The Payoff Itch


BOSTON—The 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 accomplishment—a 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.

A sense of the futility of it all may be why the crowds at Fenway were the quietest I’ve heard for a Yankee series in 30 years. There were few chants, no fights, and even Boston’s 17-1 victory aroused little fervor. Boston fans know almost as much baseball as they claim, and they’ve seen bat-rich, arm-broke teams come up short before—like for the previous 70 years before 2004.

They’ve also seen too much of the Yankees, win or lose. The two teams have played 65 of their last 440 games against each other since the start of the 2003 season. Familiarity breeds apathy. After the supreme art of the 2003 and 2004 ALCS, it’s no surprise Sox-Yanks 2005 has been Godfather III.

A rural game, baseball is based on the growing cycle. The Yanks and Sox are hothouse plants, hybrids generated by deranged agronomists in their front offices and owners’ suites. Each team and its fan base have come to see the presence of a rookie in the starting lineup as a symbol of failure. That’s a guarantee of sterility. All societies have myths cautioning that wealth cannot buy youth. The Sox and Yanks have become baseball’s.

Trouble is, if one team makes the post-season and not the other, the loser, be it New York or Boston, will again load up on high-priced veterans and a “new” generation of old, hurt pitchers. They have neither the will nor wherewithal to rebuild. Their current stars, productive or not, will remain under multimillion-dollar contracts, and George Steinbrenner and John Henry will not exchange Christmas visits next winter.

The Red Sox and Yankees clash again six times after Labor Day. Sheffield and Manny may be pitching by then. Teams that look tired in July aren’t a pretty sight when the leaves start turning.

What baseball’s “greatest rivalry” needs is a truce. The Yanks and Sox need a demilitarized zone behind which to rebuild and plan without reference to each other. Such a truce will only be imposed by an outside power, a new rival who’ll beat ’em both.

Forget pitching; what Boston and New York need most of all is for 2005 to be somebody else’s “next year.”

Michael Gee is a former sports columnist for the Boston Herald and The Boston Phoenix.