From the Windup is FanHouse's daily, extended look at a particular portion of America's pastime.
Before the season MLB FanHouse ran a series entitled "Old Boss/New Boss," in which possible new-school rivalries were discussed. Josh Alper covered a possible development in the AL East involving the Rays. See, we knew this year's group was feisty enough to make some noise on and off the field ... we just missed which large market team would step forward.
Well, we know now. The Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox have a burgeoning rivalry. Just check out a few elements that create a true rivalry.
- The "we don't like each other" factor. Well, they've had this for quite a while. Go back to the Gerald Williams-Pedro Martinez fight and a few other dust-ups from in recent history. With these two specific groups, you had a huge brawl in Beantown this year when Coco Crisp went after James Shields to conclude a series worth of incidents... only to smugly accuse the Rays of fighting "like girls" in post-game interviews. The fight was unlike most, because you had two teams really wanting to fight each other. Usually there are like three dudes brawling and everyone else standing around. Not this one, it was the dictionary definition of a brawl. These teams do not like each other one bit, and I love it.
- Familiarity. You can't really be considered rivals if you only see each other a few times each season and can't greatly impact each other's chances of finishing higher in the standings -- a fact seemingly lost on many Cubs, White Sox, Mets, and Yankees fans (you are not on-field rivals just because you reside in the same city, people). I mean, how lame would it sound if the Twins and Brewers had a rivalry? Well, the Rays and Red Sox see each other many times each season and obviously both reside in the same division. Check.
- Regional flavor helps. It doesn't necessarily have to be present, but it's cool when you have a situation like the growing Cubs-Brewers rivalry. The cities are barely an hour apart, so a bunch of the fans live close together. This leads to much more trash talk between fan bases and causes the buzz to grow. With the Rays/Red Sox they don't directly have this, but there do seem to be an inordinate amount of BoSox fans in the Tampa/St. Pete area. I love the potential moving forward for fan fights, message board feuds, etc.
- Competitiveness. This was the element missing for years. You can't have a true rivalry if one team is completely dominant over another. To use an NBA example, do you remember how many teams thought their rivals were Michael Jordan's Bulls? I can think of the Pacers, Knicks, and Pistons off the top of my head, and there were probably more. Here's the thing, though ... when you are that much better than everyone else you don't have a rival. In previous years, the Rays couldn't consider the Red Sox (or Yankees) their true rivals because they were 20+ games back in the standings. You can strive to beat them, sure, but when the opponent doesn't feel concerned with your existence, it's not a mutual rivalry. Well, it is now. The Rays won the AL East this year, not the Red Sox. The Rays won 10 of their 18 regular season games, and have now split two playoff games. Finally, the competitive portion of the rivalry checklist is complete, because the Red Sox must take the Rays seriously.
So we have a rivalry. A fresh one, too, which is exciting as a baseball fan. Sure, Yankees-Red Sox is storied and will never go away, but there's always room for more. I love the fact that this is springing up right before our eyes. What's even better, though, is that it's not going away.
In looking up and down the Rays roster, they are set up quite nicely for an extended run toward the top of the very competitive AL East. Yes, the Yankees are going to make changes and remain in the race, the Blue Jays finished very well and don't look to get much worse, the Orioles have to get better eventually, and the Red Sox aren't going away. But we have to realize that this year wasn't a mirage. The Rays are a good baseball team, and are built to last.
The oldest starting pitcher on the roster is Shields, and he's 26. David Price is going to be a stud in this league very soon, and Matt Garza is still improving -- which is scary. I was floored when I saw that Scott Kazmir is only 24. The oldest infielder is Carlos Pena, and he's only 30. The centerpiece, of course, is 23 year-old Evan Longoria who is already locked up for a dirt cheap price. In the outfield, Carl Crawford is still only 27 (again, I was floored), B.J. Upton is 24, and Rocco Baldelli is 27. The core of this team could very well play together for the next five years, and it's very possible they haven't even peaked yet. Just think about them growing together, with the front office being able to mix and match pieces of the roster in an effort to further strengthen the squad.
As for the Red Sox, they have Theo Epstein and Terry Francona. Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Josh Beckett should anchor the rotation for a while, and Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury firm up the positional nucleus. I'm quite certain this team is not going anywhere south in the pecking order of the American League, and they have the payroll capabilities to buy their way out of any personnel problems that could arise.
It is clear that all the pieces are in place for us to see a very strong rivalry for the foreseeable future.
For now, though, I'll just enjoy it in the present ... as we get ready to watch a very competitive seven-game series.