Why it's this high:
Baseball has been slowly fading from the national consciousness over the past decade. Empty stadiums around the country are a testament to that, and the waning interest hasn’t discriminated when it comes to success (the Marlins and the Rays have had trouble filling their stadiums with World Series contenders). But as it stands right now, just as it has been for the past 100 years, no two teams in any sport share a rivalry as strong as the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Eventually, a movie will be made about the two consecutive ALCS’ between the teams in 2003 and 2004. And just like any good sports movie, it won’t hold a candle to what actually happened. Those two series were sports at the highest level, with the stakes as high as possible, between two mortal enemies.
2003 was supposed to be the year the Red Sox exorcised all of their considerable demons. An ALCS win against the Yankees and a World Series in one fell swoop. But even a 5-2 lead couldn’t hold up to heat of the Bronx in September. Grady Little lead his team to their most regular season wins since 1986, and yet was publically eviscerated for a decision that any manager – or baseball fan for that matter - would have co-signed on. Of course Pedro ended up coughing up the lead, but Little had few other options.
The Red Sox bullpen, which had been stellar through most of the series, was overworked by a poor outing from John Burkett the night before. The three relievers not tapped were a 37-year old journeyman (Mike Timlin), the makeshift closer with an unsightly regular season ERA (Scott Williamson), and a lefty who had 46 strikeouts in 61 innings (Alan Embree). Little made the right gamble to bet with his ace, and for that he was run out of town with a two-year record of 188-136. Four innings later a flat knuckleball from the master of the craft sealed Boston’s fate, and ensured that Aaron Boone will never buy a drink in New York, even though he was only there for a few happy hours.
But all 2003 did was set up bar none the greatest role reversal in history. With the offensively impotent Cardinals waiting in the World Series, the Yankees had champagne chilling in Fenway after massacring Boston in the first 3 games by a score of 32-16. It legitimately looked like the curse was never going to end. Four games later a dirty Dave Roberts jersey went from a rag to a collectors item, a bloody sock was on its way to Cooperstown, and the Sox celebrated an unfathomable win in an otherwise dead silent Yankee Stadium.
Both teams were forged out of overwhelming pressure to succeed, albeit from different places. The Yankees of the 2000s were spurred on by the hyper-competitive George Steinbrenner. When his teams failed to collect trophies, George collected heads. His impetuousness bordered sports radio caller territory, and even the perceived untouchables were namedropped when the Canyon of Heroes was left empty. Joe Torre’s even keeled approach helped to stabilize the locker room in season, but even he couldn’t shelter players from the Boss’ annual fall cleanings.
The pressure in Boston came less from the deep-pocketed ownership, and more from one of the most tortured fan bases in all of sports. Before 2004, Red Sox fans began bracing for the team’s annual fiery wreck after three game losing streaks in June. High fives were rare at Fenway in August, as by then the fans had chewed their fingers down to the bone. Boston contained all of the overwhelming pressure to succeed, but with the looming expectation of disastrous failure.
Without even discussing the playoff wars of ’03 and ’04, the Yankees and the Red Sox bulging payrolls meant that the stars were out when they faced off. Pedro vs. Jeter (Jeter was 22/89 vs Pedro as a Red Sock), Clemens vs. Manny (Manny was 6/34 off Clemens as a Yankee), the whole Red Sox lineup against death, taxes, and Mariano Rivera (the Sandman has been Krueger-like to the Red Sox with a 2.82 career ERA). Because of the sheer number of times they faced each other, there are just so many more great moments than any other rivalry on this list, even if you just included the regular season.
Although the major players of the past 10 years are retiring left and right, this past decade had characters that added more to the story than anyone in the past century. Pedro seemed to take a certain delight in buzzing Bomber towers, even threatening a posthumous plunk for the guy who started all of this. Clemens transparently DESPISED the Red Sox for letting him go, more than enough motivation for a guy already hopped up on Icy Hot jockage. Pedro was serenaded with “Who’s your daddy” in the Bronx, and Clemens received other choice words in Fenway. Manny Ramirez, who spaced out for games at a time, was always at his locked in best at Yankee Stadium (.321 career batting average).
But what puts this rivalry at the top of this list is the pure scope of it. Wherever you go across the country, you’ll find fans of both persuasions. In most major cities, there’s at least one bar draped in pinstripes, and one where someone will tell you how “Nomah nevah gawt his prawpah due”. All of these other rivalries on this list are between two great teams (or people), but not necessarily the two most important. Whatever way you slice it – payroll, TV ratings, earnings, ticket sales – the Red Sox and the Yankees are the two biggest teams in baseball, with the best rivalry in the sport, which has peaked in the past 10 years. No other two teams have all three of those arguments.
Why it’s not higher:
Well at this point, there’s only one higher than this, which I’ll be writing when Paris runs red with clay. The Yankees and the Red Sox are the pre-eminent team rivalry, but there’s a limit to the vitriol two teams can produce now. With player movement through free agency and trades at an all-time high, colors matter more than people at this point. With a pen and a razor, Johnny Damon went from public enemy number 1 to left fielder number 18. One of the only places CC Sabathia doesn’t have beef is with the Red Sox, and Jon Lester none with the Yankees. Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz make dinner reservations with eachother.
Of course there are the mainstays on each side, and obviously each team wants to beat an opponent they face more than anyone else the rest of the year. But with too many even keeled personalities on each side, this rivalry has lost a little bit of the fire that made 2003 and 2004 so intense (fortunately the Red Sox hired Bobby Valentine, which should change that shortly). With spring training just around the corner, it won’t be long before the yearly war for the AL East begins again.