I had this image in my head during the papal conclave. Gathered with holy men from around the globe, there was a cardinal from Boston and a cardinal from New York. Sean O’Malley and Timothy Dolan. I wondered if our guy and their guy might get into it — right in the middle of the Sistine Chapel. A little good-natured Red Sox-Yankees ribbing. Maybe an unholy chant would break out in Latin.
The rivalry as we knew it is over. It’s no longer an issue of which team will finish first and which one will settle for the wild card.
The question now is, “Who are you going to pick to finish in last place — the Red Sox or the Yankees?’’
Seriously. Those vile chants of yore are now more truthful than insulting.
Red Sox bleep. Yankees bleep.
The 2013 baseball season opens in a week, which means everyone is making preseason picks. And for the first time in a long time, either the Red Sox or Yankees are going to be picked to finish last by the majority of prognosticators.
Wow. Ten years ago, we were all about 100 wins and overthrowing the Evil Empire. Larry Lucchino and George Steinbrenner were hurling insults at one another and there was debate about Nomar vs. Jeter. Theo Epstein trashed his hotel room in Nicaragua when the Yankees beat him to the bank on Jose Contreras. In 2003 and 2004, the Sox and Yankees battled for the services of Alex Rodriguez and staged two of the great seven-game series in baseball history.
Those Sox and Yankees spawned dozens of books and videos. They were appointment TV.
Now the Sox and Yankees might be the bottom feeders of the American League East.
The oft-buffeted Toronto Blue Jays are the flavor of the month for April of 2013. The Jays made a lot of moves in the offseason and everybody loves them. On paper. The Rays have the best pitching and the best manager. The Orioles won 93 games last year and bring back most of the same players.
This leaves the Red Sox, who are digging out from a 69-win season, and the Yankees, who are old and wounded.
It has been a long time since the Yankees and Sox finished last and next-to-last. It happened in 1966 when the Sox came home in ninth place at 72-90 while the Yankees finished in the basement with a record of 70-89. You might also remember 1992, when Daddy Butch Hobson steered the Sox into the cellar at 73-89 while the Yankees staggered to a 76-86 record, which put them tied for fourth in a seven-team division.
The 2013 Yankees are in trouble. We like their starting rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, and Ivan Nova, but their lineup is ancient and broken down. A-Rod, Curtis Granderson, and Mark Teixeira are on the shelf deep into the season, and now it looks as though 38-year-old Derek Jeter (broken ankle in the playoffs last year) might not be ready for the opener.
Get ready for a lot of Juan Rivera, Melky Mesa (can he be the new “Melk-man” for John Sterling?), Dan Johnson, Ben Francisco, and Brennan Boesch. Even Yankee general manager Brian Cashman is hobbled by a broken ankle.
Meanwhile, the sons of Boss Steinbrenner seem suddenly concerned with payroll and luxury tax. These are not the old Yankees, willing to break the bank for the best available talent.
The Red Sox have sore shoulders from patting themselves on the back for cleaning up their toxic clubhouse. The theme of the spring of 2013 has been, “We may still stink, but we have a bunch of really swell guys.’’
These are the Redemption Sox. They are all about forgiveness. Management finally recognizes that fans don’t like being insulted. The Sox are back in the “yes business.’’ They want your love again.
Winning cures everything. And we can make a case for the 2013 Sox to contend. They have a stunning lack of everyday players in their prime, but even in bad times, scoring runs isn’t usually a problem for the Red Sox. They are not going to hit many home runs, but they should score enough runs. They have a strong bullpen.
It’s really going to come down to starting pitching. Always does. Starting pitching is what torched the Sox in September of 2011 and it’s what killed them last season.
It’s hard to find anyone who doubts that Jon Lester is back. Lester has been serious, committed, and dominant this spring. He’s in his athletic prime. We’re giving him a mulligan on his last year and a half of pitching. We’re ready to see him pitching like a legitimate No. 1 starter.
All the questions are still there with the rest of the starters: Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, Ryan Dempster, and the inimitable John Lackey. They are a fragile lot. But they might have enough serviceable innings in them to keep the Red Sox above .500 in the first three months. In a league with five playoff spots, that provides the illusion of contention.
Still, it’s hard not to pick the the Red Sox to finish in last place again.
Unless you go for broke and pick the Yankees to finish last.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.