We’re entering the dog days of summer, when baseball takes the fore after the end of basketball, and the Red Sox and Yankees are duking it out for first place in the AL East. Given the talented core of both teams, we could be in for a redux of the early 2000s battles that permeated animosity and defined the sport for generations.
For the first time since 2009, both teams seem to be legitimate contenders in the American League, and Yankee Exceptionalism is all the way back after a brief hiatus induced by irresponsible contracts and aging players. In the blink of an eye, the Yankees have matched the Red Sox’ talented core with one of their own, setting up what could be a decade-long battle that we have been deprived of in recent years. Yankees/Red Sox is back.
But it sure doesn’t feel like it.
Gone are the days of Varitek punching A-Rod, Aaron (bleeping) Boone, Pedro pushing Don Zimmer to the ground, Pedro getting “Who’s your daddy” chants, “The Core Four,” Jeter’s stupid cut up face after diving into the stands, Manny Being Manny, etc.
If you need a quick reminder of the voracity that this rivalry once had, read this lede from Dan Shaughnessy’s game story the day of the Varitek/A-Rod brawl. It alone encapsulates the near century-long rivalry succinctly and tremendously (Say what you want about Shaughnessy — and there’s plenty I could say — the man can write):
Mayor Thomas M. Menino and the Hub Chamber of Commerce should be thankful for the long journey into night at Fenway Park yesterday. There are a lot of first-time visitors in Boston this weekend, folks who might have been wondering what all the fuss is about regarding this Red Sox-Yankees scramble. Now they know.
In one of the most exciting games in the century-old history of the rivalry, the Sox beat the Yankees, 11-10, yesterday afternoon/evening with three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning, capping their improbable comeback on Bill Mueller’s two-run, walkoff home run off indomitable Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
Welcome to the rivalry, Alex Rodriguez. Like childbirth and marathon running, you can study the manuals and listen to those who have been there, but you have to experience it for yourself to know the true meaning of Red Sox vs. Yankees. Never mind those speakers at the FleetCenter podium this week. Sox-Yankees is a better, more passionate joust than Elephants vs. Donkeys. And you don’t have to wait four years between bouts.
This was the day when the passive Red Sox finally fought back.
And over a decade ago, when this iteration of the Red Sox and Yankees ended, so too did the animosity that had previously been so prevalent in both fanbases. Both have had their turns being competitive — the Yankees had ’09, the Sox had ‘07 and ’13 — but the hate went out the door when the Red Sox conquered their demons of 2004.
Hate isn’t something that can be manufactured. The Yankees are, for the most part, likeable. Aaron Judge — and his full superhuman 6”7 frame — has taken the league by storm, mashing tape measure home runs like this one:
A-Rod is finally gone. We don’t have to pretend to respect Jeter anymore. Even worse, this Yankees generation has been built like a team from Kansas City — homegrown, sustainable talent. And I’m not afraid to say it’s been fun to watch, even while passively rooting against them.
But it would be wrong to say the death of this rivalry was some new revelation. This has little to do with the emergence of two young teams and their likeability. This has been a slow, methodical death that began on the greatest day in Red Sox history: October 20, 2004. As soon as Johnny Damon hit the grand slam in Yankee Stadium, and the Red Sox completed the greatest comeback in sports history, the perception of both franchises and their relationship changed forever.
Prior to that day, the narrative was clean-cut and convenient. It was good vs. evil, little brother vs. big brother, David vs. Goliath. The mythical Curse of the Bambino was less an attempt to explain the tilt of the rivalry, as much as it was a way to frame it. Nobody believed that there was some external curse from the ghost of Babe Ruth, but, given the decades of Yankee dominance, nobody would feasibly deny the rationale behind it.
Then it flipped and the Red Sox became the Yankees — for better and for worse. They won like the Yankees, with three World Series’ in less than 10 years. They spent like the Yankees, handing out massively contracts recklessly and frequently. And in doing so, they obliterated the narrative that had defined Red Sox/Yankees. There was no longer a top dog and the tortured brother — instead it was two dynamos. And that was less fun.
As the league evolved so, too, have New York and Boston. They both have shifted away from the long-term, handicapping deals to aging veterans, and have moved toward youth. The Yankees have recycled out A-Rod, Jeter, Teixeira, and Mariano and entered in Judge, Sanchez, Pineda, and Castro. The Red Sox have ridded themselves of guys like Beckett, Crawford, Lester, and even Ortiz to usher in Benintendi, Betts, Bogaerts, and Bradley. The next generation of Red Sox/Yankees has arrived, seemingly at the peril of a once flourishing rivalry.
Do we need the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry? Not necessarily. But would I be opposed to a generation of Red Sox who hate the Yankees? Would I be opposed to Bryce Harper becoming the new villain in this rivalry? No. Because the Red Sox, baseball, sports, and life are more fun when the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry is at its peak.