The Red Sox and Yankees will always despise each other, thank goodness. The hook is sunk far too deep now ever to come loose. Their fans will spend their winters rehashing the lore of a rivalry that, after the past three seasons, threatens to produce more books than all the wars of the Caesars. But, for those of us who don't wear pinstripes to bed or wake up in red socks, it's a bit of a relief to be rid of baseball's self-appointed Greece and Rome, at least for a while. Come back, but not too soon.
We've just seen the end of an era. The AL Championship Series between the White Sox and Angels is the first installment of a period in which the Red Sox and Yanks, for all their money, will blend back into the sport, not stand astride it, beating their chests and thumbing their noses at each other, while ignoring the other 28 teams as if they were beneath notice.
Though it will come as a great shock to the citizens of New York and Boston, in just a few weeks baseball will crown a new champion. And for the fourth time in five years, it won't be the Yankees or Red Sox. The Rivalry, at blast-furnace heat, was fabulous to watch. For three years, it overshadowed everything in the sport, even the last two World Series, which seemed anticlimactic to the ALCS. But in the last few days, all that changed.
Despite all their rich sluggers, their everyday lineups that look like all-star teams, both the Red Sox and Yanks are broken and will probably take years to fix. The Red Sox' flaw is their old or injured starting pitching. The Yanks' problem, far deeper, is the franchise's dysfunctional Culture of Blame. Pity Alex Rodriguez, who now symbolizes this whole witch's brew of self-defeating "Are You a Real Yankee?" foolishness.
A-Rod may be a bit plastic around the edges, but he hardly deserves what he's already heaping on himself after a 2-for-15, no RBI series against the Angels in which he played scared every minute. Joe Torre called him "anxious." Right. Whether the $252 million man was getting hit in the head by a chopper, lollygagging a throw to first or grounding into a double play in the final inning, he was so close to hyperventilating somebody should have given him a paper bag.
"I need to take a long look in the mirror. . . . I just didn't show up. . . . I played like a dog the last five days," said Rodriguez.
No, Alex. Like Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and so many others who've come to New York in recent years, you were lured by the extra millions and the chance at a couple of cheaply won World Series rings on an ersatz all-star team. All of you were greedy. Be suspicious when you see a job placement ad that reads: "Big bucks, glory and baseball immortality, no heavy lifting required." Yet, year after year, they can't "just say no" to this devil's bargain in the Bronx.
While both the Yanks and Red Sox will continue to spend and contend, their days of dominance have probably ended. No trend could be better if you value the health of the sport. This season, the Yanks and Red Sox were Nos. 1 and 2 in salary. The sum of their payrolls ($330 million) is roughly the same as the combined salaries of the four teams now left in the playoffs. As the Red Sox and Yanks exited the stage, they left in completely opposite fashion. Boston was at peace with its year. From players to fans to front office, they thought they got what they deserved: 95 wins, a playoff spot and a quick exit at the hands of a better team. By August, the whole Red Sox Nation knew that Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke would not be themselves again until '06 -- at best. So, everybody lowered his expectations, chilled out and practiced New England stoicism. After generations of self-flagellation and offseason discontent, the Red Sox and their fans finally went into a winter with a sense of peace.
In a disturbing contrast, the Yankees showed no such self-knowledge. They won the same 95 games as the Red Sox and exhibited the same decimated pitching. But because of a late-season hot streak built on the humble efforts of Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon (combined 17-3), they kidded themselves that they could win it all. Or, to be more honest, they mindlessly bought into George Steinbrenner's annual memo from Olympus that -- for $200 million -- anything less than a world title was a disgrace.
If that attitude doesn't define some basic form of mental illness, some fundamental distortion of the core of competitive athletics, then what does? No wonder sensible people, with normal feelings, like Rodriguez, Mussina and Johnson, perform in the Bronx as though they have just escaped from, but will soon return to, some bizarre torture chamber.
A few hyper-competitors can apparently thrive in this environment. But who knows what feeds Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera? And how on earth can you expect to find 25 of them?
After five years, it's now time to tell the truth. For a century, the Yankees had mystique. Now, they are just pathetique. In '01, they blew a lead in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. In '02, they sent out a rotation in the ALDS of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mussina and David Wells -- more than 900 career wins now; but the Angels raked the Yanks for 31 runs in a four-game rout. In '03, only a blunder by the Red Sox manager helped the Yanks reach the Series where they promptly took the wild-card Florida Marlins for granted and lost in six games, losing the finale at "The Stadium." Of course, '04 was merely the most embarrassing postseason defeat ever, blowing a three-games-to-none lead.
And now this. The Yanks lost to the Angels even though Jarrod Washburn was too sick to start Game 4, Bartolo Colon was too injured to go more than one inning in Game 5 and New York lost a winner-take-all game to a 22-year-old rookie. No, don't look for the Yankees, who may start losing key parts this winter, to regain their swagger after those five postseasons.
This glorious insanity between the Yankees and Red Sox has been tremendous fun. Blow the budget. Mortgage the future. We couldn't take our eyes off them -- until now. It's time to move on. But, what an understatement, thanks for the memories.