The Red Sox and Yankees have one of the most storied rivalries in sports, but there’s a dirty secret attached to it that doesn’t get enough mention: The rivalry was, at least on the field, never much of a rivalry at all. This was true for decades upon decades.
It seems hard to remember, but yes, the Red Sox were the underdogs once. Really. From 1919 through 2003, the Red Sox did not win a World Series; in that time, the Yankees won 26 of them. This was a time when baseball fans who did not root for the Red Sox (or Yankees) felt sympathy for Boston and its sports fans, because the Red Sox had been hapless for so long. Sure, the Red Sox were a pain in the Yankees’ ass from time to time over the years, but in the same way that an insect is aggravating until it’s swatted.
Now, it seems impossible that nearly 90 years of something could be forgotten so quickly, but then again, these are Boston sports fans we’re talking about.
Here, a meme:
Between their fans becoming monsters who won’t settle for anything less than a World Series, the actual World Series titles that Boston has won in the last 14 years, and incessant spending from the ownership group in Boston, the Red Sox have had an ascension of sorts: They’re on equal footing with the Yankees for the first time in a century, perhaps ever. Now, finally, we have a rivalry.
Red Sox history prior to 2004 was a history of both failure and spectacular collapses. From the time the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees, every interaction between Boston and New York involved the former rising up against its most hated enemy, briefly, only to see that effort squashed almost immediately. Here’s a brief history:
The Yankees won their first World Series in 1923, five seasons after acquiring Ruth, then won three more of them through 1932 with Ruth on the roster. The Red Sox, meanwhile, finished in last place of the American League in eight of those 10 seasons.
When, in 1946, Boston finally made it to the World Series for the first time since trading Ruth, New York had already won 10 titles. But Ted Williams’ Red Sox failed to win, and then it was back to regularly scheduled programming.
Boston wouldn’t sniff the World Series again until 1967, while the Yankees won another 10 World Series in that stretch. Carl Yastrzemski’s club would go on to lose to the Cardinals in seven games.
The rivalry got punchier in the ‘70s — sometimes literally — but the Red Sox then failed to defeat the Reds in the 1975 World Series, while New York added two more trophies in 1977 and 1978. The Red Sox finished in second both those seasons, the latter of which included Bucky “Fucking” Dent’s homer in game 163 to seal Boston’s collapse.
In the ‘90s, the Red Sox made it to the postseason four times, which would be laudable if the Yankees didn’t win four titles in five years to close the decade. Perhaps the Red Sox’ greatest postseason triumph of the decade was knocking former Boston ace Roger Clemens out of an American League Championship Series game after just two innings at Fenway Park while he pitched for the Yankees.
Believe me when I say that was as pathetic to read as it was to both live, and type.
There’s a pattern here, and it’s the Red Sox getting the better of the Yankees every now and again, but never in a meaningful way. In Marvel’s The Avengers, villain (and literal space god) Loki justifies his surprise war against a world that didn’t know he existed by saying that, “An ant has no quarrel with a boot.” In the case of the Red Sox — the ant in this scenario — it was more like the boot had no quarrel with the ant, but was going to squash it to death because the ant would not stop biting the guy wearing it. Once crushed underfoot, the ant-like Red Sox were never given another thought by the boot’s owner (ahem, the Yankees), at least until another ant thought they had a real shot at them. There was like, 100 years of stretched ant metaphors and being crushed underfoot, so you can see how even the Red Sox were a sympathetic figure for one brief moment in sports history.
Fast-forward to 2003. The Red Sox pushed the Yankees to Game 7 in the American League Championship Series, and while New York won in the end and made it to yet another World Series for Derek Jeter and Co., this time felt different, even if Bucky “Fucking” Dent was replaced by Aaron “Fucking” Boone for a new generation of fans as well as those old (and unfortunate) enough to have seen both in one lifetime. Boston was close, and they’d prove it the next season by coming back from down three games to none in the 2004 ALCS to become the first team to ever win a series despite that deficit. The Red Sox would then sweep the Cardinals in the World Series, ending 86 years of ant-meets-boot ... for a moment, at least.
You see, one World Series was never going to put the Red Sox and Yankees on equal footing, especially not as the years became decades and the decades became half centuries and that half century came real, real close to becoming a full century without a World Series title to Boston’s credit. No, the 2004 World Series just proved the Red Sox could win, that they weren’t cosmically or karmically unable to do so. It was winning in 2007, and again in 2013, that finally moved the scales back toward even, especially as the Yankees “only” won one single World Series in that time, in 2009.
We’ve discussed the Red Sox a lot to this point, because it takes a lot of time to go through almost nine decades of absolutely shitting the bed at every opportunity. The Yankees had their own problems, though, and they showed themselves in the aughts. The roster, once young and flexible and containing a powerhouse in the ‘90s, was now older and expensive, and despite the addition of star after star, was vulnerable when a challenger like the Red Sox would appear. The Red Sox appeared, and did not go away, and then even the upstart Rays got in on the AL East action after a ton of trades worked out for them and vaulted them into relevance.
The Yankees would win the World Series in 2009 after remaking their roster enough to compensate for its issues, but that was the last time New York won a championship. The 2010s featured playoff appearances, but even more roster bloat, and for the first time, the concept of rebuilding got serious consideration in New York.
This is the Yankees, though, so they rebuilt like only they and one other team you’re reading about right now could. They shifted disappointing money around the league, rebuilt the farm system through the draft and trades, and continued adding payroll for stars like Masahiro Tanaka. When veterans like Tanaka and CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner and Aroldis Chapman coalesced with a young group of talent including Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, and Didi Gregorious, the Yankees’ rebuild was over as quickly as it began. They won an AL Wild Card in 2017, then the AL Wild Card Game, then found themselves close to a World Series berth but ran into the Astros.
Still, the Yankees went from thinking about rebuilding to winning with the core they had plus a few kids who all just happened to pan out at their 90th percentile projections at the same time.
This is the story of the Yankees, seemingly forever and always. Even when they weren’t good, they were merely waiting to be good again. Everything worked out partly because of good management and partly because they always had a shitload of money to spend. But it worked out all the same, and last year, again, it was going to plan, and ahead of schedule.
The difference from this time and the rest of the post-Ruth years is that the Red Sox were right there with them, and with a very similar plan in place.
The Red Sox won the division in 2016 and 2017, the first time they had ever won it in back-to-back years. This was no accident, either; it wasn’t a happy-to-be-here roster like some of their past successes. They spent, both in dollars and prospects, and built a team meant to reach the postseason — and it did. The Yankees won for years and years by trading away kids to fill holes with talented players and by spending big on free agency, and if it was good enough for New York, it was now good enough for Boston.
In came Hanley Ramirez (four years, $88 million) and David Price (seven years, $217 million) via free agency. There was a five-year extension for Rick Porcello after he was acquired for Yoenis Cespedes in a trade of expiring deals, and a trade of a fireballing young pitching prospect for Drew Pomeranz, and then even more prospects shipped out for super closer Craig Kimbrel. Top prospect Yoan Moncada and more went to the White Sox for another ace in Chris Sale before 2017, and J.D. Martinez rounded out the field this past offseason on a five-year, $110 million contract.
This bunch, over a few years’ time, was added to a group of homegrown talent that rivals what the Yankees have put together. Mookie Betts is one of the best in the game — he’s batting .355/.434/.818 with 13 homers in 2018 — and he’s just 25 years old. Xander Bogaerts (149 OPS+ in ‘18) seems to finally be reaching the levels heralded by his prospect status, and he’s also just 25. Andrew Benintendi was the runner-up for the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year award — he’s 23. Rafael Devers is all of 21 years old, with less than a year of MLB experience behind him, and he’s been an above-average bat in that time. Jackie Bradley is the old man among these position players at 28, and while his bat is far too literally hit-or-miss, his defense is among the league’s best.
This is a tremendous group of talented players, assembled from free agency, from trades, through the draft and international signings. There’s a reason the Red Sox enter play against the Yankees in early May leading the AL East with a 25-9 record. The thing is, the Yankees are 24-10, one game back of the Red Sox, and it’s because they’ve put together just as terrifying a lineup.
Benintendi lost the 2017 Rookie of the Year race to Aaron Judge (26 years old), who led the AL with 52 homers and batted .284/.422/.627 in his first full season in the bigs. While Bogaerts is finally thriving at short, Didi Gregorius (28) is doing him one better after seemingly learning plate discipline that’s brought him a .311/.399/.664 line over the season’s first month-plus. Miguel Andujar is the slightly older answer to Devers at third. Aaron Hicks is one of the “old” men in New York, but unlike with Bradley, this 28-year-old is much more hit than miss. The Red Sox do not have an answer to Gary Sanchez and his prodigious power, no matter how good Christian Vazquez’s defense might be.
The Red Sox signing J.D. Martinez this past winter, while not a direct response, became much more necessary after the Yankees went out and traded for 2017’s MLB home run leader, Giancarlo Stanton. There is an arms race here, and there is no end in sight. The Red Sox opened 2018 with a league-leading $233 million payroll, while the only reason the Yankees find themselves down at $166 million is because they’re likely saving room for the next expensive weapon available to help them in this fight, whether it be Bryce Harper or Clayton Kershaw, both of whom could be free agents in the coming offseason.
The Red Sox might not have 27 championships in their history like New York, but in the last 20 years, it’s a tight race: The Yankees have four to their three. They’re both financial juggernauts no one else in the American League can touch. They’re both in possession of cores that are as young as they are talented, complemented by expensive veterans that, when put together with the kids, mean that both teams will be making runs at the top of the division for the foreseeable future.
The Red Sox learned how to open up their wallets from the Yankees, and from the success of the homegrown core of the ‘90s Yanks. New York, after pushing off anything resembling a rebuild for years, finally focused on the farm and remaking the big-league roster after seeing Boston successfully combining kids with veterans.
These two franchises, once as dissimilar as they were linked, are now one and the same. The rivalry, so long an annoyance for the Yankees and their fans while meaning everything in the world to Red Sox fans, is turning into something new before our eyes, something we haven’t seen in over a century. They’re the most significant threats in the American League and to the American League, and while that’s not new, the fact we know both are here to stay, that neither is simply a nuisance to be swatted or squashed, means everything is different this time around.
Here, another meme: