Want to go see the Yankees play the Red Sox tonight? That shouldn't be a problem. As I'm writing this, there are still plenty of seats available on Yankees.com and on secondary market sites, some for less than face value. As recently as Wednesday night, the Yankees were hocking tickets to Friday's affair with the promise of a free magnetic schedule. Sure, it's shaped like a jersey and it'd probably look pretty cool on your fridge, but this is the kind of game I used to camp outside of the Yankee Stadium box office overnight in the December cold to get in to. It used to be an event every single time the Yankees and Red Sox faced off. Regular season, postseason, September, April, whatever - if the Nation and the Empire were going at it, it was intense. This is the kind of game that used to sell itself.
So what happened to the hostility, the packed stadiums, the bitter animosity in the stands? For one thing, these teams have more serious problems than just each other. It wasn't long ago that the American League East meant the Yankees and Red Sox and then everyone else. From the birth of the division's current incarnation in 1998, the two clubs finished first and second in ten of twelve years until 2009 and met in three ALCS series' that combined to go 19 of a possible 21 games. There was the classic Pedro/Clemens Sunday Night Baseball duel in '99, the Boone home run in '03, the five-game Yankee sweep at Fenway in '06...that thing that happened in '04.
Lately it's been different. Gone are the down-to-the-wire finishes and the on-field brawls. As far as we know, Brian Cashman didn't trash a hotel room when he lost out on Yoan Moncada to the Red Sox the way Theo Epstein did when the Yankees signed Jose Contreras in 2003. While the Orioles and Rays have reminded the world that they, too, actually exist over the past few seasons, the Yankees and Red Sox haven't spent as much time at each other's throats. A first and second finish hasn't happened since '09 and 2014 was the first time both teams were left out of October since 1993. The Red Sox have missed the playoffs in four of the past five years and even their 2013 title run was sandwiched by a pair of fifth place 90-loss seasons. Despite some big off-season moves, they're hoping a patched together starting rotation will be enough to keep them in contention this year. The Yankees haven't seen the postseason since 2012 and after a quiet winter by their own standards are counting on a lot going right to score many runs.
One thing that's fueled the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry over the years is that the teams have often had mirror players who have been perfect kindling for "who's better" arguments. In 1941, Ted Williams hit .406/.553/.735 and somehow lost the MVP because Joe DiMaggio had a 56-game hitting streak that year. In the 70's, Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson were the two best catchers in the AL. A decade later, Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs were competing for batting titles just about every year, and in the 90's, Jeter and "Nomah" were part of the generation that changed the shortstop position. Gehrig vs. Foxx. Reggie vs. Rice. Posada vs. Varitek. Cano vs. Pedroia. Where are these now?
Which current Red Sox do you really hate? Since 2013 Boston's roster has turned over by nearly two thirds. New faces like Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval have been in the National League their entire careers. Yes, David Ortiz, phone-smashing king of free passes is still there and so is Dustin Pedroia in all his gritty, gutty glory, but these are guys who'd be loved by Yankee fans if they played in the Bronx. The head-hunting, old man tossing hijinks of Pedro Martinez are done. So are the smarmy bloody sock wearing, taxpayer bilking antics of Curt Schilling, the existential complexities of Manny being Manny and the defiant challenges to the greatest of all time from Jonathan Papelbon (who never quite backed up his words - the six losses the Yankees have handed him are twice as many as any other team). We don't even have Ryan Dempster to chuck one at A-Rod's back to get the juices flowing.
The Yankees have just four players left from the 2009 championship and five from their last playoff appearance in 2012 (six if you want to be technical and count Adam Warren's one appearance that year). Three of the holdovers - Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia - are guys Sox fans are probably glad are still around as barnacles on the Yankee payroll. Many up north loathe A-Rod, but that doesn't exactly make them unique. Maybe they've still got some pent-up anger at Jacoby Ellsbury for chasing the dough. But there's no more "Jeter's overrated" contention to fall back on. It has to be tough to muster up much abhorrence for transients like Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann or Chase Headley, just as you won't hear "Wade Miley sucks" chants at Yankee Stadium tonight.
The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry has always had its peaks and valleys. Boston went seventeen years without finishing higher than third from 1950 through 1966 and the Yankees didn't exactly hold up their end when Kevin Maas and Steve Balboni were bumbling around the field in the late eighties and early nineties. If we're in a lull now, we could be back at a high soon enough - later this year, maybe, if enough breaks well for both clubs. Baseball's better when the Yankees and Red Sox are battling for something other than third place.