The morning after the Yankees moved within a game and a half of Boston for the AL East division lead, I excitedly asked my fellow baseball aficionado, "So you think the Yanks can catch the Sox?"
He said, "It doesn't really matter, does it? They're both going to get into the playoffs regardless. I'm sure Joe Torre and Terry Francona won't be managing to win the division once they've clinched a playoff spot."
I agreed. "You're right. I guess I'm just thinking about bragging rights for the fans."
My friend gave a snort. "How much is it worth to you if Chien-Ming Wang goes down with a strained oblique in the last two weeks of the season in pursuit of so-called bragging rights?"
I thought about it. And, to my surprise as well as his, I said, "If it means beating the Red Sox, I'd be willing to trade off. Truth be told, I'd rather see the Yanks torment Boston than win a World Series."
I'm guessing I'm not alone in that sentiment. Every season, the Yankees and Red Sox make the pursuit of the championship of the major leagues secondary to the championship of each other. Going all the way is great, but it means that much more if we have to go through our arch-rivals to get there.
I remember the epic New York/Boston battles far better than most World Series contests. 2003? Aaron Boone's 7th game, 11th inning home run in the ALCS to send the Sox home for the winter. Sure, we lost the World Series to the Marlins, but nobody really cared -- I even saw a sign outside one bar that said "Hey, at least we beat Boston!" 2006? We may have exited the playoffs in the first round, but I prefer to remember that long August weekend at Fenway where the Yanks thumped the Bosox for five straight glorious games to knock them out of playoff contention.
And, of course, there's 2004. Not even the thrill of the 13-inning Greek drama that was the game of July 1, where Derek Jeter plunged into the stands going after a foul ball and landed face-first -- WITH BALL STILL IN GLOVE -- can erase the pain of The Choke. Yanks up three games to nil in the ALCS, another AL pennant all but in hand, when the unthinkable happened. A week later, the Yankees were playing golf and the Sox were on their way to their first world championship in 86 years. I've heard a lot of Boston fans call that Series triumph over the Cards "the icing on the cake." You wanna know what the cake was? Beating the Yankees, of course. Even if Boston had lost that World Series, I'll bet there would have been a lot of smiling faces in New England that winter.
The players themselves will occasionally tell you that Yankees-Red Sox affairs are just another series on the schedule, but the intensity they bring to the games belies that myth. It's little wonder that, after the Bombers have finished tangling with the Bostons, they'll usually drop the next couple of games simply because they're so spent, mentally if not physically. Yankees-Red Sox games are the baseball equivalent of an Ali-Frazier fight -- and we get to see the carnage 19 times a year, not including the postseason.
My friend doesn't understand this obsession, and I feel bad for him for two reasons. One, he grew up a Phillies fan, and their biggest rivals are usually themselves. It doesn't matter who the Phils are playing -- come September, they'll crumble like a stale Oreo. I, on the other hand, came of age, Yankees-wise, at the same time "Boston Sucks" T-shirts came into vogue in and around the Bronx on game days. I was a baseball-mad nine-year-old during that 1978 division race, which climaxed with Bucky F-in' Dent lofting one over the Green Monster and into baseball legend. How could I not be hooked? If you haven't grown up immersed in the rivalry, perhaps it's impossible to understand.
Second, my friend is a self-professed sabermetrician. In case you've never heard of such an animal, they follow baseball by the numbers, dutifully keeping track of stats so arcane that most bleacher creatures don't even know what the initials stand for. Such expertise has its uses -- for instance, my friend singlehandedly convinced me that, gee, A-Rod actually doesn't suck!
But sabermetricians also value logic over passion. And logic holds that winning a World Series trumps winning the AL East. Which, in theory, makes sense. But this is the YANKEES AND RED SOX we're talking about, not the Orioles and the Blue Jays. Logic can't explain why I've wasted countless thousands of hours over the last 30 years watching grown men trying to hit a ball with a stick, so why should it explain why the Red Sox Nation is holding its collective breath and Yankee fans are giddy with excitement, even though they're both going to make the playoffs no matter what happens?
Of course, the season's not going to end when one team or the other clinches the division. I'll be thrilled if the Yankees do make it to the World Series, whether or not they have to go through the Red Sox to get there. But even if they do go all the way, the day after that last game means no more baseball, and five long months of having to watch ... the Knicks.
Wake me when it's spring training.