Is there a new, true AL East rivalry? We ask this question on the eve of the renewal of hostilities between the two fakest rivals in baseball: the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, who haven’t really had any good beef in a decade and only had one or two major incidences of bad feelings during the early Aughts to even sustain them this far.
Once the Red Sox won the World Series and became a perennial top-five payroll team in baseball, the similarities between the Sox and Yanks began to far outweigh the differences; there is no solidarity in America like the solidarity of the well-off (both fanbases, for example, more than eagerly come together to look down their noses at the Tampa Bay Rays). They represent two very large fan constituencies, however, and so it’s useful for business for ESPN and the like to pretend that some burning animus still exists between these two teams even when one of them isn’t in the pennant race.
That leaves the field open for young, upstart competition with new ideas to innovate. Enter the Baltimore Orioles.
To the extent that the Orioles have historical rivals, those rivals are those self-same New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox — but this is pretty much a one-way street. Up until five years ago, the Orioles had been a joke of a team for two decades and Baltimore was best known to Sox and Yankees fans as that place they could pop on down to on the Acela and see their favorite team beat up on a purgatory for Quad-A players and old stars who should have retired a few years previous.
That worm has, to some extent, turned. The Orioles still haven’t won a World Series in many of their fans’ lifetimes, but they have made the playoffs three of the last five years while operating on a top-half budget. Their success is occasionally inexplicable — they were historically good in one-out and extra-inning games in 2012, routinely get career years from free-agent power hitters that sign with the club, and have somehow succeeded without having a better starting pitcher on the roster than Chris Tillman for half a decade — but it is, nonetheless, a form of success.
They’ve been playing around with a rivalry with the Toronto Blue Jays for some time now, but that may be coming to a close; neither team is an established contender, and the Jays are having a severe downturn this year that may very well carry with them into the future. They had that Wild Card Game last year, yes, but that’s part of the problem — they’re both wild-card teams, and one game is insufficient to build the kind of storyline animus we need from a postseason series here.
The Red Sox, however, might be a much better fit for Baltimore. They’re not going anywhere — the Sox have enough good talent to be relevant five years from now even if they screw up every draft and free agent period between now and then — and there’s already recent history to mine from before we get to this year: the end of the 2011 regular season, where the Orioles knocked the Red Sox out of the playoffs on the back of a utility infielder named Robert Andino; the marathon 17-inning game at Fenway in 2012 when Chris Davis struck out 2 over 2 shutout innings to give Baltimore the win; and if you want to go back further, to 2007, a game at that Red Sox fans call the “Mother’s Day Miracle,” while Baltimore fans prefer “Mother’s Day Massacre” — a six-run rally against then-Orioles reliever Danys Baez and closer Chris Ray in the bottom of the ninth, with the game ending on a walk-off error.
There’s also the fundamental tension between haves and have-nots that needs to exist for a good, long-term rivalry; the Red Sox have to be shocked at the impropriety of Baltimore’s success when they lose to the Orioles (with that rotation? How?!) while Orioles fans need to continually nurse their resentment against a team that spends more (and better, if we’re being honest) than they do. It must be more than personalities, if it’s going to last.
Which brings us to the most recent inciting incident: Manny Machado and Dustin Pedroia. The circumstances here are well-known by now — Machado made a bad and dangerous slide into Pedroia’s leg while taking second base; the Red Sox threw at Machado’s head the next day; Baltimore closer Zach Britton chose, for some reason, to call out Pedroia instead of Boston manager John Farrell — and while they’re good enough to get the next Orioles/Red Sox game bumped to ESPN primetime viewing next week, they’re not enough to last. There needs to be more long-simmering resentment; more envy and scorn.
But there’s hope. There was actually an inciting incident before this inciting incident this year, and it had nothing to do with Pedroia and Machado. Before the first Sox/Orioles game of the season, Baltimore manager Buck Showalter was asked about how the O’s were dealing with the flu in the clubhouse. He said they were doing “a good job of not broadcasting it to the world,” which was a fairly clear reference to the news stories that had been running over the past five days or so about the trials and tribulations surrounding the flu-ridden Red Sox clubhouse. Farrell responded by saying the Sox hadn’t publicized it, which is both taking the high road and something of a falsehood.
And that was it. Minor incident. Forgotten in the national media by now.
It also cuts to the heart of what this rivalry should look like. Rivalries can’t be gentlemanly games between social equals — that’s how you get the current Yankees-Sox nonsense. The teams have to resent each other. The Orioles have to be mad every time the Sox get media attention they think Boston doesn’t deserve, and the Red Sox have to return that in kind when it’s suggested they’re getting a handout they don’t deserve. Getting mad at Manny Machado is fine, but Manny Machado isn’t going to be an Oriole forever. If this rivalry is going to endure, it can’t just be personal. It has to become institutional.
By Jonathan Bernhardt