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Where have all the rivalries gone?

On the Yankees and the liminal space between hate.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images

Rivalries in baseball have always been a tough sell, since there are so many games it’s just hard to get yourself up, emotionally. In the NFL, the most you’re going to play each other in the regular season is twice, with maybe one game kicked in for the postseason. In baseball you do that over a weekend.

Still, 2022 and the successive offseason have not been great for Yankee rivalries. After squaring off in the 2021 Wild Card game, which was itself a bit of a snooze, their perennial archrivals the Red Sox had a pretty terrible season. The Yankees went 13-6 against Boston, en route to the Sox finishing last in the AL East. The Sox probably aren’t going to be any better in 2023 either — while the Yankees will be fighting for the division title again, Boston’s projected to finish toward the bottom of the East once more, depending on how much of a step forward the Orioles take.

Michael King was on MLB Network Radio talking about the Astros this week:

I appreciate that King is a competitive guy, and nobody is ever going to say that they can’t hang with the best ... but it comes off as a little hollow given how easily the Astros have swept the Yankees aside over the past few seasons. Yes, the Yankees are projected to be slightly better than Houston this season, but after being eliminated four times by the club since 2015 this gives the Yankees a bit of little brother syndrome.

Speaking of little brother syndrome, the Toronto Blue Jays. What the Yankees are to the Astros, you could argue that the Jays are to the Yankees.

I don’t think we should read too much into a cheap pop to make a group of school kids happy, but Vlad Guerrero Jr and the Blue Jays have been awful chesty over the past two seasons or so. The team boasts a lot of personality, between Vlad, Alek Manoah, George Springer, Bo Bichette and others, and went 8-11 against the Yankees this season. The Yankees of course also clinched the AL East, and Aaron Judge hit his 61st home run of the season in Toronto immediately after Vlad christened Rogers Centre his house.

Why do none of these “rivalries” seem to have any real bite?

I think a lot of this boils down to the space the Yankees have occupied over the last five years or so. Nobody can say they’ve been a bad team, they’ve been quite good. They have two division titles and have made the playoffs every year since 2017, but you also can’t argue they’ve been the best team. As Harlan Spence is wont to point out, they’ve never been upset in a playoff series, consistently losing to a team that is clearly better than them every go-round.

This in between performance — always a good team, but never the best — isn’t especially conducive to building a rivalry. If the Yankees had actually beaten the Astros in a playoff series, there would be a little more real blood in this feud. Look at the Kansas City-Cincinnati rivalry in the NFL. Last year, the Bengals won the AFC title game, and announced they had arrived on a national stage ... but it wasn’t until this year that a rivalry really emerged, since each team now has a win over the other. Wins need to be exchanged for these rivalries to heat up again. I love Michael King’s confidence, but actually beating the Astros would go a long way to establishing yourself as on that level. For the Jays, well, it’s the opposite.