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Monday, August 8, 2011

What Happened to the Red Sox/Yankees Rivalry?

                As a Red Sox fan, the highlight of the season always used to be the games Boston played against the New York Yankees. The regular season games in particular seemed to be the real rivalry, knowing that inevitably the playoffs would end in some sort of catastrophic fashion for Boston. Even with that fatalistic view, it was still nail bitingly fun to get to that point. Now that the tides have changed over the past decade, the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry just doesn’t seem to be what it once was, and it is not clear if it will ever bounce back.

                There are a number of key areas that have contributed to the ultimate rivalry in baseball losing a lot of its luster.

The games are not as exciting any more: Although the two teams have played to a near standstill in the regular season since the start of the 2004 season (Boston holds a 73-68 edge), the games just don’t keep fans on the edge of their seats as much anymore. With average game times at well over three hours, it is difficult to create the same excitement when the action is dragged out so much. The two teams do treat each game like game 7 of the World Series, increasing the number of mound visits, pitching changes, and pinch hitters, all things that lengthen the time it takes to play a game. Additionally, both teams have built lineups with hitters who are excellent at taking pitches, another factor in game length.

With both teams typically being near the top of the standings, there is also decreased pressure to sweep a series. While nobody wants to lose, getting swept no longer seems to have the same implications that it used to. The American league is so watered down that neither New York nor Boston is ever far from at least the Wild Card. This has removed a lot of the excitement. For many years it seemed to us Boston fans that we were always a four game sweep away from taking over the Yankees.

The Red Sox are no longer loveable losers: Prior to 2004, whenever he Red Sox and Yankees games were broadcast on television, fans could expect a barrage of references and montages devoted to the “Curse of the Bambino,” and the fact that Boston had not won a World Series since 1918, while New York had won 26 in the same time span. The Red Sox were the Rudy Ruettigers of the baseball world, trying to prove that they belonged on the same field as the Yankees.

The Red Sox shattered the loveable loser part of their identity when they won the World Series in 2004, and then again in 2007. If winning it once put a dent in their persona, winning it twice shattered it forever, and proved that 2004 was no fluke. The World Series victories bumped Boston into the dominant class, and put them on more even footing with New York than they had known since prior to 1918.

There is no more bad guy: It used to be that both New York or Boston fans could identify what set them apart from the other team, which created a natural rivalry because of the desire to establish superiority. Boston fans wanted the Red Sox to prove that they were as good as the Yankees and could beat them at their own game. Yankee fans wanted their team to enforce Boston’s inferiority complex and prove them as whiners who did not belong on the same stage.

Boston and New York are now essentially the same franchise. They each win a lot, spend a ton of money, and are never far from shouting distance from a playoff spot. It seems that the regular season games they play against themselves now are more about how it flip-flops them in the standings then it is about pushing them out of playoff contention.

They both spend ungodly amounts of money: The Red Sox have always had a healthy payroll, but the perception typically had the Yankees as just spending off the charts compared to everyone else. The Yankees still have the top payroll in baseball, but the gap has been significantly narrowed. The Red Sox 2011 Opening Day payroll of 161.4 million dollars was comparable to the Yankees figure of 201.7 million, and represented 2 of the top three figures in all of baseball. Spending that type of money creates expectations of winning from fans and outsiders, and removes all illusions of being an underdog- an important component of a rivalry.

In recent years it seems that the line for free agents and stars on the trading block starts behind Boston and New York. With rare exceptions, one of those two teams nabs the top available players each year, making the rich all the richer. The past two years have netted the teams the likes of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett,and John Lackey. Their rosters have become veritable All-Star teams. The appearance that they both buy their success rather than earning it has also cut into the relevancy of the rivalry.

How can the rivalry change for the better?: The best thing that could happen to the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry would be if one or both teams fell out of the baseball stratosphere and became part of the also-rans for a period of time. When two teams have pumped in the amount of resources and experienced the degree of success enjoyed by Boston and New York over the past decade, humility is the only thing that can knock them from their lofty perches. The current state of affairs does not indicate that this will happen any time soon, so instead, Boston and New York fans will continue to participate in a rivalry that is much watered down from where it used to be.

You won’t find many fans complaining about the consistent winning of their teams, but much like other aspects of life, struggle can make success all the sweeter. Baseball has traditionally been defined by its rivalries, so for the sake of the sport it would be nice to see Boston and New York restore intensity and meaning to their annual slate of games. 

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