For the third consecutive year, the Yankees and Red Sox — in some particular order — are the two best teams in baseball. The obvious question: who’s better?
I’ve read numerous articles in “Sports Illustrated,” ESPN.com, and elsewhere that have attempted to break down the matchups to determine which squad has the inside track to the World Series. The problem is that they all focus on the wrong thing: the players.
Think about it. How can you predict a team’s performance in October based on Opening Day rosters? Remember, Boston started 2004 with Nomahhhh at shortstop. Dave Roberts, the man who would single-handedly turn around the ALCS, wasn’t even a glimmer in the eyes of the Fenway faithful. You really can’t begin to compare rosters until after the trade deadline.
Anyway, the temptation will be to evaluate these teams based on the outcome of the six meetings the rivals will have within their first nine games of the year. While I personally believe that their Opening Day victory signifies that the Yankees are destined to win the World Series, it might be wise to remember that seasons have wild momentum swings. Last year, the Sox were the team to beat after they won six of seven from the Yankees in April. By July 1, after New York swept a series at Yankee Stadium culminating with Jeter’s dive into the stands, Boston was done. Within the next month, a brawl and the Garciaparra/Cabrera swap restored Boston’s collective pulse.
On to the playoffs. Down 3-0, who would have thought that it would be Derek Lowe, fresh off a 5.42 ERA season and left off the postseason starting rotation, who would carry the Sox to the World Series with two dominant outings. How could you know that the Yankees would get a bad bounce on Tony Clark’s double in Game 5, or that the biggest play for a team supposedly committed to “Moneyball” would be a stolen base? If you can’t predict this stuff in October, it’s ludicrous to believe you can do it in April.
But everyone wants to try, and I’m no different. My main advantage is that I’ve listened to all the talking heads and now I know what wins playoff games: intangibles. So, with a minimal emphasis on things that actually have to do with baseball, here’s my list of seven categories (get it: seven categories, for the seven games in the ALCS) that will determine the next AL East, American League, and World Series champion.
1). Team Chemistry: The 1996-2001 Yankees were all about team chemistry. Unfortunately, in the payroll binge over the past four years, the Yankees have acquired some surly characters. See Kevin Brown. After his first encounter with the media, Randy Johnson didn’t look like much of a charmer either. Meanwhile, Gary Sheffield is outright insane, and the steroids issue will loom large if Jason Giambi gets into a slump. The Red Sox ridded themselves of their biggest clubhouse distraction when Pedro skipped town. Guys like Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar, and certainly Curt Schilling love being on camera way too much, but the “idiots” routine works. ADVANTAGE: Red Sox.
2). Fan Confidence: Obviously, the Yankees used to dominate this category. In a tight game at Fenway, you could always count on being able to hear a pin drop when the Yankees were in town. Will Sox fans be more confident now? Yes. Are New York fans less confident? Yes. Honestly, yesterday was the first time in Mariano Rivera’s 10 full Major League seasons when I was not shocked to see him blow a save. Not a good sign. Still, I can’t believe that one season could be enough to erase decades of paranoia. Also, even a championship has not cured Red Sox fans’ obsession with the Yankees. ADVANTAGE: Yankees.
3). Pressure: Boston’s press is notoriously brutal, but the fans have to be higher than Snoop Dogg right now after the World Series and the Super Bowl. New York has put together the most formidable collection of talent in baseball history to try to overcome the memory of the biggest choke in sports history. If anything goes wrong, the Yankees will have to face down a media that can be harsh too. Worse, they’ll have to confront the owner. ADVANTAGE: Red Sox.
4). No. 1 fan: A championship-caliber team needs a celebrity fan to rally around. The Yankees have Rudy Giuliani, and the Red Sox have Ben Affleck. While I disagree with his politics, Giuliani was once “Time’s Person of the Year.” Ben Affleck once made a movie called “Gigli.” Trying to argue with me here? OK, “Reindeer Games.” How did you like “Pearl Harbor?” Toward the end of the 2004 season I think Stephen King may have surpassed Affleck. Can a Sox fan confirm that for me? It doesn’t matter. That guy is a weird dude. ADVANTAGE: Yankees. P.S. “Forces of Nature.”
5). The Ballparks: Fenway is a better place to watch baseball. Fans are right on top of the action, and features like the triangle, Green Monster, and Pesky Pole are endearing. But, no matter what Curt Schilling said in 2001, Yankee Stadium still has mystique and aura. Yes, even after Game 7 last year. Monument Park is still out in left-center, and the Voice of God, i.e. Bob Sheppard, entering his 55th season on the public address system, is still calling games. ADVANTAGE: Yankees.
6). End of Game Songs: Games between these two teams tend to be close, especially in the playoffs. Momentum can turn on anything, especially a good song. The Yankees have been saddled with “Cotton Eye Joe” for a decade. Meanwhile, what’s the one thing I envy about Red Sox fans? The 2004 title? Wrong, “Sweet Caroline” in the late innings. After a victory, it’s important to set the tone for the next game. The Yankees batter Sinatra’s “New York, New York” on repeat into the skulls of defeated opponents. The Red Sox have “Dirty Water.” There was a happier time in my life before I came to New Haven and met Red Sox fans, acquiring a quick introduction to this unfortunately catchy song. Now, especially since the ALCS, I wake up in the middle of the night muttering some variation on “No, I don’t love dirty water. Clean water is better.” ADVANTAGE: Red Sox.
Tied at 3-3, again. We return to a familiar topic:
7). The Curse: Maybe “The Curse of the Bambino” is dead. Who cares? (OK, I do a little bit.) But, I’m absolutely certain that the Red Sox are due for a brand new wave of bad karma. Meet the new curse: “Fever Pitch” starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore. When those two ran on the field in St. Louis, Boston’s fate was sealed. See you in 2090.