This started out as a comment to this post by Randy, talking about my story over at Let's Go Tribe, "It's Official — Sabathia is a Jackass". I first want to thank Randy for the shout-out and everyone who commented for the supportive words. In that thread, the question was asked, would the reaction be the same had Sabathia signed with the Red Sox? I will admit that it's not a simple question, but the simple answer is "no."
From an Indians fan's perspective, at least two key facts still separate the Red Sox and Yankees in the "nemesis" column. The first is that the Red Sox were pushed into operating like a giant economic powerhouse, while the Yankees were the ones doing the pushing. As I detailed a few months ago, the Yankees always maintained one of the highest payrolls through the mid-90's, but usually only about 10% higher than the next team. It was only after 1998 that they took what was already the highest payroll in baseball ... and tripled it ... over the course of just a few years.
The Red Sox, under the old ownership, were a club run with no creativity and a good bit of doltishness by Dan Duquette, but he also spent big money wisely once in a while. The Red Sox could not afford at that time to double the payroll, so the new ownership decided that the club had to get a lot smarter, both about baseball operations and about maximizing revenues. By that point, the only other alternative was to cede the AL East to the Yankees, indefinitely. Whatever my views about the revenue situation, I don't think it's fair or reasonable to say that the Red Sox should have just rolled over rather than responding forcefully, building up a store of economic might and wielding it with great skill.
If it were on the table — if it ever gets to the table — I think the Red Sox management across the board — Henry, Lucchino, Theo and certainly Bill James — would support an economic system that gives all 30 teams a level playing field, whatever that system might be. I think they have justifiable confidence in their ability to compete without unfair advantages, and I think all those guys love baseball and understand that the game will be better over the course of this century if it's possible to have a great team in a "little big city" like Milwaukee. I think Henry has basically said this, on the record, more than once.
The Yankees, who have always pushed the envelope to make the system as unfair as possible, probably would oppose any measures along those lines; certainly the elder Steinbrenner has always opposed them bitterly in the past. So that makes for a key difference.
The second key fact is that we simply haven't had the same rivalry with one another, as both teams have had with the Yankees, even though all three clubs have been in more or less direct competition for over a century. Like Red Sox fans, Indians fans savor the moment of any postseason victory, and like Red Sox fans, victory is just that much sweeter when the Yankees get humiliated in the process. There was an extra kick with the 1997 ALDS, when we broke Rivera to take it from the Yankees. It was not remotely the same when we beat the Red Sox in 1998, and that is partly because the Yankees have been shameless in pushing the economic envelope, partly because their fans have always been the most obnoxious (led by their king), partly you're taking something away from the most overpaid players in the game.
(You can't take their paychecks, but you can leave them with nothing else. Oh, the perfect beauty of a stunned, jerkoff-filled Yankee Stadium! Especially when the Indians have delivered the beat-down, but even when it's someone else. As a baseball fan, I could never enjoy a Red Sox defeat the way I enjoyed the end of the 2004 ALCS.)
This is mostly a function of the teams' histories. The Red Sox were a dominant club through the 1910's, edging out the Indians in 1918 for Boston's fourth title in eight years. But the Indians didn't even get good until 1917, and the Red Sox ducked out after 1918 while the Indians had a nice run through 1921. The Red Sox next won in 1946, and the Indians weren't a factor. The Red Sox finished a close second in 1948, when the Indians won their next and most recent championship, but as in 1917, Boston was fading out while the Indians were fading in. Cleveland played well over .600 ball from 1948 to 1955, probably the greatest period in our history, winning two pennants, but the Red Sox were not a factor in the AL after 1949.
The Red Sox won pennants in 1967 and 1975, but by that point, the Indians were already into their 35-year slump. Our clubs "competed" in the AL East for 25 seasons, but the Indians never finished higher than 4th. In the Wild Card era, the Indians dominated the late 90's and kept the Red Sox out of the ALCS in two out of three Division Series. Ironically, the Red Sox may have made for a better matchup with the Yankees in the 1998 ALCS, and the Indians probably would have made a sturdier opponent in a seven-games series in 1999 — we bloodied each other up pretty good in those division series. It wasn't a sustained rivalry, though, as the Red Sox rightfully were much more focused on the Yankees. The Indians farm system went dry in sync with the economy, pushing them out of the picture as the new Red Sox regime took over and eventually dominated.
Which brings us to the present day. In a good year like 2007, the Indians are going to provide a strong competitor to any club including the Red Sox, but unlike the Red Sox, the Indians will not have the resources to procure a "good year" more or less every season. It is unfair, but as I wrote above, their only alternative to spending the way they have was to cede the division completely to the Yankees, and I don't blame them for not doing it. They didn't create the system, they're not aggravating the situation any more than another half-dozen high-revenue clubs are, and they won't defend the system.
In Cleveland, everyone has always said, oh, Player X, he's going to the Yankees eventually, but usually, he doesn't. Belle went to the White Sox and eventually the Orioles. Manny went to the Red Sox, Thome to the Phillies. We traded Colon to the Expos, who traded him to the White Sox, and eventually the Angels signed him. Despite the fairly constant obsessing about the Yankees as inevitable destination, this is the first time one of our top guys actually became a Yankee. It doesn't anger me, but it does irritate me. I'm sure losing Pedro to the Mets was nowhere near as galling for you guys as Damon crossing the line. (Not that Boston developed either player, but still.)
When Giambi signed with the Yankees, shaved his beard and said all that mooney-eyed Yankee crap, I said to myself, "That guy is a total jackass." He wasn't our player, and we never imagined we could sign him — in fact we didn't even need him — but it was simply clear to me that he was a jackass. When Clemens forced a trade to the Yankees, I said to myself, "That guy is an unbelievable jackass — he wants a championship even if it has to be spoon-fed to him" (which is basically what happened in 1999). Clemens really amped it up, too, with all those kiss-ass comments about his HOF cap and all the things "Mr. Steinbrenner" had supposedly "allowed" him to accomplish, like winning 300 games. Damon — jackass. A-Rod — huge jackass — and I actually like A-Rod, but his Yankee-ification has been the culmination of everything bad and stupid about him. I'm sure I'm forgetting some major jackasses along the way, but those are the ones that come to mind.
I'm sure most folks thought that my "jackass" article was all bout my being mad about losing Sabathia, but that actually isn't the case. It is sad to lose him, and it does sting, but this really is about consistency. I was okay with his leaving, I had accepted it and appreciated his time as an Indian. But once I saw him in that Yankees cap, saying all that stupid Yankee crap, it hit me — Sabathia doesn't get a free pass. He's a jackass, just like all those other guys who went to the Yankees and said all that stupid crap. Well, you've seen the article, I won't repeat it.
Manny was not a jackass for going to the Red Sox — in fact, he actually reached his own personal jackass heights in the way that he left, almost eight years later. There is just something disgusting about the Yankees that — sorry to break it to you — the Red Sox probably can never match. You see it in their fans, and that special, grotesque, know-nothing, front-running, we-are-always-the-awesomest odor they have. When a player not only takes the money, but takes it from the Yankees, and then starts spouting Yankees exceptionalism, he hasn't merely become a mercenary, he's become a Yankees fan at the same time. Gross.
And I guess maybe that's the bottom line. Had C.C. signed with the Red Sox, it still would have been mercenary, and it still would have been symptomatic of everything that's wrong with the game economically — but he sure as hell wouldn't have been morphing into a Yankees fan. Would I have called him a jackass? I really don't think so.