Before the Yankees and Red Sox brawled on the field at Fenway in their first series this season, it had been a long time since the rivalry had seen a moment that heated. By the 2013 season, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry had lost the majority of its oomph. The Red Sox were pitiful in 2012 and New York’s victorious 2009 team had aged into a group either already enjoying retirement or privately contemplating how much longer they could stave off the inevitable.
Fans of both teams fell into a resting heart rate of “we do not like this team” rather than “it feels as though this team murdered my dog and family and I will display my hatred accordingly alongside a stadium of like-minded people.” Players from the the rivalry’s most recent peak in the aughts — the Papis and the Jeters and the Riveras of it all — seemed to feel the same about where the rivalry stood. The constant vitriol between players petered out for no other reason than that the passage of time comes for every rivalry eventually. The fire was gone.
One of the most storied rivalries in the sport going from 100 to 0 in only a few seasons would have seemed unlikely at the turn of the decade. Especially to those who weren’t old enough to remember the last lull in the rivalry in the early- to mid-90s. The 2000’s were full of resentment and anger and players throwing 72-year-old men to the ground.
You remember all those big moments. There was Aaron Boone’s home run, the Pedro Martinez-Don Zimmer fight, the Varitek vs. A-Rod fight, the 2004 ALCS comeback, multiple championships for the Yankees sandwiching multiple championships for the Red Sox. The smaller moments all meant something too — buying a Yankee Hater hat (which were an absurd design at the time and should be remembered that way), going to the opposing team’s stadium and starting something in the bleachers (intentional or … yeah it was usually intentional), walking past a fan of the other team on a normal day in a random setting except that both of you are wearing your chosen hats and you throw side eye so emphatically it’s as if Andy Pettitte cutter’s came to life as a stare.
It all added up to a level of nativism and tribalism that seemed hard to break free from overnight.
In the summer of 2009 I lost my grandmother, a through-and-through New Jersey Italian who loved few things in the world more than Bob Barker and Derek Jeter. Growing up a Boston fan made it difficult to see eye-to-eye with her about The Captain or anybody else who happened to be clean-shaven and wearing pinstripes. But we had fun with it every year, rooting against each other and bonding.
As the Yankees progressed further into the postseason that year, there was a push from my family to root for them on behalf of Gram, that it would mean more if they won for her. After the Yankees won the series I could admit that it felt like a cosmically well-timed gesture from her favorite team, but at no point during the playoffs could I bring myself to root for them on her behalf. The built-in animosity was that strong. I still think she would appreciate my commitment.
The dissipation of that animosity didn’t feel as abrupt as it now seems looking back, but as the decade flipped over, so did the relationship between these two teams. The usual instigators mellowed out, and both teams took turns being far better than the other several seasons in a row.
Those 2011, 2012, and 2013 seasons were the nadir of the rivalry. In 2011 the Red Sox had the most drastic September collapse in baseball history, fired their manager, smeared that once-beloved manager in the press with rumors of a prescription painkiller addiction, and then spent most of the offseason unpacking what the hell just happened. When one attempted defense is that players only drank beer in the clubhouse but not the dugout during games you know things are a true mess.
For most of the rivalry’s history things were decidedly lopsided and there still managed to be some heat. It turns out one team being so pathetic as to have an entire season dubbed the “fried chicken and beer season” that led to a disgraceful collapse is the line too sad to cross for the sake of rivalry fun.
2012 saw Boston finishing last in the AL East while the Yankees finished first. The next year they swapped, with Boston in first and New York in fourth, with that 2013 New York team the first Yankees squad to miss the playoffs since 2008.
They were so disappointing that when they were finally mathematically eliminated from the postseason the New York Post’s lede was “The Yankees finally were put out of their misery Wednesday night.” Which provokes imagery closer to that of a wounded animal finally being put down than a team missing the playoffs for only the second time in 19 years.
How do you put any energy into mocking your arch rival when that rival is so down and out that you’d actually feel bad lobbing insults? Or when they’re playing for something bigger than the game and it would feel wrong to engage in the normal ribbing? They weren’t even in each other’s orbits competition-wise in those years, and on top of that the old guard was giving its last gasps.
The players on the 2009 rosters were scattered by 2013. Jeter was recovering from his ankle injury, a year away from retiring. Jacoby Ellsbury was a year away from switching to pinstripes. A-Rod was as enjoyably petulant as ever, but a year out from being suspended for a full season, with his once-sparring partner Jason Varitek already having retired the season before. Andy Pettitte retired with Varitek, and a long procession of Mariano Rivera retirement ceremonies took place the next year. Former Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis publically squashed his years-long feud with Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain before signing with New York that year, then played 28 games in pinstripes and retired. Even the human fireworks accident known as Jonathan Papelbon was out of Boston.
Watching both sides give lavish retirement gifts to their supposed enemies was the ultimate tip-off that the rivalry wasn’t what it once was.
Jeter played the final game of his career at Fenway against a last-place, prospect-filled Red Sox team. Boston presented him with a piece of the Green Monster, spelled out “WITH RESPECT 2 DEREK JETER” on the scoreboard, and even gave him a pair of Yankees-themed L.L. Bean boots. Legendary Boston athletes from all sports bid his career adieu and the entire team signed a piece of the Green Monster that had “RE2PECT” printed on it. Any one of those things would have made a 2008 fan wretch, all three together would have been practically sacrilegious if you time traveled and tried to explain it to them.
But by 2014 it felt … fine. Two seasons after Jeter’s ceremony at Fenway the Yankees gave David Ortiz a book of letters and a painting of him in Yankee Stadium, personally presented by Mariano Rivera. It was a lovely moment. Rivera’s gifts included his number 42 from the Fenway scoreboard and the visiting bullpen’s pitching rubber as tribute. During that ceremony, the Red Sox also lightly roasted him by including a video looking back at his performance in the 2004 ALCS, when Rivera infamously blew the Game 4 save in the ninth inning to let the Red Sox back into the series — but the video felt like cheeky fun, not out-and-out nasty. (Not every New York fan saw it that way.)
During Rivera’s retirement fete, he once again noted that the rivalry was always more for the fans than the players, and that makes sense. However being “for the fans” doesn’t mean the rivalry didn’t mean anything. Sometimes it was all in good fun, sometimes it got more serious than it should, but it always made things more interesting and elevated what would otherwise be a routine April or May series to something filled with tension and possibility.
As the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry died down, the rivalry between Boston and Tampa Bay crescendoed. Boston’s other AL East rival had been a needle in its side since the turn of the millennium, but always in second place to the more ardent rivalry in the Northeast. If rivalries are for the fans then the Rays gave the fans what they wanted. Where Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek and Manny Ramirez were the leaders in inciting animosity in the past, this rivalry belonged to Dustin Pedroia and Luke Scott and David Ortiz and future Red Sox pitcher, David Price.
It wasn’t built to last forever, but the Rays stepped in for a while and provided a healthy dose of brawls and public sniping. Once their window closed and they stopped contending (“future Red Sox pitcher David Price” is only one example of the Rays’ top players leaving town) that rivalry turned back into a pumpkin. And of course the Yankees had the Orioles to mess with, another lower key rivalry that still has heat to it.
So it’s not like either team was suddenly above torturing another team or being pestered by their success. They just didn’t do so against each other for a few years.
The rivalry the fans love best returned partially because of an influx of fresh blood, but also because fierce dislike is a cyclical beast. And the break actually did the rivalry some good.
Today, both teams have young, fun players with overactive bats who aren’t afraid to chirp and fight if the situation calls for it. The “Red Sox as underdogs, Yankees as ravaging conquerors” storyline has played out, setting a new stage for fresh personal vendettas. Neither team has won anything since 2013, so everyone is hungry and it’s a true chase again.
The Baby Bombers vs. The Artist Formerly Known As Win Dance Repeat pays homage to their previous rivalry peaks. Boston still has a little of the old scrappy, come-from-behind mentality against the machine-like brutality of the New York offense, but they’re both now operating at the same level of financial abandon. There’s no throwing stones at New York being able to afford Giancarlo Stanton when you live in a glass house made of J.D. Martinez’s signing.
Even managers Alex Cora and Aaron Boone are getting in on the action — with a little in-game shouting and some “we did nothing wrong” interviews — having both witnessed things firsthand in the mid-aughts trenches and seen how much fun a full-bore rivalry can be.
That last “rivalry era” lasted for more than a decade and this could be the start of another glorious stretch of the Yankees and Red Sox engaging in fisticuffs once or twice a year before meeting in the postseason, especially considering all of the young players involved who, if we’re lucky, have many years filled with potential pettiness ahead of them.
It might be greedy to ask for all that from a rivalry that is only just being resuscitated, but that just shows how exciting these teams are right now and how high this rivalry was at its peaks. Not having this feeling for the foreseeable future would be unacceptable. We lived through the lull. It was only natural that it occurred in the long run, but it was a lull nonetheless.
With any luck, this stretch of the rivalry will be just as intoxicating as the last.