New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox share more than just rivalry

Baseballs biggest rivals have traveled different paths but have more in common than their fans would like to admit

Its happening again. The New York Yankees win over the Oakland Athletics in this weeks wild card game ensured that they would face the Boston Red Sox in the next round of the playoffs, with Game 1 of the series on Friday night. Its hard to believe, but its been 14 years since the last time these two clubs last met in the postseason. The games are always emotional affairs, partly because of the near-sibling rivalry between their respective fanbases, two groups that are far more alike than they are different.

It helps that theres an enormous amount of history between the two teams. The Red Sox and the Bronx Bombers were rivals even before the Yankees were known as the Yankees. The Red Sox were the most successful team in the league for a long stretch before a downturn of fortune led them to trade Babe Ruth, who was in the process of transforming from one of the sports best players into a living legend, to New York for what ended up being a paltry sum.

That 1918 transaction kicked off what was later to be dubbed The Curse of the Bambino, which marked a period of unprecedented futility in which the Red Sox continually faltered in their quest to win a World Series, often in the most soul-crushing way possible. This narrative took hold of the popular consciousness and the Red Sox became symbols of perennial hard-luck merchants. The Yankees, in the meantime, became the most successful baseball team of the 20th century, winning 25 championships between 1923 and 1999.

It wasnt until the turn of the millennium that the rivalry became more balanced. In 2004 the teams were playing each other for a place in the World Series. The Red Sox got their revenge for years of beatings by coming back from a 0-3 deficit to beat the Yankees, following it up by sweeping the St Louis Cardinals in the World Series and becoming champions for the first time since 1918. The remarkable comeback was the highlight of a phenomenal 18-year stretch for Boston sports teams, which included two more World Series wins for the Red Sox to go along with five Super Bowl victories for the New England Patriots, an NBA title for the Boston Celtics and a Stanley Cup for the Boston Bruins. In the meantime, the Yankees lag behind with two championships in the 21st century in 2000 and 2009 bumping their total to 27, which would be accomplishment enough for most baseball franchises but not nearly enough for the most celebrated winners in US sports.

This means that when the two teams face each other in the coming days, it will no longer be a battle between cocky uber-victors and pessimistic perpetual losers. Bostons playoff win in 2004 helped temper that narrative and the last two decades of endless victory parades down Boylston Street have rendered any attempt to label a Boston sports team as an underdog utterly laughable. The Yankees dont even have the highest payroll in baseball anymore, that prize goes to (you guessed it) the Red Sox. For fans of the other 28 teams in the league, their contests are no longer David v Goliath but Goliath 1a v Goliath 1b.

Bostons Andrew Benintendi catches a flyball against the Yankees at Fenway Park. Photograph: Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

The stereotypical characteristics shared by sports fans of both areas (vocal, passionate, parochial, unnecessarily combative) are numerous enough that sometimes it feels like the difference lies solely in the accents. Theres an argument to be made that the root of the rivalry lies not in the fact that the fans are fundamentally different, but that they are often cut from the same cloth. The obsession with defining themselves against each other, to turn every game into a dramatic conquest between good and evil, comes from a desire to avoid dealing with the fact that they are, in essence, the living embodiment of the two Spider-Men pointing at each other meme.

In truth, the two cities, while not comparable in terms of size and influence, are remarkably similar in many other respects. Theyre established blue-state East Coast cities whose considerable histories reach back to long before the American Revolution. Theyre close enough to each other that their territories encroach upon each other to the point where there are areas in New England where families are divided by their baseball loyalties. Theyre as close as siblings and in some cases they actually are.

The two areas also produce some of the biggest names in sports media, something no doubt aided by the concentration of colleges and universities in both places, which is one of the reasons why coverage of the two teams often overshadows the rest of the league. Its hard to overestimate how much the media is responsible for building up the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, especially during the time when newspapers were the primary outlet for sports reporting. If the concept of the East Coast Media is somewhat exaggerated, theres no doubt it is very much a thing when it comes to the baseball. (Lets not even get into the countless number of each teams ubiquitous celebrity fans, about whom the less said the better.)

The days when Yankees fans could pretend that there was never a rivalry because Boston never won anything and New York won everything are firmly in the past. That was clear when the We want Boston chants erupted during their win over the As on Wednesday night. In this upcoming series, the two teams will meet without the burdens of a century of history on their shoulders. Maybe now the two sides will admit that the gulf between them was always smaller than it appeared.

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