(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
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.