December 5, 2013

CHIUSANO: Don’t Call It a Rivalry Anymore

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It is not the first time the controversial crossover from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees has been cemented in a loss of facial hair. Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury’s signing of a seven-year, $ 153 million contract with the Yankees on Monday will likely mean he will be leaving behind his comparatively pathetic beard attempt in Boston. Though it feels like a lifetime ago, Johnny Damon did the same eight years before when he chopped off a full head of hair in order to assimilate into a city that took him in, for the most part, with open arms.

But have Ellsbury and Damon, Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens and everyone else dating back to Babe Ruth that has made the transition from Red Sox great to Yankee old-timer, left something more than facial hair behind? After hearing about this most recent episode in the saga of such a timeless rivalry, my friends and I wondered if it could even be called that anymore.

It all started almost 100 years ago, when the legendary Babe Ruth was dealt to the Yankees in 1919. Whether or not Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold him in order to finance the production of a Broadway musical will probably never truly be known, but Frazee’s ulterior motives aside, the Curse of the Bambino was born. There had been fifteen World Series prior to the move, and the Red Sox had won five of them. It would be another 86 years before that would happen again. Meanwhile, the Yankees took over the title as baseball’s elite, amassing 26 rings before the Sox could finally break the streak.

Ruth went on to become a Yankee legend, and as the Bronx stadium came to be known as “the house that Ruth built,” the Great Bambino’s time in Boston became an afterthought. This was just the fuel to the fire. When Ted Williams lost the AL MVP race to the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio, Boston fans were furious. Williams had hit .406 that year, the last player ever to hit over .400 in a season, but DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak was too great an achievement to overcome. It seemed that everything was going the Yankees way. They had already won 10 World Series since the Ruth trade, and every time Boston got a glimpse of what it would be like to be a champion, their hopes were squandered.

The two teams met in the modern-era postseason for the first time in 1999, with the Yankees taking the series 4-1 despite a stellar pitching performance from Pedro Martinez, who outdueled former Boston star Roger Clemens in his team’s only win. Martinez would be the face of the Boston organization for the next few years, and when the two teams met again in the 2003 ALCS, he was at the center of what would become one of the most intense meetings between the two teams. In the fourth inning of game 3, one of the most memorable brawls in baseball history broke out, culminating in Martinez throwing Don Zimmer onto the ground as the Yankees bench coach charged at him with alarming agility for a man of his age and girth. Aaron Boone’s walkoff homerun would eventually give the Yankees the series win in game seven, and the Red Sox would go home empty handed once again.

Everything changed in 2004, though, when the Sox motored past the Yankees in the ALCS after overcoming a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in baseball history. In an almost anticlimactic World Series, Boston swept the Cardinals with ease. And just like that, the curse was broken. And it seems that the ancient rivalry was torn at the seams at the same time.

When Damon was sent to the Yankees immediately after helping Boston to its first World series in 86 years, it had the potential to be a second coming of the Ruth saga. But the story did not play out. The same tension just was not there. Obviously, almost every Boston fan wanted to crucify their formerly beloved centerfielder. But it seemed that all Damon needed was a change of face, literally, for him to be accepted in by Yankee fans. They seemed to easily forget his statement in 2005: “There’s no way I can go play for the Yankees, but I know they’re going to come after me hard. It’s definitely not the most important thing to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. It’s not what I need.”

I guess it was what he needed. And it is, in fact, this very thing that has gotten in the way of rivalries that used to bring people to the ballpark in full force. Baseball is a business now. As much as players say that the money doesn’t make a difference, once it is dangled in front of them, all allegiances are thrown by the wayside. Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees. Now, organizations are selling themselves to the players. An article in the New York Times Thursday said that Robinson Cano wants to be in New York. But if a sufficient contract from another team were to come his way, I’m sure the Yankees second baseman would be able to part ways with the Bronx, even if his agent is Jay Z. Ellsbury has done just that, and in the modern era of baseball, it is no longer a surprise. Good for Jacoby. He left a championship team to join a decrepit Yankees organization where his speed will slowly deteriorate until he is an exceedingly mediocre 36-year old outfielder. But he has a $ 153-million dollar contract to keep him young.

When Damon was interviewed on the repercussions of the Ellsbury trade, he said, “Yeah, it’s going to be tough at times, but he’s a good enough player that the fans are still going to respect what he gave to Boston and what he’s going to give to New York.” As well they should. But don’t call it a rivalry anymore. The days of Don Zimmer being thrown to the floor, of Goose Gossage being spat on at Fenway Park, of Rudy Giuliani being vilified on the front cover of the Post for saying he would root for the Red Sox in the 2007 world series, are over. After all, there’s a new mayor in town. And he’s a Red Sox fan.