Bauman: Classic rivalry begins anew
Yankees and Red Sox primed to live up to years of drama
Prior to 2004, the standard complaint against the Yankees/Red Sox as a pairing of historical importance was that a great rivalry could not possibly be this one-sided. Six years later, by that same standard, this is not only baseball's greatest rivalry, this is one of sports' greatest rivalries.
I know, I know, this rivalry allegedly lacks the "pageantry" (that means marching bands and cheerleaders) of, for instance, Ohio State vs. Michigan in football. It lacks the underlying potential for participant violence of, perhaps, the Chicago Bears vs. the Green Bay Packers. And it quite frankly lacks the possibility of widespread fan hooliganism/rioting that has been at times prevalent in some soccer rivalries in, you know, the Old World.
But as a question of sport, of competition, of rivalry resolved each autumn but unresolved the next spring, this rivalry may be unmatched. In fact, right now, for the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox rivalry, these are the good old days.
It begins again on Sunday night at Fenway Park, and it is a supremely fitting way for Major League Baseball to open the 2010 season. The Yankees once again have primacy because their World Series championship was more recent. Was it the blink of an eye ago or five full months?
In any case, that was championship No. 27 for the Yankees, and no, they don't actually have any rivals in any sort of proximity to that total. But this does not mean that the Red Sox have to give up, give in, or concede anything of value in another April.
In recent history, such as the first decade of the new millennium, the teams are tied in World Series championships, 2-2. For a time there, the Red Sox, with two championships in four years, were looking like the team of the 21st century. Now, that designation will have to await many more results, or at least for temporary purposes, a 2010 tiebreaker.
Among the adherents of the other 28 franchises, there are those who say that too much is made of this rivalry, to the point that the disinterested observer is left with the impression that the Red Sox and the Yankees play incessantly, all the time, forever and ever.
OK, those of us in the business of making much or making little of these things probably could plead guilty to not understating the case for this rivalry. But the Yankees and the Red Sox do not play all the time. The record is very clear on this matter. In the past eight regular seasons, the two teams have played 149 times. And by the way, the Yankees have a 77-72 edge, illustrating once again just how closely contested this issue is.
It is true that in 2003 and '04, the Yankees and Red Sox played 26 times each year, counting the postseason. But what splendidly dramatic postseasons those were, each one an American League Championship Series for the ages. Aaron Boone's homer ended the 2003 event in the ultimate manner, and the Red Sox of '04 made an unprecedented comeback from a three-game deficit to make history, or reverse history, or change history -- or all three, if you wish.
But what is up next for 2010? Both teams have taken pains to bolster their pitching staffs, although the Yankees did much of that after the 2008 season with the additions of free-agent starters CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. But they went further this winter.
You may have noticed the Yankees marching through the 2009 postseason with a three-man rotation, like a small-market team on a tight budget. (True, all of the starters were paid extraordinary sums, but there were only three of them.) The Yankees traded for starter Javier Vazquez, coming off some of the best work of his life with the Braves. His 2004 sojourn with the Yankees was not quite glorious, but everyone knows that he can pitch.
And, the Yankees have temporarily answered one of the questions at the center of man's search for meaning: What's with Joba Chamberlain, huh?
It's the bullpen for now, with Phil Hughes winning the No. 5 starter's job. The good news for the Yankees, either way, is that significantly talented, homegrown pitchers are in the mix.
Yankees detractors keep hoping for the core group from the 1990s championship teams -- Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte -- to "get old." It didn't happen last year. Jeter, in fact, played younger than he did in 2008. And the Yankees added substantial speed and another positive clubhouse presence in center fielder Curtis Granderson.
The Red Sox dipped into the free-agent market for another frontline starter, John Lackey. He had been a successful pitcher with a successful team, the Angels, and he is often referred to, almost as a matter of course, as "a bulldog." He'll draw the Game 3 start in this season-opening series. Barring injury and a bad night or two against the Yankees, he should be a fan favorite at Fenway Park.
The Red Sox have headed in the general direction of "run prevention," meaning that in the mix of things this team is more about pitching and defense than it is about clobbering the ball. In the post-Manny Ramirez era, in the apparent era of David Ortiz's decline as an impact run producer, and after Jason Bay's departure as a free agent, this may have been a nice job of making a virtue out of a necessity.
But the Red Sox still have plenty of professional hitters, and they should be better defensively. Marco Scutaro will be steadier at shortstop than either Julio Lugo or Nick Green. Adrian Beltre is among the best in the game defensively at third base. The outfield tradeoff -- Mike Cameron instead of Bay -- should also be a plus for the defense.
Factor in a quality bullpen, and the recipe for Red Sox success is reasonable. Does it mean having to beat the Yankees, 3-2? How hard is that going to be with the ball flying out of new Yankee Stadium? When everybody runs short of pitching in August, will somebody bring back Pedro Martinez? ("Somebody" in this context is probably not the Yanks.)
These questions and many, many more wait to be answered by The Rivalry, 2010. When the season begins and the Red Sox and Yankees are both among baseball's elite, the question becomes separating the contender from the champion. Add all the history, throw in the high level of competition and the highest possible competitive stakes, and what you have is a rivalry unlike any other.
In any and all rivalry descriptions, people should stay away from the "Athens/Sparta" stuff for a while, and Civil War references should be ruled eternally out of bounds, but you understand the motivation. The Red Sox and the Yankees; again, still, yet, c'mon, let's see this new version, play ball.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.