Any respectable list of the best rivalries in sports puts Red Sox-Yankees at or near the top, acknowledgment of a long, shared history of battling for the same baseball prize, built across decades of stories of lopsided trades to clutch home runs, miracle comebacks to brawls.
With that history in mind, Major League Baseball schedulers traditionally reserve a series in September to pit the longstanding American League foes against each other, eager for the fireworks, drama, and high stakes surely to follow.
This year, the schedule makers did their part. Too bad the Sox and Yankees haven’t done theirs.
Instead, as the longstanding rivals met for a four-game series at Fenway Park (the first game was rained out Monday night in favor of a split doubleheader Tuesday), these two mighty and marquee franchises were playing for fifth-place stakes, fighting to stay out of the AL East basement.
Incredibly, the last time the Yankees and Red Sox finished last and next-to last in the standings was 1966, before the AL and NL split into two divisions, never mind three. Those 10th-place Yankees finished 70-89; the ninth-place Sox a half game ahead at 72-90, with the Orioles finishing first on the way to a World Series sweep of the Dodgers. Though the Sox would rebound to reach the World Series a year later, a young Carl Yastrzemski leading the way, the Yankees were heading into one of the darkest eras of their history, the aging Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford unable to capture old magic.
More recent history has seen both storied franchises in the championship conversation, the Yankees for their late 1990s-early 2000s dominance, the Sox getting last licks in with two more championships since the Yankees last won in 2009. But this year? A complete combined dud.
As play began Monday, it was the Orioles, like they had in 1966, setting the pace, their 90 wins holding a tight grip atop the division. Behind Baltimore, second-place Tampa Bay led the wild-card race and third-place Toronto clung to the second wild-card berth, leaving the Sox and Yanks to languish far in the distance, within two games of each other but 17½ and 19½ games out of first , respectively.
“Tough season for both of us. Let’s be honest,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “They’ve had their things, and with us, I know before the season not too many people thought we were going to be in the playoff hunt but we believed. Things haven’t gone our way.
“But yeah, it’s different.”
As his Yankees counterpart Aaron Boone put it: “This time of year, you come to Boston in September, usually we’re two of the teams at the top of the division, fighting it out. Yeah, it’s not where I think either of us want to be. But the reality is, it is where we are.”
No fun now bringing up Boone’s dramatic walkoff homer to win the 2003 pennant or shutting that conversation down with the memory of the Red Sox’ greatest comeback of all time a season later. These games have none of that juice, reduced instead to focus on expanding rosters and future prospects, to fine-tuning a hitting stroke or working on a new pitch.
On a night that was supposed to include a less-than-headline-making scheduled pitching matchup between Kutter Crawford and Clarke Schmidt, the Yankees planned to counter Red Sox center field prospect Wilyer Abreu by calling up their own outfield prospect Estevan Florial to bat ninth and play center. Not quite the days of Pedro and Jeter, Big Papi and Mariano Rivera.
“Yeah, obviously any time we’re playing anybody in the division for sure these games are very competitive. It’s been a really tough division for a few years but there’s always the rivalry with the Yankees and you always want them to matter the most,” Sox shortstop Trevor Story said. “Any time they’re coming in we’re trying to win but you do kind of wish there was a little more at stake.”
Cora, of course, wasn’t waving any white flags, throwing a mock punch into the air as he insisted before the rainout that his Sox are “still in the fight.” But six games out of the wild card with 19 games to play told a different story, one where both teams are limping to the same, sad finish line.
“Last year it happened with us [not going to the playoffs], in ‘21 we played against each other in the playoffs, in ‘18 we played against each other in the playoffs, in ‘19 it wasn’t there, but five years, two playoffs, it’s not that bad I think,” he said. “It’s not a different brand of baseball — because they still have [DJ] LeMahieu, [Aaron] Judge, and [Giancarlo] Stanton — but as far as their other kids, they’re playing well, too.”
As rain fell steadily into Fenway, puddles collecting in divots around the white tarp covering the infield, the starting time getting pushed back all the while, the smattering of fans who’d made their way inside hours before the scheduled first pitch sat in their seats wrapped up in their plastic ponchos or stood on the concourse under cover.
As pregame atmospheres go, it was damp and somber, rain taking care of the former, memories of 9/11 taking care of the latter. Sadly, this year, in a battle for the basement, there was no promise of escape in the baseball.