a standing ovation at Fenway, though.  Call it a victory lap, an admission that he had not only won the “Nomar or Jeter” debate, but made it look downright silly in hindsight.  The consensus, more or less, was that the Fenway Faithful ended up wishing Jeter had been here all along.

Last year, it was Boston’s turn, with David Ortiz making his final run through Major League Baseball.  By then, Ortiz had become the most accomplished postseason player of his generation, easily the most accomplished since Reggie Jackson, and most likely the most accomplished postseason player to never wear a Yankee uniform.  The driving force behind 2004, with a swing that made Yankee Stadium’s short right field look like Little League dimensions, Ortiz’ celebration was a little more subdued than the Yankee tours that preceded it, but in the end that same groaning respect was shown to the longtime Red Sox DH.

The two groups of fans still do not get along, but to find any time when they talked like this about rivals, you’d have to go back to DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

A rivalry still exists between these two clubs, of course.  The fans still run into each other all the time.  There is still plenty to talk trash about, plenty to argue over, and plenty to compare.

What will be back now is the “compare-a-player” arguments that have always dotted this rivalry.  Where fans once debated DiMaggio and Williams, or Fisk and Munson, or Clemens and Pedro, or Nomar and Jeter, now they will get to weigh Mookie Betts against Judge.  It always helps when the two teams have really good players that can be compared, even if their games are completely different.

These days the teams sometimes will compete in a bidding war for a player, something that used to be a guaranteed victory for New York but has now been muddled by baseball’s new economic landscape.  The front offices will bid on players just to drive the price up for the other team, showing more creativity in rivalry than we’ve seen on the field since Jason Varitek brought hockey’s facewash to baseball.

Still, Cold War-ish subterfuge can be fun in a baseball context and all, but it isn’t quite as fun as Theo Epstein trashing a hotel room over losing a player to the Yankees.  That actually happened when The Rivalry was still going.  Hard to imagine Dave Dombrowski or Brian Cashman destroying furniture over the winter.

Some things you can’t re-create.  I think back to how I felt during the 2004 American League Championship Series, and I know that’s not something you reproduce.  You can only catch and eat the Road Runner the one time,   Then the little meeping jerk is reduced to nothing but leftovers.

Likewise, you can only be the Road Runner once.  The Yankees will always have their tradition, their championships, their history, but the old Yankee fan line that this is a rivalry the way nails are rivals to hammers no longer holds up.  Not in a century where the Red Sox currently lead the Yankees in title parades.

New York has a built-in rival for fan trash talk anyway in the Mets.  Just a year ago, it was expected that the young phenoms of the Mets pitching rotation would take over the city after years and years of it being Jeter’s town.  Not sure too many people still feel that way now.

For their part, Red Sox fans have a sort of interleague rival of their own in the St. Louis Cardinals, having met in the World Series twice and having such contrasting images of what their franchises stand for and what the fanbases want from them.

The Boston Red Sox and their fans will never be friendly with their counterparts from the Bronx.  There will always be bad blood, always fights, always something new, but it can’t rise to the level it hit in 2004 again.

That Road Runner has been cooked so well that even the leftovers are gone.  Or maybe the nail broke the hammer.  Either way, the relationship is fundamentally different.  Waiting for it to rekindle, in a way, misses the point.