Friday, December 26, 2008

The Best Rivalry in Major League Baseball

Every sport has its ultimate rivalry, although which one is the ultimate is usually a matter of intense debate. College football, college basketball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association all have their fair share. But Major League Baseball's versions have a distinct advantage because its teams play so many more games against each other every year.

As well all know, in sports, familiarity breeds contempt.

Over the course of a 162 game campaign, rivals become exceedingly familiar with each other. And exceedingly contemptuous.

So which MLB rivalry is the best?

It's a complicated question because there are so many from which to choose. Almost every club has a hated rival so the field is cluttered and each franchise's fanbase feels strongly that theirs is the most heated. Rather than investigate each one, I'm gonna dispense with the formalities and focus on the top two based on longevity, animosity, competitive balance, significance, and intangibles.

Based on those criteria, there are three that require inspection: the New York Yankees against the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers against the San Francisco Giants, and the St. Louis Cardinals against the Chicago Cubs.

However, one quickly falls away.

With all due respect, the Redbirds' annual war with the Cubs can't measure up with regard to animosity. Cubbie fans are famous for their good cheer and hospitality. Cardinal fans are only marginally less so renowned for the same traits. To be sure, the fans want to win at all costs and the heat of battle can bring out the worst in both fanbases. But, when the dust settles, both sides go back to well-mannered business as usual.

This rivalry is probably the healthiest intense version in the Show.

So it's right out.

The top two rivalries are so close, let's take a closer look one criterion at a time:


The Yankees and Sox have been going at it since April 26, 1901 when the Yankees were actually the Baltimore Orioles and Boston had no official nickname. In the 107 years that have elapsed to date, the squads have squared of 1,774 times. However, you could argue that the rivalry stretches all the way back to the days before the American Revolution when Bostonites stoked the fire of unrest while loyalists in New York clung to the crown. After the war, Boston lorded its clean streets and status as the cultural center of the New World over its neighbor to the South. But New York soon caught up and surpassed Boston to cement hostilities.

And they're still at it.

But the two combatants haven't been at it on the field as long as the version that moved to California.

The Bums and Giants first squared off on May 3, 1890. For those of us who are mathematically-challenged, that's a cool 118 years, which have seen 2,301 games and three centuries. The rivalry originally started with the Dodgers in Brooklyn and the American Association. The Giants where out of New York and the National League. The two teams squared off in the first iteration of the World Series before the Dodgers joined the Giants in the NL.

Oh, and the rivalry survived a transcontinental move plus the transition from a cross-town kinship to a cross-state one. A biiiiiig state at that.

Edge: Giants/Bums


The overall comparison of the rivalries is close, but this particular criterion is the definition of a toss-up.

Bitterness may very well be defined by the relationship between a Yankee die-hard and one from Boston. This one reached into the 2008 Republican primary when Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney exchanged barbs over the subject. Don Mattingly couldn't even put the animus aside while doing a public service announcement. The 2004 comeback in the American League Championship Series authored by Boston was such a catharsis because it came against the satanic Yankees that it turned Dave Roberts into an immortal baseball god.

When Johnny Damon slouched from Boston to New York as a free agent, some Red Sox fans threw REAL dollar bills at him upon his first return to Fenway.

Needles ran so far in the red during a beanball war that actual physical hostilities erupted between Pedro Martinez and a 137-year-old Don Zimmer, with Petey chucking the old man to the ground by his head.

But the entente is no less cordial on the San Francisco-Los Angeles side of things.

In 1940, an irate Dodger fan severely beat the umpire during the game for making what the fan perceived as a pro-Giant call. Then there was the time Juan Marichal beat Johnny Roseboro over the head with a bat after Marichal hit two Dodger hitters. In 1981, Reggie Smith of Los Angeles actually jumped into the stands to go after a fan who had been taunting him. The most disturbing incident came in 2003 when a SF fan was shot and killed by a Dodger fan (of course, conflicting gang affiliations was a significant factor).

Jackie Robinson retired rather than suit up for the Giants. Of course, the Giants were actually congratulated for retiring Jackie's number 42. Get that.

Willie Mays refused to wear Dodger blue, instead finding his way back home to New York.

Just this year, Maury Wills hugged an orange and black jersey for the first time when he met Emanuel Burriss (a Giants' youngster from the same 'hood).

And both teams' fans are almost as excited to play spoiler to the nemesis as they are to see the home nine succeed.

Edge: Dead even

Competitive Balance

This pretty much a romp.

Put simply, the Yankees own the Red Sox. Boston's recent successes are making up the ground, but there's a lot to make up. In the all-time series, New York leads 993-778. The Yanks are two for three against their rivals in the ALCS. They have 26 championships to Boston's seven; 39 AL pennants to Boston's 12; and 15 division titles to Boston's six.

On the other hand, for the last several years, the rivalry has become just as lopsided in the other direction. The Red Sox have claimed two world titles since 2004 and kept New York from the playoffs this year for the first time since 1995.

The Giant-Dodger rivalry is far more even.

San Francisco leads the all-time series 1152-1132-17 (your guess regarding the ties is as good as mine). The two sides have only met in the postseason for tie-breakers with the Giants winning both times. However, the Bums have six world titles and have won four since coming West while the Orange and Black have five Word Series wins, but none since moving to the City. LA has 21 National League pennants to SF's 20 and 10 division titles to SF's six.

The competitive balance is often evinced on the field as well as in the individual achievements of each club. The two teams have routinely done battle for the pennant late into the season, doing so in 1951, 1959, 1962, 1965, 1966, 1971, 1997, and 2004.

Edge: Giants/Bums


OK, I'm a reasonable man. I understand this is a romp in the other direction. The rest of the baseball world has been hanging on each pitch of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry since 2003 when Aaron Boone's ALCS winning home run off of Tim Wakefield breathed new life into the war. Partially because of the history and emotion, but also because the winner usually has the inside track on baseball's ultimate prize.

The rivals have produced some of baseball's most legendary figures - Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Carl Yastrzmski, and Lou Gherig - and some of its most memorable scenes - Bucky Dent's homerun, Carlton Fisk's dance down the line, Schilling's damned bloody sock, and Derek Jeter charging face-first into a row of seats while chasing a foul pop-up.

The Giants and Dodgers have produced their share of royalty and glorious moments, but they simply can't contend with New York and Boston. Especially given both teams recent fall from World Series relevance.

Edge: Yankees/Red Sox


How's that for a wishy-washy, cover-my-rear criteria? Sue me.

The New York and Boston get points for pure baseball intrigue. Most notable is the sale of Babe Ruth by Boston to their hated rival in New York. Curse or not, the Bambino powered the Yankees to a period of dominance from which Boston is just now recovering. A Curse that withstood years up on years and a 14-game division lead in 1978.

Furthermore, the evolution of the rivalry has marched in relative lock-step with that of our country.

It was born in the fire of rebellion, ebbed from Boston to New York just as the prestige of the two cities once did, and returned to prominence at a time when America's global profile (never exactly low) was ratcheted to a new level.

And, if the attempt to bury a David Ortiz jersey under the New Yankee Stadium is any indication, the intrigue will not be stopping any time soon.

However, the Giants and Dodgers are not without heavy intrigue in their own right.

The Brooklyn version integrated baseball by bringing Jackie Robinson aboard. Then there is the transcontinental move made by both teams, which was initiated by Dodger owner Walter O'Mally. He knew he had a much better chance of success if he convinced another team to move West with him. The natural rivalry became his strongest and ultimately successful selling point to Giants' owner Horace Stoneham.

The baseball hostilities from New York were planted in the fertile soil of an already heated one between the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, which represented an even greater set of tensions between Northern and Southern Cali.

It's granola versus glamour and it's a battle of attrition in which the baseball manifestation has blossomed.

The result has been an uncanny knack for crushing each sides' championship dreams. One set of nine has spoiled the other's season in 1980, 1982, 1991, 1993 (the Bums were responsible for the Giants winning 103 games yet losing the Last Great Pennant Race), 1997 (a particularly brutal moment that the Dodgers are just now recovering from), and 2001.

Edge: slight to Yankees/Red Sox


When you look at the total picture, it's almost too close to call. The Giants and Bums have got the Yanks and Sox licked when it comes to longevity, but it's a close one. The same can be said of the edge owned by New York and Boston with regard to intangibles. Competitive balance is a romp in favor of the West while significance is romp in favor of the East. Finally, animosity is a dead heat.

For me, it comes down to the drama on the field and the Giants and Dodgers have generated more of it. Both sides have erupted in physical altercations on numerous occasions, but it was often out of frustration when Boston instigated them for much of the rivalry's past.

The Giants and Dodgers intensity was forged in the battles of meaningful games where hate had to overwhelm common sense before fist flew. Yet fly they did. Along with a bat.

There's also a very good chance I've undersold the significance of the early wars between the Giants and Dodgers, making that a closer win for New York and Boston.

Plus, I hold the ESPN-driven hype against the East Coast clubs. Too many times reality has failed to live up to the hype and that hurts the rivalry in my eyes. That's not fair, but neither is life.

Of course, I'm a die-hard Giants fan.

What did you think I was gonna say?

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