NEW YORK — The AL Wild Card Game was not even in hand when the cry began midway through the sixth inning of an eventual 7–2 Yankees victory. New York was up 2–0 and threatening for more, with mammoth rightfielder Aaron Judge stalking around second base, but in the cereal bowl of Yankee Stadium, a two-run lead means little. Still the fans allowed their gaze to drift into the future. The chant began in the bleachers before overtaking the rest of the sellout crowd: WE WANT BOS-TON.
They were not alone in looking forward. Outfielder Brett Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee, knew as early as the first inning that his team would win. Starter Luis Severino, who a year ago in this game recorded a single out while allowing three runs, retired the side on 10 pitches. In the dugout, Gardner celebrated.
For reliever Zach Britton, who arrived here at the trade deadline from the Orioles, it took another seven minutes or so. He was making the trek with Dellin Betances and David Robertson from the training room to the bullpen when they caught sight of a TV in time to watch Judge laser a four-seamer into the leftfield stands. The relievers screamed and danced, then looked at one another. We’re probably gonna be in there soon! they realized. Time to focus. They booked it toward the bullpen.
The outcome never really seemed in doubt. The A’s put up a good fight, turning the lowest payroll in the game into 97 wins, but they are just minor characters in the drama the sport deserves—and maybe even needs: Yankees–Red Sox.
“Everyone in baseball wants this matchup,” said Betances after the game, as an unholy mix of Budweiser and Champagne dripped down his forehead and into his mouth. “And so do we.”
We haven’t had the pleasure since the 2004 ALCS. Perhaps you remember: New York took a 3–0 lead, which the Red Sox erased before sweeping the Cardinals to win the World Series for the first time since 1918. This came a year after current Yankees manager Aaron Boone hit a walk-off home run in Game 7 of the ALCS to send New York to the World Series and Boston to an early tee time, and a year before current Red Sox manager Alex Cora was traded to Boston.
Perhaps their experience playing for their teams will help them as the spotlight brightens. No one can really say. After all, it’s been 14 years. Gardner watched that series at a bar near the College of Charleston’s campus. Current Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez was a gawky junior at Flanagan (Fla.) High, rocking a 45 MARTINEZ jersey at the bowling alley—for Pedro and for himself. Betances was the same age, cheering for the Yankees from his family’s apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Severino was all of 10, and his parents in Sabana de la Mar, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, did not own a television. He has had to rely on highlights to get a sense of the drama.
Now he can help create it. After so many years of being a rivalry in the way that a Chihuahua and a lion might be rivals for the same piece of meat, the teams are on equal footing. The Red Sox won 107 games. The Yankees won 100. They were the two best teams in baseball from May on. But any animosity that lingers from the days when they faced off in every ALCS lives mostly in the hearts of fans.
These teams tried to inject the rivalry with a little venom this April, when Yankees DH Tyler Austin spiked Red Sox shortstop Brock Holt on a hard slide into second. Reliever Joe Kelly drilled Austin between the shoulder blades and the benches cleared. Even Cora and Yankees third base coach Phil Nevin got into it, gesturing at each other from across the field. (Austin was suspended six games, Kelly four. Both coaches were fined.) But Austin was traded to the Twins at the deadline, and Kelly is no lock to make the ALDS roster after a September in which he had an 8.31 ERA. Jason Varitek–Alex Rodriguez this is not.
The truth is that these players do not really dislike each other. Shortstops Xander Bogaerts and Didi Gregorius, natives of different islands in the Antilles, grew up playing together on the Dutch national team and continue to keep in touch as part of an active group text.
Even fans struggle to find hateable opponents. The only traitors are Yankees outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who hasn’t played since September 2017, and Red Sox backup infielder Eduardo Nuñez and righthander Nate Eovaldi, who were jettisoned by the Yankees and thus can’t be blamed. The rest of the players are basically delightful: Judge, with his gap-toothed smile as he launches home runs into orbit; lefty CC Sabathia, so well respected around the game that when he hit a Ray in retaliation last week, even the Rays praised him; rightfielder and MVP candidate Mookie Betts, whose initials are MLB, for crying out loud; Martinez, whose released-to-star narrative gives hope to every kid cut from a team. David Price can be a little surly. Chris Sale once bizarrely cut up jerseys he didn’t like. That’s about it. (On an entirely different level are the allegations of domestic violence against Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, who served a 30-game suspension in 2016.)
Perhaps the most likeable player in the world at this moment is Yankees first baseman Luke Voit, who looks like a subway conductor wandered off the No. 4 train at 161st Street and into uniform. New York picked him up from his hometown Cardinals at the deadline for little of note, and he promptly began hitting home runs. He could not be having more fun. Many players claim to block out the noise; Voit excitedly tells reporters how the volume of one night’s LUUUKE chant compares to the one before.
“I had the biggest butterflies in the world,” he gushed, soaked in alcohol and beaming. “Hearing the Stadium tonight, I can’t imagine what it’s gonna be when Boston gets here. I’m super excited for it.”
So are the fans. As Chapman struck out two of the first three batters he faced in the top of the ninth, they almost sang it: WE WANT BOS-TON. But then they appeared to remember who they were. In the seconds before he retired the final Oakland batter, before the team piped Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” through the PA system, before the networks and the newspapers could officially celebrate their good fortune, the chant returned to a more familiar refrain: BOS-TON SUCKS.