Rivals in Exile: The Other Shoe

Larry Mahnken: For the most part, the Yankees were doing okay, despite having dropped most of their division lead in two weeks. They had won 5 of 7 on the road, and after a humiliation at the hands of the Indians on Tuesday, they came back and won the series with two great starts by El Duque and Jon Lieber. They got shut down by Rodrigo Lopez on Friday to let Boston creep within 2½, but just like Tuesday’s blowout, it was just one loss. The problem hasn’t been with the Yankees, it’s been that the Red Sox stubbornly refuse to lose a game. And even that was helping the Yankees, as Boston’s sweep of Anaheim more or less locked up a playoff spot, barring disaster.

And perhaps that disaster has happened. Frustrated by events in Friday’s game, Kevin Brown tried to take it out on a wall, and instead took it out on his hand, breaking it.

Well, at least he listened to Crash Davis and broke his non-pitching hand, so it’s possible that he’ll be back fairly soon (especially if he gets some fielding advice from Jim Abbott), but losing one of their top starters for any time is a terrible blow.

It’s not a deathblow by any means, they’ve gotten great work from Hernandez, and Mussina has looked good since he came back. How bad this hurts depends on how long Brown in out, how effective he is if or when he comes back, and if Javier Vazquez can turn his season around and show more of the good than the bad. If it’s Moose/Vazquez/Hernandez/Lieber in the postseason, the Yankees can survive with that, but it’s going to be really, really tough.

This is the kind of thing that’s happened to the Red Sox in the past, and now it’s happened to the Yankees. I guess you could say it’s about damn time.

Ben Jacobs: I don’t think I’ve ever felt more at ease as a Red Sox fan than I do right now. They just can’t do anything wrong.

You’re absolutely right that the Yankees haven’t been doing much wrong. They’ve only lost one game in each of their last three series, and it’s still entirely possible that streak will extend to a fourth series this weekend. However, they’ve still lost three more games off their lead.

A month ago, if you had told people that the AL East would be the closest division on baseball heading into Labor Day weekend and the Red Sox magic number to win the wild card would be smaller than the Yankees magic number to win the AL East, people would smiled, nodded and directed you to the nearest insane asylum.

But here we are. Boston’s won 10 games in a row, 16 of the last 17, 20 of the last 23 and 24 of the last 30. People talk about how the Nomar trade has helped the defense, which has in turn helped the pitching, and it’s true. Since Nomar left Boston, the Red Sox have allowed 123 runs in 31 games, or 3.97 runs per game.

What not everybody is noticing is that the offense has been better without Nomar as well. Since the beginning of August, the Red Sox have scored 194 runs in 31 games, or 6.26 runs per game. In the 102 games before August, the Red Sox scored 573 runs or 5.62 runs per game.

Now, some of that’s luck and some of that’s the schedule, but one thing’s for sure — the Red Sox are firing on all cylinders right now.

The Red Sox are in one of those rare stretches where you expect them to win every time you tune in for a game, and then they do. This is the same feeling I had every Sunday with the Patriots last year, and it’s exhilarating. You know it has to end sooner or later, so you just sit back and enjoy it while it’s happening.

At this point, I fully expect the Red Sox to win the AL East and will be disappointed if they don’t. They’re 2.5 games out, they’re playing out of their minds and they have six games left against the team they’re chasing.

I know it’s not as important as it was in 1978, but it would still be great if the Yankees blew a 10.5 game division lead to the Red Sox. It would end the six-year run of first-place finishes, it would give the Red Sox home field throughout the playoffs (most likely) and it would give the Red Sox the Twins instead of the A’s in the first round (most likely).

Yankees fans shouldn’t really care too much if the Red Sox win the division, because the World Series is all that really matters in New York. The Yankees are going to make the playoffs (as you said, the Red Sox are seeing to that), which means they’ll have a shot at the World Series whether they win the AL East or not.

But the Yankees and their fans clearly are worried in general, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

LM: Mmm, schadenfreude. Classy.

It looks like Brown’s out for the regular season, or most of it at least. Well, if he can come back for the postseason and be good, they’ll get by. Mike Mussina lost Saturday, but pitched great. Lieber pitched great Thursday, Hernandez pitched great Tuesday. It goes to show that pitching and defense are not more important than offense — they’re 2-2 in their last four, after getting good starts in all of them.

The loss of Brown denies the Yankees a potential stopper, but there’s two important points here: one is that he’s hardly been a stopper for the Yankees this season — the Yanks are 3-4 when they’ve scored fewer than four runs for him. Also, the Yankees are 7-2 in games where they’ve had to start someone in his place. This is a setback, but not a mortal blow.

And for goodness sake, they’re still in first place! I give all the credit in the world to Boston for what they’ve done in the past three weeks, but if you think they’re going to play .941 baseball for the next month, you’re insane. If the two teams play at the pace of their Pythagorean records the rest of the season, the Yankees will win the division by one game.

If you’ll recall, Boston had a stretch like this in April (a slightly weaker 11-2), pulling ahead of the Yankees by 4½ games, and with an easy stretch of games ahead. Nine days later they were tied with the Yankees. Things can turn around really fast, so I think the only thing either of us should count on for the last four weeks is that both of these teams are probably in the playoffs. But judging each team’s chances for the next four weeks on the last four weeks is a foolish as judging their chances by what happened Tuesday. Not that that’s stopping anybody, of course.

If the Yankees were playing the Red Sox this weekend, I’d be nervous, but since they’re not playing until the weekend after next, it’s likely that Boston will have cooled off and be beatable then. If the Yankees can get things clicking against the Devil Rays Orioles and Royals between now and then, then they might need only to avoid getting swept both times to hold onto the division.

Lately, Yankees fans have been acting a lot like Red Sox fans, which is pathetic, and Red Sox fans have been acting like Yankees fans, which is hypocritical, especially for a second place team that hasn’t won anything. I’ll tip my cap to the Red Sox if they pull it out this year, but don’t count your chickens. Not only haven’t they hatched, the eggs haven’t been laid yet.

BJ: Well, since you played the hypocrisy card… It may very well be hypocritical for Red Sox fans to act like Yankees fans now that the two teams are experiencing a role reversal for the moment at least. However, it’s much more hypocritical for Yankees fans to call down Red Sox fans, as you seemed to be doing in your first sentence, for schadenfreude.

I’ve never met a single Yankees fan in my life who doesn’t enjoy it when the Red Sox struggle. Not all Yankees fans take pains to make sure every Red Sox fan knows they’re enjoying it, but every Yankees fan I’ve met does enjoy it.

Are Red Sox fans supposed to be held to higher standards? We’re not allowed to take pleasure in the Yankees’ miseries, but Yankees fans can take pleasure in ours? Please, give me a break.

I’ve got nothing against Yankees fans in general, and I don’t really want any of you to be miserable. My best friend is a Yankees fan, and I frequently try to cheer him up and talk optimistically about the Yankees when they’re upsetting him. However, I do vehemently dislike the Yankees, and I enjoy it when they lose.

If that makes me a bad person, so be it. But then it also makes every Yankees fan I’ve ever met a bad person. There’s a reason this is the biggest rivalry in sports, as far as I’m concerned. To expect fans of either side to say, “Aw, that’s too bad for them. I know it helps my favorite team, but I hate to see that happen to such nice guys.” Well, that’s just not the way it is.

As for Brown, you’re right that it’s not a mortal blow. But he is an idiot, and he certainly didn’t help the team. When a team has a rotation that’s struggled as much as the Yankees’ rotation has struggled this season, it’s not a good thing to suddenly be without one of the starters people hoped could help turn things around.

If Brown misses three weeks, the Yankees will now have to use somebody like Esteban Loaiza or Tanyon Sturtze or Brad Halsey at least three times in his place. Could that switch cost them a game? It certainly could. Could that lost game make the difference in the AL East? You bet.

I know as well as you that the Red Sox aren’t going to play .941 baseball the rest of the season. Looking at their schedule, however, I see no reason they can’t play .643 ball the rest of the way. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, maybe I’m putting too much weight on what they did in August and maybe I’m not giving Seattle and Tampa Bay enough credit, but I think 18-10 is within reason for the Red Sox over their last 28 games.

If they do that, the Yankees will need to go 16-11 to win the AL East. Remember that the Yankees have to finish ahead of the Red Sox to win the division because the Red Sox will have the tiebreaker (if they don’t, it won’t be a close race anyway). Can the Yankees play .593 baseball the rest of the way? Maybe, but it’s far from a certainty.

All I know for certain is that I’m very excited about the rest of the season, and I very much want the Red Sox to enter the playoffs as AL East Champions. And I think they will.

LM: You’re not wrong from being happy the Yankees are having trouble — it’s for being happy that, in your own words, “their fans clearly are worried in general, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.” That’s taking joy not in the failure of an opponent, but in the pain it causes others. That’s indefensible.

I was happy that the Yankees beat Boston in the ALCS last year, I wasn’t happy that the Red Sox fans had to see their team collapse like that. I was sympathetic towards them. I was overjoyed that my team won, and necessarily happy that theirs had lost. I did not gloat, and when I saw that my happiness was causing them discomfort, I toned down my outward glee. Are all Yankees fans like that? Are most? Certainly not, but it doesn’t change the fact that taking joy in the specific misery of others — rather than the cause of that misery — is wrong. And you should be ashamed.

But the point you really miss is that you’re not being held to a higher standard, you’re being held to the same standard as everyone else, even if others don’t always live up to that standard. By saying that it’s okay for you to gloat in the misery of another team’s fans makes you ineligible to complain if any fan ever gloats in your misery.

But moving on, the Yankees finished off the weekend by squeaking one out against the Orioles. The weekend was a total failure, they should have won at least two of three and probably swept, but their lineup has gone right back to sleep, and they wasted good starting pitching. One definite positive of the past week was the return of Steve Karsay on Thursday, who gave up a homer with his first pitch, then struck out the next two and got the last batter to pop out. His fastball was in the low-90’s, his curve was breaking hard, and it really does look like, if he can throw one or two innings every other day, he’ll be an important part of the bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs.

A bigger negative than the loss of Brown was the recent news that Jason Giambi’s tumor is around his pituitary. This information makes it highly unlikely that he’ll return this season, and in the air as to whether he’ll ever return. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carlos Delgado in pinstripes next year, but that’s a discussion for November.

We go into the second week of September with the Yankees facing Tampa Bay for five games in four days, and the Red Sox headed to Oakland. Monday’s games may be the most crucial of the year; we know that Tuesday morning the lead won’t be 2½. If it’s 1 game, the Yankees are in serious trouble. If it’s 4, then they’ve got a lead that looked bad last week in comparison to 10½, but is still a very solid one. If it’s 3 or 2, then we’re really not in much different shape than were are today.

If the Yankees were any other team, or the Red Sox were any other team, I don’t think this division race would be all that interesting, since second place is pretty much guaranteed the Wild Card now. Because of the rivalry, it looks more important that it really is. If Boston and New York don’t meet in the playoffs, I’m inclined to believe that nobody will remember how this pennant race turns out. It’s not meaningless, but it’s not as important as the newspapers might make you believe.

I guess I’m saying this: a close pennant race is something to enjoy, but when the penalty for losing is a position in the playoffs that the last two World Champions started from, there’s not reason to worry. A lot of my fellow Yankee fans are worrying. They should stop, and let themselves enjoy the fact that these September games mean something for the first time in several years. It wouldn’t hurt if the owner, management and players took that point of view, either. If they had on Friday, they might not being suffering from a brownout.

BJ: As a journalist, I should know better than to complain about partial quotes and misunderstandings, but I’ll complain anyway. My full quote, if you don’t want to cherrypick the part that makes me sound most like a jerk, was that “the Yankees and their fans clearly are worried in general, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

What I meant by that is that it’s nice that everything’s not smooth sailing for the Yankees for once. After coasting into the playoffs so many seasons in a row, it’s nice that things are a little less certain in the Bronx this year. However, if there are any Yankees fans out there who are truly distraught about what’s going on with their team, that doesn’t make me the slightest bit happy. Quite honestly, it would make me angry to know of such a person.

To that hypothetical Yankees fan, I say that your team has made the playoffs nine straight years, won the division six straight years and been World Series champion four times in the last decade… and said team still will make the playoffs for a 10th straight year and could very well make it seven straight division titles and five World Series titles in nine years.

If you’re in pain because a trip to the playoffs and possibly the World Series hasn’t been gift-wrapped to your liking, I have no time for you. If somebody actually told me they were in pain because of what happened in August, I’d be flabbergasted. I’m absolutely not taking joy in the pain the Yankees are causing others because nobody in their right mind should be pained by this.

So, don’t tell me I should be ashamed, and certainly don’t compare this month to what happened to the Red Sox last year. Last October, the Red Sox were on the verge of reaching the playoffs for the first time since I was old enough to be aware of the Red Sox. Then, suddenly, their season was over.

That was pain. I just sat in my chair — at work, already two hours after my shift had ended because I didn’t want to miss anything driving home — for half an hour and stared at nothing. If anybody took pleasure in that, they would indeed have been sick.

If I find it a little funny that some Yankees fans are running about like chickens with their heads cut off because the Yankees aren’t sailing into the playoffs quite as smoothly as normal, well, I’m sorry but that is a little funny. Don’t think of it as finding joy in the pain of others; think of it as finding humor in the ridiculousness of others.

As for how history will remember this race, it’s certainly not the reverse of 1978 that many people are making it out to be. However, if the Red Sox win the division and reach the World Series, I think the Yankees blowing a 10½ game lead in 2004 will be mentioned frequently.

If the Yankees win the division or the Red Sox win the division but lose in the first round, I don’t think many people will talk about it. So, it’s not a classic race in that it’s not enough on its own to be truly memorable. It needs a certain outcome (Red Sox win) and some later occurrences (Red Sox reach World Series) to make it worth remembering.

I suppose there’s one other way history could find this race significant, but it’s certainly not one I’m rooting for. If the Red Sox win the division, but the Yankees pull themselves together, face and beat the Red Sox in the ALCS and then go on to win the World Series, that would probably do the trick.

If that happens, just make sure you don’t take any pleasure out of me sitting in my chair for an hour or two, staring at nothing and trying not to cry.

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