- They've had their ups and downs in recent seasons, but the players on the field—and the fans in the seats—can feel the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry simmering once again.
The Mayor of Fenway heckled his constituents as they entered the ballpark. Craig Custin has been helping people find their seats from his station just inside Gate D for 12 years, and the fans he’s gotten to know love him so much that they gave him the honorary title. About 30 minutes before the first pitch, five young guys walked by him. They were all dressed up in Boston’s colors except for one, who wore an Aaron Judge jersey.
“How do you have four Red Sox and one damn Yankee?” Custin yelled after them, then shook his head. “If I were with them, he’d be buying everything! I hate the Yankees. I bleed Red Sox.”
The night smelled like mustard and felt like delayed deja vu. Boston and New York were meeting in the MLB postseason for the first time since October of 2004. Both teams are overflowing with young talent and won over 100 games in 2018. One of the oldest rivalries in sports—a match-up that’s been somewhat dormant for a decade and a half—is back, baby.
Or is it? Do fans care? Do players care? Is this simply another narrative we’re peddling because it always was this way, and baseball is about the way things should be? Because this is a sport that feeds on tradition, sinks its roots into history and grows on past expectations?
In other words: Is Yankees-Red Sox still a thing?
At its core, a rivalry is a sign that you matter. Having a nemesis is proof that you occupy enough space in someone else’s brain that they feel the need deal with you. You’re relevant and important enough—good enough—to rattle someone else. Sometimes the best way to deal with a nemesis is to ignore them. It robs them of the satisfaction of a rivalry, of admitting that they’re also a threat to you.
In sports, that’s just not an option. The whole point is to face each other.
It’s fair to say that the Red Sox have historically been the enemy the Yankees weren’t that worried about. To Boston fans, New York has always been the devil. When I was in high school in Boston about a mile down the road from Fenway, every day I saw peddlers selling those famous YANKEES SUCK shirts. At every game the two teams played, you heard the chants. My friends’ cars bore the bumper stickers.
RED SOX SUCK shirts never became a cultural institution in New York because New York always won. There were moments when the Yankees had to fight harder, of course; the Sox gave the Yankees a run for their money in the summer of 1978, when New York battled back from a 14-game deficit to crush dreams across New England. But it wasn’t until 2003 and 2004 that the team in pinstripes truly had to reckon with Boston—that famous group of dirt dogs—in the postseason in a meaningful way.
“It wasn’t a chip on our shoulder so much as we never broke through,” Jason Varitek, a catcher for the Sox in ‘03 and ‘04 who now coaches for Boston, told me after the game on Friday. “I’d say it was more of a little brother thing. But you even the stakes a little bit and you break through. We finally did it. We’ve had years where both teams had real good seasons and the other’s was bad. But they’re matched up now where they’re extremely talented on both ends. It’s a great thing for the sport and a great thing to be a part of.”
Boston has done more than even the stakes since the early 2000s. The Sox won three World Series championships since then. Some years they’ve really sucked. The Yankees won it all once since they lost to the Sox in ‘04, and there have been years when they’ve sucked, too. The clubs have existed as a sine and cosine graph, each one with its ups and downs, just never at the same time. And for the past 14 years, the Sox’s peaks have always been a little bit higher.
Until now. This season, the Sox are 10-9 against the Yankees. We witnessed a bench-clearing brawl the first time they faced each other this past spring. Boston’s J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts have lit up the sky with dingers, and New York’s Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have answered for New York. It’s rare that preseason predictions pan out, but two clubs that looked to be on even footing—or at least able to give each other a run for their money —actually have been the division's best two teams all summer.
You’d think we were picking up right where we left off.
But it’s felt different.
“It’s not the same as it was way, way back, when in Yankee Stadium, Thad Tillotson beaned Joe Foy [in 1967]. It’s not that type of rivalry. Players aren’t that type,” said Jerry Galvin, a Sox fan from Cape Cod, Mass. who’s been coming to Fenway with his wife Mary for decades now. A few seats away, married couple Amy and Paul Vecchione agreed. Amy is a born-and-bred Red Sox fan, and her husband lives and dies for the Yankees.
“You don’t have the same characters,” Amy said. “When Derek Jeter played, and A-Rod and Pedro Martinez? That was a little different. That was exciting. They were more big name players, identities within both teams.”
“Then got quiet for a while,” Paul said. “Neither team has a big public figure anymore, but both are real powerhouses. The rivalry is coming back. Both teams having more than 100 wins this season. That is unbelievable.”
The energy at Fenway on Friday could best be described as happy excitement. Fourteen years ago the park buzzed, too, but it was more dreadful than optimistic. Sox fans would steel themselves, terrified of hope, because for 86 years, hope was the thing that killed you. Now? It’s impossible to be as nervous when the stakes aren’t as high. When the David has been consistently better than the Goliath.
The biggest sign of this new dynamic between the teams was when fans at Yankee Stadium chanted “We want Boston” towards the end of the wild-card victory that would send them to Fenway. They not only acknowledged the enemies, they asked for a chance to destroy them.
“Red Sox fans always had an inferiority complex,” a security guard said. “But for 14 years, we’ve been good. So this younger fan base doesn’t remember what it felt like to suffer. And still, around here, you still see Red Sox and Yankees fans hating each other.”
As the game went on, hints of that old Red Sox terror reared its head. Boston’s bullpen struggled after manager Alex Cora pulled Chris Sale in the sixth inning. Fans at Fenway paced nervously and held their heads in their hands as Giancarlo Stanton, one of the Yankees' biggest boys, came up to bat with the bases loaded and no outs. Somehow, pitcher Matt Barnes got him to strike out swinging in one of those moments that will haunt the Yankees and would’ve haunted the Sox if Barnes hadn’t gotten it together. The Yankees went on to put up four runs before Boston shut them down and escaped the first game of the series with a 5-4 win.
Many fans admitted on Friday that this rivalry isn’t what it once was. But they want it back. They want that fire ignited again. That’s why we care about sports, right? To feel something so inconsequential so deeply? Plus, old habits die hard. One guy told me that for his whole life, he’s woken up every morning of baseball season to check the Sox score, then immediately looked to see how the Yankees did. An older man next to him said he’s been a baseball fan since he was a kid in the ‘50s, and he’s always wanted to watch the Yankees “get crushed.” On the big screen during the third inning, the camera panned to a fan who ripped his hoodie open to reveal a t-shirt that just said OCTOBER OF 2004.
Players feed off this fight, too.
“It’s definitely different from playing other teams,” Sox pitcher Rick Porcello told me. “Even what was going on in the regular season. There’s an energy. You can tell everybody loves this matchup. That series in May, after the brawl, it felt like a playoff series. As a player you try to focus on your consistent routine. But there’s no way getting around it, it’s exciting playing those guys.”
There’s contention simmering between these two teams, and this series could be the moment it comes back to a boil. Regardless of the outcome, this ALDS seems poised to lay the groundwork for the next chapter. More has to happen, of course; we need grudges to take shape, more brawls to spill out of dugouts, some bad calls, and many more years. Because while we may not have the same larger-than-life characters of the past, but we have two historically successful (finally) teams stacked with young talent. The playing field has been leveled. Perhaps this is the beginning of an era when the rivalry will exist, for the first time, as a struggle between equals.
“You could say we don’t like their whole team,” Porcello said. “And they don’t like us.”
Maybe the pointless, delightful, maddening hatred has returned.