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August 5, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

The Magical Magic of Yankees-Red Sox

by Steven Goldman

(Editor's note: This is the first installment of Prospectus Perspective, a regular feature that will feature the opinions and perspectives of various Baseball Prospectus authors, notably Christina Kahrl, on a regular basis.)

---

Despite sharing a division-sized league and then a league-sized division for more than 100 years, the Yankees and Red Sox haven’t often been in head-to-head competition. Prior to 1998, when the two clubs began a habit of yearly tandem finishes, there were only 10 occasions when one of the teams finished first when the other finished second. Of those, just four were actually close, while the tension of the more recent races was somewhat diffused by the existence of the wild card; in 10 1-2 finishes going back to 1998, the loser failed to gain entry to the postseason only three times.  

In short, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has been embraced by fans out of all proportion to its actual impact. This is particularly true on the Yankees side of things, where until quite recently all the championships landed on New York’s side of the fence. Yet a few of the experiences have been so viscerally powerful, particularly the tug of war over the American League East in 1978 and the Yankees’ slow-motion collapse in the 2004 American League Championship Series, that fans who weren’t even a passive part of those races express an animus that is entirely motivated by feelings received from others who were. At least there were some legitimately upsetting events that engendered fan feeling in the 1970s—not only were the two clubs closely-matched rivals, but they had violently clashed on more than one occasion, such as the May 20, 1976 brawl that resulted in pitcher Bill Lee suffering a serious shoulder injury. Other than the bizarre Pedro Martinez-Don Zimmer incident in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS and the Yankees’ repeat drillings of Kevin Youkilis (they’ve nailed him 12 times, the most of any team, though the White Sox and Tigers have hit him more often on a per-plate appearance basis), the rivalry has been relatively bloodless in recent seasons.

Much ink has been spilled over the years as to what created and motivated the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, and to a lesser extent, the New York City-Boston rivalry. Very little attention has been paid to how ludicrous the very idea is. The two cities are vastly different in population, climate, and culture, with New York City being about five times as large and 13 times more populous. They don’t compete in any real sense, and a rivalry between the two has no more basis than a rivalry between Cleveland and Vienna or Beverly Hills and Astrakhan. The wild card has mitigated the effects of head-to-head competition, so fan hostility continues out of longtime habit, not a real clash of rivals—at least, not until the postseason, when any opponent, not just a longtime rival, assumes the stature of an archenemy.

What we have left is a kind of tribalism, reflecting the human need to define in-groups by creating out-groups. It’s all illusory. This year’s Red Sox team has one native Bostonian (Manny Delcarmen) but enough Texans and Floridians to form a minyan. The Yankees have employed one New York City-born player, Alex Rodriguez (who actually grew up in Florida, and few Yankees fans would acknowledge him as a native anyway), another from New Jersey, Derek Jeter (who was raised in Michigan), and another from Long Island (Kevin Russo), but the roster is just as diverse as that of any other franchise. Jerry Seinfeld famously said that we root for laundry, and the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, as perceived by the fans, is just an extreme example of the same act of self-hypnosis. The Yankees represent the Yankees, not New York, in the same way that General Electric represents General Electric even if their headquarters is in Fairfield, Connecticut. The Red Sox may have a “Nation,” but the relationship is a one-way street; if the “Nation” somehow stopped filling up Fenway Park every night and ceased to watch games on NESN, they’d be the San Antonio Red Sox before you could say “Yawkey Way.”

Having said all of that, the illusion is powerful and pervasive, and if you’re in Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park for a game between the two teams, there is an electricity that isn’t there when, say, the Seattle Mariners drop by. The four-game series that starts Friday at Yankee Stadium will actually provide a good reason for it. The Yankees and Rays are on a pace to win over 100 games; the Red Sox could win over 90 and go home. This time, there is a real competition for post-season spots, since only two of the three teams can play into October. The Yankees have been going through a rough patch of late. Up four games on July 23, they played back the lead and even surrendered it before winning their way back into a tie on Wednesday. Boston’s rollercoaster season has seen them drop as far back as 8 1/2 games and come as close as one. Now 6 1/2 behind after a losing July (12-13), a strong showing could project them back into the wild card and divisional race. 

The series pitching matchups would seem favorable for the Red Sox, with Clay Buchholz taking on Javier Vazquez, John Lackey against CC Sabathia (a seeming mismatch, but Lackey has had his share of good starts lately), Josh Beckett  versus A.J. Burnett, and Jon Lester battling Dustin Moseley. Yet, with Youkilis out for the series and possibly the season, it is uncertain if the Sox will bring sufficient firepower to take advantage of any good pitching they receive. On Wednesday, Youkilis’ absence meant that Victor Martinez played first base and Kevin Cash caught, which adds insult to injury given that Cash may be the worst hitter to have an extended major-league career since Bill Bergen. It appears that more often the daily patch will have Mike Lowell at first base. With Dustin Pedroia and Mike Cameron also on the shelf, the Red Sox have to hope that Lowell, Jed Lowrie, rookie Ryan Kalish, the returned Jacoby Ellsbury, and the ubiquitous Bill Hall (who has slugged .503 since mid-May) can pick up the slack.

The Yankees have been very strong at home, the Red Sox so-so on the road, and chances are the latter won’t get anything like the sweep they need to stay alive. Nonetheless, the stands will be full and loud and much beer will be sold to the eager attendees, some of whom will inevitably berate and possibly threaten violent reprisals against anyone dumb enough to show up in Red Sox gear. The reverse will be true when the Yankees show up in Boston on October 1 to finish out the season, despite there being every chance that those games will be meaningless. These are the things we do to pass the time, to make us feel better about ourselves, about where we live, about the things we believe and care about. Unless the Red Sox threaten to sweep, the tension felt will be unearned. Still, let us rejoice in the communal animosity enjoyed by those crowds. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry demonstrates a great human truth: nothing brings us together like hating someone else, that hatred be justified or not.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Bob

I've always considered the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry similar to the Democrats vs. the Republicans. I don't like either of them but I often feel compelled to take a side.

Aug 05, 2010 08:15 AM
rating: 5
 
awayish

imaginary communities and baseball. :)

Aug 05, 2010 08:35 AM
rating: 0
 
devine

Javier Vazquez, no? Not Jorge

Aug 05, 2010 09:13 AM
rating: 0
 
lonechicken

Jorge Vazquez?

Aug 05, 2010 09:14 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Also, paragraph #5 missing a sentence or two at its end.

Aug 05, 2010 09:21 AM
rating: 0
 
williams51

The 18-22 year old in me vehemently disagrees with this article, the 34 year old father and professional in me couldn't agree more.

Aug 05, 2010 09:21 AM
rating: 2
 
Matt Kory

So, Steven, as someone who was born and raised a Yankee fan, are you telling me you feel no more animus towards the Red Sox than the Rangers or Marlins?

Aug 05, 2010 09:54 AM
rating: 0
 
Michael
(736)

Congratulations on the new column. I look forward to reading more of them from Christina, you, and others.

Aug 05, 2010 10:13 AM
rating: 0
 
SteveR61

I've worn Red Sox gear into Yankee Stadium on plenty of occasions, and also in the Yankee Tavern across the street, and on the subway before and after games. Never had a problem.

Aug 05, 2010 11:13 AM
rating: 2
 
JimmyJack

I've worn Cubs garb to Shea back in the '80's. You seem braver than me, though.

Aug 05, 2010 11:42 AM
rating: 1
 
npb7768

A little misleading in the first paragraph, because the 10 occurrences don't include, off the top of my head, serious, passionate 3-way races in 1948, 1950, and 1974.

Aug 05, 2010 12:43 PM
rating: 0
 
hyprvypr

How much does effect does the media have on this so-called rivalry? ESPN is headquartered directly around both cities and gives both teams considerably air time. Once they play eachother, it's basically headline news, guarenteed to have a plug in it for Sportscenter and the ESPN Sunday evening game of the week almost seemed to be made for these two teams.

Sure the fans will be fans with competition, but surely the media causes the frenzy.

Aug 05, 2010 14:07 PM
rating: 5
 
bflaff1

I don't think the outsized narcissism of either fan base (in this case, I mean that in a good way - there is no juice in the stadium without it) is media generated, although it probably plays a role. But both fan bases think they're especially special, so when both their teams are good the head to head games tend to be proxy wars for a 'who is more special?' battle going on in the stands. Hence the fans treating the rivalry as bloodsport.

Fwiw, I *always* got my money's worth sitting in the old Yankee Stadium bleachers for these throwdowns.

Aug 05, 2010 23:04 PM
rating: 2
 
WaldoInSC

People here in the South who know about New York and Boston primarily from baseball are shocked to discover that they are actually five hours apart. No one in Atlanta thinks Charleston, SC -- five hours away -- is a neighbor.

Aug 05, 2010 15:40 PM
rating: 0
 
Mountainhawk

Boston to Philly is about 5 hours. Boston to NYC is no more than 3.5 or so, unless you are traveling in rush hours or something.

Aug 05, 2010 17:56 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Can't you use the same argument for people to be apathetic about the World Series? Its not like the two best teams are facing off and the winner is usually forgotten by next August. It's just two of the better-than-average teams that had the hottest Octobers facing off...

I guess what I mean is that some people like baseball not as a skill game per se, but as a chance to root for or against someone, not whether the matchup is relevant or not. As a recent example, Coors Field sold out for the Rockies-Cubs series even though there is no divisional rivalry and Rockies wins vs the Cubs don't affect the Rockies playoff chances any more than wins against the Pirates. Yet people were still screaming their heads off at the game.

Aug 05, 2010 17:25 PM
rating: 1
 
BillJohnson

Steven, I'm sorry, but I am sick nigh unto death of having this "magical magic" jammed down my throat at every media opportunity, and I cannot begin to express my disappointment that Baseball Prospectus has joined the dispensers of that sickness. Please, for the sake of my subscription, tell me that this was an isolated occurrence, and that Baseball Prospectus will continue to cover BASEBALL in all its globe-spanning glory, not just two narcissistic media centers.

Aug 05, 2010 19:40 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

Bill, what, a title like "Magical Magic" doesn't SCREAM sarcasm at you? Did you not read the piece, which regards the so-called rivalry with apathy? My alternative title was actually, "Yankees-Red Sox: We Do What We're Told," which might have made it even clearer, but cripes, it's pretty damned obvious that I sympathize with the idea that this is overblown. PS: We probably do less Yankees here at BP than we should--I do 99% of my writing on the subject at the Pinstriped Bible and use my BP time for other stuff.

Aug 05, 2010 22:17 PM
 
bflaff1

Poe's Law!

("Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing.")

Aug 05, 2010 23:08 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Well said!

;)

Aug 06, 2010 02:24 AM
rating: 0
 
BillJohnson

Exactly. I did mistake it for the real thing (and completely failed to get your point), and am glad that parody was your intention -- but my concern remains.

Aug 06, 2010 06:49 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Well.. then you should have read the article. It's pretty clear to me, from the article, that Steven thinks the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry is overhyped...

So I don't know why you think that Steven was feeding the hype, unless you didn't read the article and just reacted to the article title.

Aug 07, 2010 01:56 AM
rating: 0
 
Shkspr

The only passion a Yankees-Red Sox game stirs in this fan is a desire to see which Law & Order rerun is playing that night on TNT.

Aug 05, 2010 20:46 PM
rating: 1
 
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