Rivalry (noun): a state or situation in which people or groups are competing with each other.
The dictionary definition of rivalry is a rather staid affair, a fact perhaps unsurprising from Merriam-Webster. The contour of the definition is correctly sketched; sports are a situation, or a series of them, involving a group of people competing against another group. But the dictionary definition fails to capture those parts of rivalries that make any of us care about them. It isn’t just the competition on the field; all sport involves that. It’s the ecosystem surrounding the situation so described. The group of portly dads resplendent in body paint. The kids who hand-make signs to declare their allegiance in puff paint and sequins. The fan nervously perched on the edge of her seat with her hands clasped together in silent prayer and her entire form wound tight like a spring ready to uncoil if the ball is hit far enough. There is an exuberance stretched taut. Ballparks often house the crackle and pop of the crowd, but there is something different about rivalry games. Fans have a greater focus; folks are pitched forward ever so slightly. The assemblage appears to fill the space more completely. Not just because seats are filled, but also because there is movement and jostling from those craning to see. It takes up space and makes a crowd look more alive.
The impulse to rally together manifests itself in ways both positive and negative. We’ve been to the Moon, a collaborative effort that required a community of like-minded individuals set to common purpose. We also see daily the nastiness of the Internet, where roving bands pounce upon the unsuspecting, committed more to the cause of tribe or camp than conversation. We’ve all seen the joy of a stadium simultaneously on its feet, and the discomfiting brutishness of beer bottles and trash thrown on playoff fields at bad calls. Collaboration in the face of competition can animate action, and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in sports, where winning is easily measured, and feelings stirred and solidified by the repetitive attainment of goals along the way to victory.
That animating spirit can be seen in the most entrenched, longest-lasting rivalries in baseball. Those victories don’t count for more than any others, and they may ultimately prove just as meaningless in the larger course of the season. But we feel them more keenly. We get pumped up, and we recognize them easily in other franchises. No one needs to tell you about the history of the Red Sox and the Yankees; the braggadocio cheers of fans spilling out of subway cars do that for you. The energy buoys stories told across generations, of victories snatched and defeats that made grown men double in discomfort.
But what can be gleaned from the opposite? We know the great rivalries. But no one thumbs through the pocket schedule in search of a Phillies vs. Angels series. And why would you? Those teams have met only a handful of times. In fact, using 1988 as our starting point—though in this example you could obviously go back much further—the Angels and the Phillies have played 10 times, with the Angels holding the Phillies to a grisly 1-9 record. It’s the sort of result Phillies fans would be keen to forget if they remembered it at all, and that Angels fans likely only marked by a vague annoyance at the start time of the games played in Philadelphia. What might we learn about what shapes the experience of rivalry by examining the oddities of opponents spaced geographically far apart and playing infrequently?
First, we ought to consider the question of frequency, or perhaps more accurately, regularity. We reserve our most pointed, emotional invective for divisional rivals. Then there are the teams we meet with the frequency of third cousins at family barbeques; they are recognizable as part of the tribe, but none of their biographical details stand out. Unsurprisingly, the thinnest head-to-head resumes feature interleague play. Bearing in mind our start date of 1988, and the beginning of interleague play in 1997, a few matchups stand out as exceptionally rare. The Rangers and the Cardinals have met six times during the regular season; the Mets and White Sox just seven. Their meetings are the first and second most infrequent in baseball. To put that in perspective, the average number of games played between opponents is 149, and the median number is 119. In that 27-year span, the Cubs played the Orioles, the Rays, and the A’s nine times each. The Indians and the Braves have also met only nine times. The Pirates have faced the Mariners 10 times, the least frequent matchup for both franchises, although their 2016 series will give Pittsburgh another opportunity to plunder Seattle. The only remaining teams without a World Series appearance, the Mariners and the Nationals, have also met very rarely in the regular season, with just 18 contests. They had six games when the Nationals were still the Expos, and have had 12 since the Nationals became the Nationals.
These infrequent matchups can still be marked by excitement, but while fans may look forward to seeing the stars of these teams up close, the tone is markedly different from a rivalry game. We travel to our home ballpark to see McCutchen or Bryant or deGrom. We want our team to do well, but we also long for a sparkling individual performance so that we might take advantage of the opponents being up close, even as we try to ignore the deflating feeling of seeing our own players play background figures in another team’s highlights. We want to win, but we secretly hope for a win less dominating so that we can enjoy all the fun of a novelty. It doesn’t operate as rivalries should, either out of practiced indifference (“Wait, who plays for the White Sox?”) or secret satisfaction in the other “people or groups” successes.
But as true as that might be, it isn’t a complete description. The Cardinals and the Rangers only played three regular season games between 1988-2011. But whatever passing memory Rangers fans have of that series likely pales in comparison to the rage and despair of David Freese’s walk-off home run in 11th inning of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. The ho-hum of regular baseball was nothing to write home about, but the jubilation and anguish of the World Series stir up something very akin to the emotion of rivalry. Frequent opponents become rivals because they’re the most likely to determine our fates, but fates can and have been determined on far fewer swings of the bat. And so it isn’t that teams not often met can’t access the furies we might expect from more frequent opponents, but merely that it takes an extraordinary event to do so. The Rangers likely don’t look on the Cardinals as rivals, though they may be seen as villains. Their emotional experience may be more acute than 19 games between the Mariners and the A’s. But however acute upfront, the emotion is also not sustained by frequent meeting, or new great plays. At the very least, it will likely require some painful retelling before the next infrequent meeting to prime the emotional pump. The rush of feeling is still possible, but it requires some limbering up.
What about the distance between ballparks? We bemoan the effect of grueling travel on players’ quality of play, but when we consider the question of rivalries, great distance presents another hurdle: attendance. Which teams suffer the dual fates of infrequent matchups and far-flung stadiums? The only matchup burdened by both the greatest infrequency of play for its franchises and greatest distance is the Yankees and Giants. They’ve played nine times in the past 27 years and the Giants are the most geographically distant team from the Yankees at 2,570 air miles. Seattle is the third-farthest ballpark from Pittsburgh at 2,134 air miles, leaving us to wonder how many Pirates fans we might expect in Safeco this summer. But while the flight from Pittsburgh to Seattle is certainly a long one, it isn’t the longest for a Mariners opponent. The Marlins are in a six-way tie with the Cubs, Reds, Mets, Phillies, and Cardinals for least frequent Mariners opponent with just 12 games since 1988, and they have a 2,723 air mile flight to Seattle, the longest in baseball.
Distance is an interesting lens through which to examine rivalry. Never before has it been less necessary to be in the ballpark to see a game. If 2,723 miles is too far a walk-about, all you have to do is flick on MLB.TV. Your atmosphere becomes what you make of your living room, and your emotional response to the game is tempered in turn. You lack the physical experience of the crowd itself. You can’t bob and sway and tense along with your fellow fan. In that sense, whether your fans are represented or not is inconsequential. You’re not really there with them. But if the crowd hits the right note, it can crackle on the broadcast. You can hear the crowd, even if you can’t feel them. The stadium will look full. You might recognize your team’s jersey in an opposing park, and if the numbers are great enough, those fans become your proxy for the battle. You aren’t there, but that crowd might make you wish you were. Just ask Blue Jays fans watching from Toronto when Vancouver, B.C. descends on Safeco every summer.
The odd thing about baseball is any given game’s ability to be both very meaningful and very meaningless. That isn’t so unusual; a lot of life works that way, with critical junctures rarely announced and only discernable in hindsight. Rivalries can heighten the feeling of those moments, even though they count for no more in the standings by virtue of being rivalry games. Mere frequency isn’t enough; you need the spectacular play brandished as a sword to inspire jealousy and fury and resolve. Baseball fans are a bunch of leathery, elephant people. We never forget or let go; we only turn the burner of our feelings up or down. But you also need such plays often enough that you might sustain the feeling over time. Otherwise, they become curiosities of the game’s broadcast, rekindled but then forgotten. Similarly, you needn’t be present in the park to feel the hum of a rivalry, but ideally someone is so that the atmosphere might carry over the airwaves and wedge itself into our hearts.
Weaving that into a consistent, steady experience is a fool’s errand. We may harbor a learned dislike for a team, but allow that dislike to be subsumed in periods when our rival isn’t at full strength. After all, older siblings don’t play up rivalries with younger siblings; we leave that humbling experience to them. Players and their personalities come and go, making some incarnations of rivals annoyingly likeable, while others stoke the fires of discord by being particularly surly or efficacious. Rivalry is a shared experience. We parcel ourselves into our camps, keen to stand against those who might determine our baseball fates. We share a kinship with the members of the enemy camp; after all, a rivalry isn’t much good without an opponent. But as we look at the places where we are least likely to find rivalry, we see that our state or situation in which people or groups are competing with each other is often defined by stretches of time much briefer than we think and can travel distances far greater than we’d expect. Like the definition itself, our ecosystem is much broader than we originally imagined.
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