— When I was in college, there was one fraternity with a lawn always littered with Solo cups in an angry shade of red that matched the glowing eyes on the house's skull logo. The brothers had that same leering bonehead tattooed on their swollen biceps, beneath a trio of Greek letters and their slogan “Loved or hated but never ignored.”
The same six words are more than applicable to the long-simmering rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox. But unfortunately for baseball's other 28 teams, when those two are sharing a stadium the rest of the teams may as well ink themselves with “Loved or hated but more or less ignored.” I’m not sure exactly when Boston at New York (or New York at Boston) become baseball’s main event, but sometimes it feels like all other onfield action grinds to a stop whenever the pregame graphics show a stylized B staring at an intertwined NY.
The 17-20 Red Sox will limp into Yankee Stadium on Friday to play this season’s second installment of one of baseball’s most heated, most unavoidable rivalries. Boston has faced New York 2,085 times from 1901 through April 10 and, by the time the 27th out is recorded Sunday and each game is reviewed from every possible angle other than the Brian Cashman-cam, you’ll swear they played at least a thousand times over the weekend.
Other storylines — and even other rivalries — never snag as much attention. The Cubs and the Cardinals just slapped each other around the North Side of Chicago, but we’ve heard more about Tony LaRussa’s inflamed Cyborg eye than we have about the implications for the NL Central.
But if you bleed dirty water or have a pinstriped heart, Sox-Yanks illustrates everything you love about baseball: a main course of competitive balance served with a side of always-smoldering animosity. The Sox and the Yankees typically spend the season bumping into each other at the top of the AL East, with the occasional interruption by the Tampa Bay Rays. But even this year — despite Boston’s strugglefest — a Yankees series still feels like three days of October have been transplanted into the middle of May.
Why else would Boston’s WEEI radio station run promos Tuesday for a weekend matchup, breathlessly describing these games — Nos. 38 through 40 out of 162 — as being about “revenge” for last season?
That kind of frenzy is as old as a Jay Leno punchline but, over the past several seasons, the teams’ roles in the rivalry have started to change. As a longtime, long-suffering Sox fan, it hurts me to admit that Boston and New York have become almost interchangeable. After the Sox unwrapped a pair of expensive offseason purchases, the teams look like two equally bankrolled heavyweights trying to beat each other with sacks of money. It’s like watching Oprah fight Oprah.
“I’d like to see how smart (Red Sox general manager) Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay payroll,” Orioles skipper (and former Yankees manager) Buck Showalter told Men’s Journal. “You got Carl Crawford ’cause you paid more than anyone else and that’s what makes you smarter?”
If money makes you smart, the Yankees are Ken Jennings. Their $203 million payroll is, again, the highest in the majors but the Sox are third, shelling out $162 million for the most expensive assortment of players in the team’s history. Boston and New York also are the only teams that have two $20 million-per-season position players (Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez for New York; Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez with the Sox). If the Yankees are the Evil Empire, sometimes I wonder if the Sox are sharing an armrest with Emperor Palpatine.
Deciding whether you’re a Sox fan or a Yankees fan is, sadly, becoming like choosing your favorite corporation or deciding between Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi. Are they teams or trademarks? Legacies or just logos?
Nothing illustrates that question better than New Era’s latest ad campaign, the one that casts Alec Baldwin as the Yankees Guy and John Krasinski’s raised eyebrows as the Red Sox. In the first commercial, called “The Trash Talk Begins,” they snipe at each other via cell phone. “Fire doesn’t have a rivalry with kindling,” Baldwin hisses. No, but fire can have a rivalry with another equally expensive fire.
So that’s where we are. Over 100 years of American League tradition, passion and occasional infighting reduced to a couple of overpaid actors pretending to dislike each other. Oh, and there’s some kind of hat commercial about it too.
But we’ll watch the games this weekend, for the same reason we stop in front of the television for Auburn-Alabama football games, for UNC-Duke basketball or for “Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus.” The animosity is a draw but so is the fact that — paychecks aside — some of baseball's best players will be on the field for this series. That’s probably why their first meeting this season was ESPN’s highest-rated MLB event since 2009 … since another Red Sox-Yankees game.
Love the rivalry, hate it, try to ignore it … it’s not going away. Boston and New York have faced each other longer than Baseball Reference has been keeping records and as long as they share the spotlight (or, more likely, they trade the spotlight while negotiating a deal for a younger, more expensive spotlight) there won’t be another matchup that can take its place.
At this point, all you can do is pick a side. I’m pulling for Diet Coke.