Monday, August 8, 2011
Red Sox-Yankees rivalry dead: How to fix
By Steve Berthiaume
When was the last time we saw a little attitude during a Yankees-Red Sox game?
The Red Sox/Yankees rivalry is dead and baseball has helped kill it: Eighteen meetings a year at four hours each has watered down the product to the point of overkill and taken the starch out of things. These games have become overdone and overblown, almost meaningless. Worst of all, baseball has handed the Boston/New York hatred over to the NFL. The angst, spite, resentment and, most of all, the do-or-die stakes that used to symbolize the Red Sox/Yankees feud now thrives as the exclusive property of the Patriots and Jets. Baseball has to get that back and restore the rivalry that came to define the game in the previous decade. When Red Sox and Yankees fans get sick of the Red Sox and Yankees, there's a problem.
There's an MLB television promo featuring David Ortiz wandering around Manhattan in his Red Sox jersey looking for a hug. It's a cute bit but it underscores the point: These two rivals would now rather "hug it out" than fight it out. There are reasons for that. The Red Sox have in large part become the Yankees. The tortured Red Sox fan who went 0-for-86 years and grew up wearing a Yaz painter's hat and watching baseballs fly into the screen above the Green Monster has been replaced by a new generation of people known in Boston as "The Pink Hats."
"The Pink Hats" are the recent arrivals who know Fenway Park not as the site of so many last stands but as the tourist attraction with Monster seats, ballpark sushi and the "Sweet Caroline" sing-along before the bottom of the eighth. They wear pink hats with the Boston B logo, they have food service bring white wine to their seats they do the wave. They are satiated and comfortable, they've won two World Series in the past seven years and don't have slightest idea who Thurman Munson was. They don't know another reality.
The Yankees have changed, too. Derek Jeter has five World Series rings, 3,000 hits, an HBO special and Minka Kelly. Their new Yankee Stadium is a great place to watch a game; it's comfortable, with fantastic seats and sight lines, but it doesn't have the "grit" of the old place. Their core group of players who grew up as Yankees have a waning presence in the current lineup. Many of the key players on this Yankees team came from other teams: Russell Martin, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and CC Sabathia. Their long-term stake in the rivalry seems minimal, as if they were character actors who didn't appear until three-quarters of the way through the movie. Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte are gone, Jorge Posada will be next and soon after that will come the farewells of Jeter and Mariano Rivera on their way to Cooperstown.
Where's the angst, the bitterness, the brushbacks? Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez don't square off at home plate anymore. The days of Don Zimmer sprinting out of the dugout and bull-rushing Pedro Martinez are over. Everything that created all that animosity -- the lopsided victory parade totals, the good versus evil casting, the very need for the 1978 one-game playoff -- has been dismantled. Both franchises will spend north of $170 million on players and both will likely play in October. You know it and they know it. So why should they beat their brains out against each other 18 times before then?
This is the problem, so let's fix it.
Stop playing 18 times a year. It's way too much. Make the division rivalries -- with all clubs, not just the Red Sox and Yankees -- special again. It's not an event if they play 18 times every season. Secondly and most importantly: add a wild-card spot and make the two wild-card teams in each league face off in a one-game playoff. Right now, teams are perfectly content to accept the wild card as a postseason entry rather than fight for the division title. However, if the AL East runner-up knows it can win 95 games only to have its season snuffed out in a one-game playoff loss to an 86-win team from another division, there is tremendous incentive not to settle for the wild card.
By adding another wild-card team for a one-game playoff, you instantly create a sense of urgency for the Red Sox and Yankees to push to avoid the danger of the one-game trap. Then you've made every regular-season Red Sox/Yankees game a must-win affair and once again the rivalry becomes what it used to be -- must-see TV. An extended wild-card series of three games doesn't nearly create the baseball Thunderdome effect you'd get with a one-game playoff and it cushions the blow of not winning the AL East. Anything can happen in a one-game playoff and anything will be done during the season to avoid playing that game.
The alternative is sitting through 18 four-hour Red Sox/Yankees meetings with none of them really meaning anything. After all, Boston has dominated this season's series, winning 10 of the 12 games so far, and does anyone, anywhere realistically think this is going to damage the Yankees' postseason chances? Of course not, and that point should be the most convincing argument of all that the rivalry is dead and something needs to be done.
Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.