By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
BOSTONThe Yankees and Red Sox used to make history. Now they look more like a historical re-enactment. Four sweaty encounters between New York and Boston on July 14 through 17 left the indelible impression the two clubs are still waging their War of 1999-2004 one year after its conclusion. The two franchises are convinced they are baseball's only two superpowers and have come to the logical end of all such duels: mutual exhaustion. They are ruinously expensive, dangerous yet obsolete weapons systems suited for little but battering the other in an unwinnable war of attrition.The overwrought New England conceit is that Boston and New York are Athens and Sparta. If so, the two city-states are in danger of being overrun by the Macedonians before October. The "greatest rivalry" in baseball/sports/humankind is destroying its rivals, and not incidentally, destroying itself as entertainment.
Mutual fear, hatred, and a combined annual payroll of around $340 million have left the Sox and Yanks with the same problem. Baseball is a literal arms race where the side with the most pitching arms wins, and neither team has nearly enough of 'em. Money may buy happiness, but it can't purchase rotator cuffs. Connie Mack said pitching is 75 percent of baseball. Boston and New York are attempting to reverse that ratio.
That's not easy. Only six teams in the majors have allowed more runs than the Yanks and Sox. Those half-dozen juggernauts have a combined record of nearly 120 games below .500. New York and Boston are at war with themselves as well as each other. Two lineups choked with All-Stars are in a daily battle to overcome their own basement-caliber mound corps.
Pride goeth before a dismal ERA. Last December, both the Yankees and the Sox decided they could do without Pedro Martinez's services. Boston thought Martinez was too high-maintenance a personality. New York didn't mind buying revenge on Boston, it just didn't want to stoop to buying a former Red Sox player to do so. The two clubs are a little less choosy now.
Yankee manager Joe Torre began the second half promising his team it'd have a starting pitcher in every game. He wasn't kidding. At that point, the New York organization had no idea who'd take the mound in the series' last game. No fewer than four New York starters were on the disabled list. Three of them were veteran, high-priced free agents.
Boston was no better off. Last year's hero, Curt Schilling, began the series by blowing his Sox debut as a relief ace. Both he and regular closer Keith Foulke had been injured, awful, or both in the season's first half. Sox management said letting Schilling do rehab by trying the most stressful job in the game was common sense, which presumed that term is a synonym for desperation.
None of these medical debacles were accidents. Bad luck is also the residue of design. Pitching is bad for the human body. Free-agent pitchers are older players by rule, with correspondingly more wear on their joints and sinews. There has never been such an undersupply of quality hurlers in the game's history, so guys with proven track records, even mediocre ones, command huge sums, but the risk attached makes them the junk bonds of the flesh market.
It's tough to fix any machine while it's still moving. In utterly predictable fashion, Schilling entered a tie game Thursday as the new bullpen savior and gave up a two-run homer to Alex Rodriguez to get the loss. Every time a Sox or Yanks pitcher who wasn't Mariano Rivera took the mound, the phrase "hillbilly armor" came to mind.
The troops inside the armor felt the same way. Gary Sheffield and Rodriguez thought the Yanks needed to score six runs a game to succeed. Bernie Ebbers had a more realistic business plan. Boston scored 30 runs and lost three out of four games anyway. The Sox bullpen is in such fine shape that Francona let Tim Wakefield achieve 21st-century baseball's rarest accomplishmenta complete-game loss.
After the finale the winners sounded more strung out than the losers. GM Brian Cashman wore a hunted look. Derek Jeter wondered why the Yanks were always compared to past champions. Where does he keep those four rings, anyway?
Compare them with present foes, and the Yanks and Sox are no stronger than the other half-dozen clubs battling for the four AL playoff berths. Both putative superpowers were over 10 games behind the AL's winningest team, the White Sox, an upstart guerrilla force built around its starting rotation.
Great powers in decline remain a threat. Old teams have a way of hanging on at the top longer than outsiders expect. But decline was what one saw, heard, and felt at Fenway no matter which dugout you surveyed. Nobody played better than the Yanks the first two weeks of May. The Red Sox won 12 of 13 in one June stretch. They couldn't keep it up. Inconsistency is a classic symptom of a powerhouse near the end of its life cycle. A cool look at the bottom line says either Boston or New York might bash its way to a playoff berth, but not both. Each is probably closer to implosion than to its next world championship.