Ball rivals bite hands that feed

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Baseball’s regular season ends next weekend, and the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox are once again locked in a tight race for the American League East crown.

If the past is any guide, the battle will go down to the final weekend of play, which, as it happens, will pit the Yankees against the Red Sox, in Boston, starting next Friday. The loser will probably claim a wild card berth and the two teams will resume hostilities come the play-offs. However, many fans – among them, it appears, more than a few Boston and New York diehards – are hoping history turns out to be a poor compass and that next weekend’s three-game series is the last time the Red Sox and the Yankees will face each other this year.

At a time when Major League Baseball badly needs a spellbinding post-season showdown to divert attention away from its steroid problems, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, the oldest and most reported rivalry in all of north American sports, seems to have lost just a little of its sizzle.

The diminished interest is not entirely surprising. Last year saw the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years. It was a victory made all the sweeter by the fact that en route to the title, Boston had rallied from a 0-3 deficit to topple the Yankees in a stunning seven-game semi-final series.

The World Series victory, coupled with the win over New York, put an emphatic end to the so-called Curse of the Bambino – the hex that supposedly fell upon the Red Sox after they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920.

Boston’s triumph came just a year after another epic Red Sox-Yankees semi-final, won by New York in seven games.

After all the drama of the past two seasons, a letdown was probably inevitable – if not for the teams, at least for the fans. Indeed, among many baseball fans loyal to teams other than the Yankees or Red Sox, there is a deep-seated resentment about the amount of attention lavished on the rivalry.

They see it as emblematic of baseball’s warped economic structure (the Yankees and the Red Sox have the biggest payrolls of any Major League teams), and they see all the hype surrounding the rivalry as partly the product of East Coast media bias.

New Yorkers may not embrace the conspiracy theory but their affection for the Yankees, while still strong, seems somewhat diminished It is not just that the Yankees have gone five years without a championship; there is a sense that the team’s character has changed, and for the worse. Adored figures such as Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius and Andy Pettitte have given way to hired guns such as Randy Johnson, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield.

Many of them will quietly admit that there is a certain cosmic justice in the failure of the Yankees to convert their $203m payroll into a World Series victory.

Boston would seem to have more invested in the rivalry at this point, and not just because one championship hardly makes up for eight decades of agony and humiliation. Boston’s identity as a city increasingly revolves around its sports franchises.

This is partly because of the success its teams have enjoyed lately. In addition to the Red Sox, the local NFL franchise, the New England Patriots, have won two consecutive Super Bowls and three of the past four. But it is also because Boston seems to be in eclipse in other realms. Native son John Kerry lost last year’s presidential election in no small measure because he was portrayed as an effete East Coast liberal, and hell may have to experience its first frost before another Massachusetts Democrat is given the chance to contest the White House.

Earlier this year, Boston suffered another wound when the Atlantic Monthly magazine, one of the city’s most prized jewels, announced it was relocating to Washington. The move was ostensibly dictated by cost considerations but it was also a clear statement of where the action is – and where it is not.

Sure, Boston still has Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but there is an unmistakable sense that a city long accustomed to punching above its weight no longer does so – except on the pitch.

Yet, even some Red Sox fans have grown tired of the fued with the Yankees. In the spring one Red Sox fan said of the rivalry during a chat room exchange: “I’m sick of it . . . I just don’t enjoy the games. Instead, I’m filled with anxiety, anger, and hatred . . . I see Gary Sheffield, and the only thing I think is ‘God, I’d love to see him get drilled in the face with a fast ball’. I see Alex Rodriguez, and the only think I think is ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if he had a crippling tumble down the dugout stairs?’ . . . It’s nothing but hate ...and a complete, total inability to enjoy the game as it unfolds . . . if we could just have one season where we didn’t have to play the Yankees even once, I wouldn’t miss the rivalry. Not one bit. As much fun as it is when the final score shows more runs for the Red Sox than for the Yankees, geting [sic] there does so many bad things to me mentally and physically – things over which I have no control, so ingrained is my hatred of the Yankees – it’s almost not even worth it anymore.”

One shudders to think how he will feel should the Yankees win the division and deprive the Red Sox of a play-off berth in the process.

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