All the way back in February, I, the proud owner of a 20-game New York Yankees Season Ticket Plan, scanned the tickets I had bought. My eyes immediately fell on three dates this past weekend. Yankees vs. Red Sox. My mouth watered with the expectation of what this series might theoretically imply. An American League East Championship could be on the line.
But it wasn’t. This weekend’s series meant nothing. The Red Sox won three of the four games this weekend and still only shrank the Yankees’ lead in the division to 9.5 games.
But wait a second: I thought rivalries always provided exciting matchups. And this is a rivalry that reached its apex at some point over the past five years. Indeed, one season’s worth of uninspiring late-season games can’t change the fact that they indeed have a rivalry. But when and where is the term “rivalry” properly applied? More often than not, the term is thrown around too freely.
I would argue that a rivalry only really exists when the relationship between two teams meets two core prerequisites. First, each team must define itself as the other’s antithesis. Second, each team’s fans must see themselves as much as a fan of one team as not a fan of the other.
So allow me to apply this theory with a few “rivalry or schmivalry” decisions:
UNC and Duke (basketball): Well, Wikipedia calls it a rivalry. And I think I’d have to agree. While North Carolina leads the all-time series 125-96 has won more national championships and appeared in more Final Fours, these two college basketball teams are inextricably attached. They are so very similar — their locations, their rich tradition, their colors and their passion. Moreover, they have the symbiotic relationship, as exemplified by Yanks-BoSox. They always belong in the same mouthful. Furthermore, either school can salvage a poor season with a victory in a regular season meeting. Ergo, I will add a criterion to my rivalry standard: When both teams derive disproportionate success from a single victory against the other, it is more likely that a true rivalry exists.
Maple Leafs and Canadiens: In January 2005, ESPN ranked this as the fifth best of all sports rivalries, above that of the Yankees and Red Sox. The ESPN argument points out that the two teams have met five times in the Stanley Cup Finals. But none of these meetings has taken place since 1967, which was the last year of the “Original Six.” After the ’67 Finals, the NHL expanded to 12 teams and completely changed the dynamic of professional hockey. Despite the fact that this matchup provides the only opportunity for Canadian fans to determine inter-provincial dominance outside of the CFL, this is not a rivalry. In fact, the NHL thought so little of this schmivalry that Toronto and Montreal were not even in the same conference until a re-alignment in 2004. How can you have a rivalry when your games don’t directly affect your playoff position?
Andy Roddick and Roger Federer: Nope, shmivalry. Definitely a media gimmick. On July 4, 2004, Piers Newbury of the BBC wrote, “Wimbledon may have witnessed the birth of the next great tennis rivalry in this year’s final between top seeds Roger Federer and Andy Roddick.” Sorry, Piers, no dice. They have the looks: tall, svelte, and handsome. They have similar games: big serves and big forehands. And then there are the psyches. Federer is ice cold; he unconvincingly shows emotion after winning a major title. Roddick, on the other hand, is a head case; he screws his face into so many different pained expressions during a match, you want to poor him a glass of Mylanta. As a result, Federer holds an 11-1 lead in the series. Also, Federer seems to take little stock in a victory over Roddick, whereas Roddick would love nothing more than to beat the Suisse-man. That kind of relationship does not equate to a rivalry, but rather seems more like a big brother bullying his little brother.
Yale and Harvard (football): The answer, if you’ve been paying any attention, is an overwhelming “yes.” For the sake of this debate, we will limit the argument to football (obviously, the two schools contend in many other forums). Despite losing the last five editions of The Game, the Bulldogs lead the overall series (in existence since 1875) 63-50-9. There have been any number of memorable editions, including last year’s triple-overtime Harvard victory. Nevertheless, following only the major criteria laid out above, this is indeed a rivalry, and a very fierce one at that. There is geographical proximity. Both schools are also extremely similar, drawing prospective student-athletes from very similar backgrounds. Furthermore, either team can salvage an entire season with a single victory in The Game, just like Duke-UNC. Finally, the Elis and Cantabs both derive great joy from playing each other’s foil. It is always red — or shall I say, in my most haughty voice, “Crimson” — versus blue. They are football’s oldest and most storied counterparts, pitted against one another for eternity. They are rivals, in the truest sense of the word.
Yale-Harvard certainly shares many of its rivalry attributes with the Yankees-Red Sox series. But unlike last weekend in the Bronx, when Chandler Henley ’07 and the boys head to Cambridge on Nov. 18, it will definitely matter. I will follow excitedly, no matter if the ’Dogs are 0-9 or 8-1. It may be that the college football season is so short, or that The Game must mathematically have an impact on the H-Y-P. Either way, it will not disappoint, which may make it an even better rivalry than New York-Boston.
Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.