The Red Sox and Yankees face off in a three-game set this weekend, and no doubt the pregame highlights on Fox (where it's the Saturday game of the week), and ESPN (where it's the Sunday night matchup), will include familiar clips of Pedro Martinez throwing Don Zimmer to the ground, Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone hitting iconic home runs, and Dave Roberts stealing second base as the Red Sox started their improbable rise from a three games to none deficit to win the 2004 American League Championship Series. In short, all the clips will be old and not particularly moving, because the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is not particularly moving these days. Like a fire, it needs oxygen, and the oxygen went out of the room as soon as the Yankees won the 2009 World Series. Why? Because Alex Rodriguez winning a title eliminated the last compelling storyline of anyone currently involved in this rivalry.
Up and down the Yankees and Red Sox rosters, you find players who've won the World Series. You won't find anyone on either team who's still labeled a postseason choker or a debilitating underachiever. Sure, AJ Burnett has not played to the level of his contract, and John Lackey has been downright dreadful in his two years in Boston. But they both have World Series rings. Lackey won his with the Angels, yes, and not with Boston; but he did it by winning Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie. You can call John Lackey a lot of things, but gutless and incapable of handling the spotlight are not among them.
For a time, that description seemed perfectly suited to Rodriguez, and it was used by fans on both sides of the rivalry. His wonderful regular seasons were regularly eclipsed by small postseasons, and questionable actions -- most notably, slapping at Bronson Arroyo's glove in the 2004 ALCS -- opened him up to ridicule. But what is a self-respecting Red Sox fan supposed to say by way of smack talk about Rodriguez nowadays? That he allows Cameron Diaz to feed him popcorn? Yeah, how humiliating. Conversely, what's a Yankee fan supposed to say that’s going to get under the skin of a diehard Red Sox fan?
"Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz both did performance-enhancing drugs, therefore the 2004 and 2007 World Series are tainted, and therefore 1918 still stands as the ... "
The whole rivalry is a snoozer these days. Yes, the teams are doing well as always. But where's Hank Steinbrenner tossing insults at Red Sox Nation? Where's Brian Cashman swooping in and overpaying Carl Crawford last December? Where's Cashman outfoxing the Sox at the trade deadline? Where's a bench-clearing brawl -- sorry, skirmish -- like we witnessed when Jason Varitek stuck a mitt in Rodriguez's face in 2004? The tension on the field will often reflect the tension in the stands, and let's face it, Red Sox and Yankee fans just don't care as much as they used to about this rivalry. Sure, the television ratings for this weekend’s games will still be much higher than those of the average broadcast. But so what? People still watch Notre Dame football every week, too. Watching and caring -- truly caring -- are not synonymous.
For many years the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry was defined by Boston's inability to win in October. But when the Red Sox won their second World Series in four years in 2007, followed by the Yankees missing the playoffs in Joe Girardi's first year as manager in 2008, it seemed like the rivalry had been flipped on its head. Everything was going Boston's way, and people began noting that the Yankees hadn’t won a World Series since 2000. And critics were saying that Jeter’s fielding was hurting the team. And Red Sox and Yankees fans almost unanimously agreed that A-Rod would never, ever, come through in October. But then he did in 2009. And the rivalry's never been the same since.
Both teams have had too much recent success and not enough failure. They've become Goliath versus Goliath, indistinguishable to most fans outside the rivalry (and some within it). The Yankees brought in CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and AJ Burnett before the 2009 season, spent $423.5 million on their contracts and hoped to ride their new acquisitions to a title in the inaugural year of the new Yankee Stadium. And they did.
Just imagine for a second if the Yankees hadn't won that year or in 2010. Imagine if Jeter had gone into this past winter’s free agency negotiations with his .270 batting average, .370 slugging percentage, dreadful fielding metrics -- and his 2000 World Series ring. Boston has long been accused of mistreating its aging stars, but just imagine how well The Captain would have been treated by the Yankees and their fans with that middling portfolio. That would have been great fodder for the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, but it's all supposition. Once upon a time you didn’t need your imagination to produce compelling storylines in this rivalry, but that’s what it’s come to.
It's been seven years since the Red Sox and Yankees faced off in the playoffs, and while fans of other teams are no doubt pleased by this reality, baseball as a whole benefits when these two teams are at each other's throats. Certain developments over the past few years have promised to reignite this rivalry to its full bluster, most recently Mark Teixeira's decision to jilt Boston and join the Yankees prior to the 2009 season. But what can a Red Sox fan say of Teixeira now? Like it or not, he's a winner. And so is Robinson Cano. And so is Joba Chamberlain.
And what can a Yankee fan say of Jonathan Papelbon? Or Dustin Pedroia? Or Kevin Youkilis? Or any of the other players they despise on the Red Sox? That they’re jerks? Yippee.
This rivalry is suffering from a lack of losers. It needs its chokers and it needs its goats. There's been too much winning on both sides. Right now the only losers are the fans of this rivalry, who need some compelling new storylines. This weekend might offer a start, but more likely it'll take another date in October. It'll take some of the Red Sox new blood –- Crawford or Adrian Gonzalez -– coming up small in pressure situations. Or it'll take Hank Steinbrenner living up to the standard set by his late father and rolling a word grenade up I-95.
Someone needs to add some oxygen to this smoldering rivalry, to make it burn brightly again.