There was an unseasonable chill this past week blowing across New England down to New York. Spring was in the calendar but not in the air. Baseball weather this was not and the only thing colder than the temperature was the prognosis for the two teams shivering through opening day in Yankee Stadium. By the time the first game of the season between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees finished, the stands were virtually empty. Frankly, it seemed somewhat apropos. Over the past decade the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry had dominated baseball, much to the chagrin of fans in other parts of the country.
Because ESPN now dictates the narrative in US sports and because its studios in Connecticut are no more than a two-hour drive to either Boston or New York, it was natural for it to bleed every drop of hype out of these storied rivals. But this week not even ESPN could delude viewers into believing the Red Sox and Yankees were still an event. Of course anything can happen in baseball, but neither team are considered to be World Series contenders.
Last season the Red Sox lost 93 games while winning only 69. The stench was palpable, the turmoil surrounding the team glaringly obvious as first-year manager Bobby Valentine was fired. The Yankees were swept in four games in the American League Championship Series by the Detroit Tigers. This year, however, they are an ancient squad depleted by injury. There is nothing special about either team's roster aside from the price tag.
The Yankees will once again be the highest paid team with a payroll of US$229 million, while the Red Sox are the fourth highest at US$159 million. Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez will make more than the entire Houston Astros team, despite being on the disabled list for at least three more months because of hip surgery. Perhaps no one symbolises the heyday and the hubris of the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry like A-Rod. Signed to a 10-year contract extension in 2008 for US$275 million, Rodriguez was benched last year during the play-offs and is but a shell of the player he once was. In 2017 at the age of 42, he will be making US$27 million. Yes sir, baseball is officially back, with or without the Yankees and the Red Sox and now that the glare is finally off those two teams, fans are free to concentrate on fresher and more compelling stories. Arguably the best and oldest rivalry in baseball is actually three time zones removed from the east coast media machine. The San Francisco Giants have won two of the past three World Series and play in front of sold-out houses in one of the most beautiful stadiums in all of sports.
And yet for all their achievements, the Giants have been eclipsed this off-season by their rivals to the south, the Los Angeles Dodgers. By next season the Dodgers payroll, currently at US$216 million, will top even the Yankees. They are the new gold standard in baseball and have made it clear that money will be no object in chasing a championship.
These two teams have hated each other since the first competitive game they played in 1890 when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn and the Giants in New York. This year both are title contenders and while the Red Sox and Yankees opened the season on the east coast, the World Series champs opened their title defence in front of a hostile crowd at Dodger Stadium, winning two of three in a season that promises to add a few more chapters to a storied rivalry.
But all is not lost in the eastern time zone. On paper the two best teams in baseball are in Washington DC and Toronto, Ontario. The Nationals are young and loaded with high-end talent while an aggressive off-season has built the Blue Jays into a powerhouse. Still, the Blue Jays and Nationals hardly carry the built-in cachet of names like the Red Sox and Yankees.
But baseball had better get used to it. The Yankees and Red Sox are technically not allowed to rebuild, only reload. However, the new dynamic in baseball is seeing fewer premier players hitting the free agent market as teams are locking up their stars to huge long-term contracts. The pickings are thin for veteran shoppers. Old and expensive, the Yankees will find it harder and harder to buy their way back to relevancy. The unseasonable chill in New England and New York could be a ways from thawing.