Sports

In New York, the Past is Still Prologue

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On Thursday, Andy Pettitte pitched eight innings, gave up one earned run, and turned the game over to the unquestioned greatest reliever in the history of the game: Mariano Rivera. With the exception of last year, the ninth inning has belonged to Rivera since 1997. In spite of giving up a run to the Red Sox, Rivera recorded his first save of the year, adding to his first ballot Hall of Fame stats.

The game was the 68th time in the regular season that Pettitte and Rivera have combined for the win and save. The Yankees managed to score four runs, getting the big offensive production from the likes of Brett Gardner, Lyle Overbay, and Francisco Cervelli, household names, unfortunately, in the Bronx these days. The matchup was televised, of course. After all, this is the most hyped rivalry in MLB if not all of big-time American sports.

As great as it has been for many years, and as often as it has lived up to the hype, the rivalry is well past its prime. Kevin Youkilis now wears pinstripes; Derek Jeter probably wears a bathrobe; there’s no telling what Manny Ramirez is wearing, if anything; Alex Rodriguez is apparently wearing a muzzle; and Jonathan Papelbon will probably be wearing out his welcome in Philadelphia soon. Attendance on Thursday night in New York was all of 40,611, about 10,000 less than a sellout. That’s right, 10,000 empty seats at a Yankees/Red Sox game in the Bronx. It’s going to take something like a couple of huge foam Don Zimmer and Pedro Martinez mascots slugging it out between innings (is that a great idea or what?) to bring those 10,000 fans back.

The lineups, at least while about a dozen Yankees are convalescing, won’t bring the fans back. They’ve both got some solid players, even All Stars, no doubt about it. And they both have some strong pitching, too. But let’s not kid ourselves, Lyle Overbay isn’t exactly Tino Martinez or Mark Teixeira (for that matter, Teixeira isn’t exactly Teixeira anymore either), and Eduardo Nunez is literally a fill in for Jeter. On the other side of the ledger, Beckett, Matsuzaka, and Wakefield combined for 52 wins in 2007, the last year the Sox won it all. In 2013, after Buchholz and Lester, things look pretty thin for the Red Sox starters, unless you’re counting on John “Sling Blade” Lackey to return to his 2011 . . . make that his 2007 form. Not gonna happen. You heard it here first. The rivalry is on life support, no doubt about it.

The clear problem, for ESPN and other national media, is that there is no replacement rivalry just waiting in the wings to pull in the big ratings. Giants and Dodgers? The games come on too late for most of the country even if people east of the Sierra Nevada cared. They don’t. Cubs and Cardinals? You realize you need more than one good team for a decent rivalry, right? There may be some great history between the Cubs and Cardinals, but the present and recent past are pretty one-sided. Any other offers? I didn’t think so.

Most teams’ fans have a team they hate losing to, which is an important part of any rivalry. I’m an Oakland Athletics fan and I hate seeing them lose to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. I hate it! And there may be several thousand A’s fans who feel the same way, but that’s not going to cut it for those looking for a rivalry that will captivate millions of fans across the nation. The reason I’ve never heard of “Athletics Nation” is because it doesn’t exist. Baltimore Orioles’ fans never have to worry about Oakland fans taking up the good seats at Camden Yards when the A’s are in town. There are barely enough Oakland fans to fill up the A’s home venue, the O.Co Coliseum. So I have to admit that the A’s, as fun as they are to watch – after all, they were in first place in the AL West for exactly one day last year and that happened to be the last day of the season – aren’t going to be half of a national rivalry anytime soon.

The national fans and media are stuck with the Yankees and Red Sox show for the time being, a show that’s a shadow of its former self, a show that can draw only 40,000 fans from a metropolitan area with a population of more than 20 million people. The hope that some spark from the past will light the deadwood of the present will have to suffice until two other teams rise to claim the title of greatest rivalry in MLB.     

Jonathan Dyer can be followed on Twitter @dyer_jp, and he can be reached via email at [email protected].

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