Recent talk that the eternal conflict between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees is no longer a meaningful sports rivalry have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, they are dead wrong.
Just because they’re not the top two teams in the league anymore doesn’t mean they’re not still bitter rivals whose fans circle their head-to-head matchups on the schedule every season. Each time they square off, the stadiums are packed with fans that still hurl obscenities at and pour beers on each other. The fanbases continually do battle on every social media platform. Most of us still check our rival team’s final score before bedtime, regardless of their position in the standings.
From my standpoint, the rivalry is as strong as ever.
I’m not trying to convince you that the heat, intensity, and ill will between the Red Sox and the Yankees is anywhere near what it was back when Carlton Fisk did the ground and pound on Thurman Munson, or when Jason Varitek smacked Alex Rodriguez in the beak. It’s not even at the level of Joe Kelly popping Tyler Austin in 2018.
Every sports rivalry waxes and wanes with time as the fortunes and trajectories of the two teams converge toward and then diverge from one another. The reason this rivalry is still prevalent today, if not as combustible, is because the divergences between the Red Sox and the Yankees are so minute. In fact, their trajectories barely seem to vary at all.
Does anybody find it odd that the recent regressions of these two teams, from MLB overlords to big market underachievers, have taken place in tandem with each other?
The Red Sox have won four World Series since 2004, going 16-3 in the Fall Classic during that time. The Yankees have won one title during these past two decades, missing the postseason only three times. These teams used to load up their rosters and then reload them year after year at a rate that no other franchise could match. The Red Sox racked up rings while the Yankees reigned as the kings of regular season success. Each team experienced ebbs and flows, but through it all they were considered the co-undisputed heavyweight champions of MLB until about 2017, when the Astros and Dodgers began their runs as baseball’s big dogs. However, the grand ascension of new contenders had only just begun.
Houston and Los Angeles were but the first of several teams that elected to join the arms race that John Henry and the Steinbrenner family formerly participated in by themselves. Beyond that, this new generation of MLB superpowers leapt into the fray with long-term building philosophies led by player scouting and development departments that the Red Sox and Yankees were not constructed to contend with.
The Atlanta Braves raised a talent-rich farm system and immediately locked up their cornerstone players long-term.
The Toronto Blue Jays promoted a stacked core of youngsters headed by a pair of second generation studs and complimented them with some high-priced free agent arms.
The Baltimore Orioles finally parlayed a train of high draft picks into a crop of legitimate stars in the making.
The Texas Rangers finally began making decent draft picks, then sprinkled in a few huge contracts to second-tier free agents.
Other teams — late to the developmental party, outwitted by the smarter franchises, and desperate for their own October glory — threw heaping bags of cash at every All Star they could find. The Phillies and Padres usurped the Red Sox and Yankees as the new offseason bullies, a designation that Boston and New York had clung to through the steroid era and beyond. Steve Cohen of the Mets watched the heavy investments from Philadelphia and San Diego, shrugged his shoulders, broke open his piggy bank, and made it rain like Oprah Winfrey.
“You get a contract! You get a contract! You get a contract!”
And let’s not forget the incomprehensible developmental factory in Tampa Bay, cranking out an interminable supply of unknown jags that perform at elite levels for no money before being shipped out and replaced with a new generation of equally infallible nobodies.
A new regime of winning teams found their own solutions to the equation of how to build a winning MLB franchise. And none of them let the Red Sox or the Yankees in on the joke.
It’s not so much that the Red Sox and Yankees slowed down, it’s that a bunch of other teams finally caught up. There were no longer only two teams willing to spend whatever it takes to win. And those other teams weren’t just spending like the Red Sox and the Yankees … they were spending wisely. Without that economic advantage, the Red Sox and Yankees were no longer the Zach and Slater of MLB. They were two teams with a lot of history, but no discernible future.
Aside from Boston’s 2018 championship, the Sox and the Stripes have both underwhelmed for the past 10 years.
Both of them. At the same time.
The Red Sox have alternated promising runs with last place finishes. The Yankees have engineered an impressive string of good regular seasons culminating with October letdowns. The two big-money juggernauts that presided over the entire league both took steps back right around the same time. There was no prolonged stretch where the Red Sox loomed over the rest of the league as the Yankees suffered, and vice versa. Boston has lacked the consistency Yankee fans have enjoyed, but they have offset their years in the basement with a couple playoff conquests over the Bombers. Neither team has established themselves as the superior franchise. All in all, the Pendulum has not strayed far from the middle at any point since Fenway Sports Group purchased the Red Sox.
The Red Sox (2004) and Yankees (2000) reached their greatest heights since the expansion era within five years of one another, dominated the league together under a flag of economic supremacy for the next 15, then gradually fell back to the rest of the pack at the same time.
They can’t quit each other. When one team reaches the top of the mountain, the other ascends right behind them. If one team falls, the other slips up in turn. They are each others’ opposites. They are each others’ negatives. As much as they may dislike each other, they need each other more than they realize. It’s an involuntary symbiotic relationship the likes of which has never been seen before in sports. The rivalry is over 100 years old, but this irreversible psychic link has now lasted 20 years across multiple seasons, managers, generations of players, and philosophical realignments.
Even now, the Red Sox and Yankees have strikingly similar win-loss records, talent bases, strengths, and weaknesses. They have similarly frustrated fanbases, neither of which is optimistic about the chances of their teams competing for a title this season.
The players are mere colleagues … industry professionals that relate to one another and seem to get along just fine. The rivalry hasn’t been about the players since the days of Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson. Even at the apex of hostility and competition between the two franchises, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez were good friends that would call each other and chat between games. Think about it: how many players on either team were born and raised in Boston or New York? They live very similar lives, work in the same field, and are part of the same union. Why wouldn’t they get along?
The rivalry is about the front offices and the fans. These organizations and fanbases have been locked in combat for twenty years running, eternal combat that has now come too far to ever dissipate. Is it at a simmer now rather than a boil? Sure. But it’s still palpable, and that palpability can be observed anytime you look in the crowd when these teams square off.
It’s a rivalry that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Just like Batman and the Joker, these two teams are destined to do this forever.
And if you think the days of the old school, nuclear heat between the Red Sox and Yankees are gone forever, you haven’t been paying attention since the dawn of the 21st century. They may not say it out loud, but these organizations would love nothing more than to recapture the unrequited hatred that boiled like a sea of fire from 2003 through 2008.
We got a nostalgic sneak preview of what this rivalry has been in the past and could be once again during the 2021 AL Wild Card Game. Those fans rode a bolt of lightning throughout that contest, and we all want that type of energy back in our lives full time. We’ll grasp onto any excuse to hop aboard that lightning bolt once again.
A great rivalry, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.