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A Quick Word on the State of the Rivalry

Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox makes it back to first as Mark Teixeira of the New York Yankees leaps to make the catch at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox makes it back to first as Mark Teixeira of the New York Yankees leaps to make the catch at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk posits that the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is not what it once was. That’s a reasonable enough stance - it's not what it once was - but a couple of facts remain. One, ratings for Red Sox-Yankees games far exceed any other matchup in baseball. Two, they’re two of the very best teams in baseball every year. The games enjoy continued broad appeal for a wide audience and the quality on the field is terrific. Sounds like the foundation of a great rivalry to me, but there is something to Calcaterra’s point.

Let’s call the height of the rivalry 1999-2004 and by "height," I mean "peak intensity of public interest." Not baseball fan interest, public interest. There was a Tiger Woods element to the rivalry, where folks otherwise uninterested in baseball might tune into Red Sox – Yankees games, and that was particularly true of the postseason contests. My Mom watched the 2003 and 2004 ALCS with great interest, much the way she watched the final round of the 2000 PGA Championship or the 2005 Masters.

This was with good reason, too. There was the Red Sox’ futile history, and thanks to a relatively new playoff format, Boston had to overcome the Yankees head-to-head in order to capture a World Series title. Then there were the personalities. Unlike any player since Babe Ruth, Roger Clemens built his career in Boston and remained a superstar in New York. For an extended period, each time Pedro Martinez took the mound in the Bronx, 55,000 fans cheered "Who’s your Daddy" at maybe the greatest starting pitcher of all time. Think about that. Manny Ramirez grew up in the Bronx, and initiated a brawl in the 2003 ALCS. There was the Zimmer incident, and ‘Tek-A-Rod. Aaron Boone, the bloody sock, the 3-0 deficit. Basically, it was insane.

Speaking of A-Rod, even the personnel decisions themselves served to ratchet up the rivalry. Rodriguez was on the Red Sox until he wasn’t in 2004. But that was no problem because Boston felt compelled to acquire Curt Schilling, another bigtime player and personality. There was the Jose Contreras incident, where it was reported that Theo Epstein Chelios’d a hotel room after learning Contreras had opted to sign with the Yankees. Taken together, it would be hard to replicate all of the factors that combined to make that moment in time, well, that moment in time.

After 2004 though, after both teams had traded ALCS blows and after the Red Sox had won their first World Series in 86 years, understandably, casual fans and baseball purists alike tired of the rivalry. It was too much of a sideshow by now, and it didn’t help that the quality of the baseball was diminishing a tad. The animosity dissipated a bit, too. Pedro was gone, Schilling was aging, the Yankees’ core was aging too and even though the wins were still there, the accompanying media hype didn’t seem commensurate with the excitement on the field.

Now, with Calcaterra’s piece and others like it, that sentiment seems still to prevail, only the problem is that while the sideshow element and off-field personalities may be lacking, there are more great baseball storylines than ever. The on-field quality is there. Both teams feature bona fide superstars in center field, second base and first base. Great players like Kevin Youkilis and Nick Swisher also have the personality to get under the skin of opposing teams’ fans while basking in the adoration of their home teams’ supporters. There are holdovers, too. Derek Jeter is still around after all these years. So is David Ortiz. C.C. Sabathia and Jon Lester may not be Pedro and Roger, but it’s a damn interesting southpaw debate nonetheless. Josh Beckett was carried off the field at Yankee Stadium in 2003. You think they forget that? On the Yankees’ side, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia are going to take postseason rotation turns! How desperately does Jonathan Papelbon want to be Boston’s version of Mariano Rivera? Bard and D-Rob! And so on.

I guess the point is that it seems like a great time to revive this thing, not lament that it's become boring. The latter sounds like an implicit admission that good baseball bores you. Ignore the laundry if you must. Fox, MLB, ESPN, go all in, and not in a "ZOMG John Lackey threw a baseball at Francisco Cervelli" kind of way. The baseball between these two clubs is better than ever, and I promise these guys won’t let you down. The product itself, the baseball, is phenomenal, and it’s unfortunate to hear those that love the game the way Calcaterra does expressing fatigue when it’s the true baseball junkies who should now once again be promoting the match-up. If the baseball itself needs to provide sustenance for the rivalry's intensity and appeal, that's a pretty good place for it to be.