Rivals in Exile: Start Your Engines

Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are twenty-something baseball fanatics living in western New York. The similarities pretty much end there.

Ben was born in Springfield, Massachusetts; Larry’s from Long Island. Ben’s not particularly into politics or religion; Larry will talk endlessly about both — whether you’re interested or not. Ben is easy-going; Larry throws furniture.

But more than anything else, they are defined by the teams they love. Larry is a proud citizen of the Yankees’ Evil Empire, while Ben lives and dies with the Red Sox. With two great writers like this living in the same area, rooting on opposite ends of the most passionate rivalry in sports, we couldn’t resist putting them together.

Ben Jacobs: Well, Larry, it’s been a while since our last discussion this offseason. That’s primarily because the Red Sox and Yankees settled down after a very busy offseason for both teams. Now that all the dust — or at least most of it — has settled, it’s time for a new season to start.

And would you look at who the Red Sox and Yankees play first. As everybody already knows, they play each other. They have three games at Yankee Stadium to start the season, then four games apart and then three more at Fenway Park to open Boston’s home schedule.

Last year, the Red Sox and Yankees played seven games against each other in April, and the Red Sox won six of them. But we also learned last year — in both the regular season and the playoffs — that how you start doesn’t mean squat if you don’t finish it off.

Both of these teams obviously have a ridiculous amount of talent, and I know we’re in agreement in thinking that it’s extremely likely that both of them will make the playoffs.

What I like about this offseason is that, for the second offseason in a row, the moves the Yankees made increased expectations for the team more than it increased the actual talent level of the team.

Last year, when the Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez, some people thought they had given themselves a dominant team. Really, they weren’t any better talent-wise than the Red Sox. They won the division (but could easily have lost it), and lost the ALCS (but could easily have won it).

This year, the Yankees traded for Randy Johnson, among other things. The reaction has been, quite simply, absurd.

Looking around various places, the general odds I’ve seen on the Yankees winning the World Series is about 2.5-1, and I’ve even seen them listed at 6-5 in one place. The Red Sox, on the other hand, are listed around 6-1 on average.

Do you really think that given what both teams did this offseason, the Yankees are more than twice as likely to win the World Series as the Red Sox?

I certainly don’t, but I love that other people do. The Yankees may very well win the World Series this year, but the expectations that it will happen definitely exceed the likelihood that it’ll happen.

Larry Mahnken: I frankly don’t care what other peoples’ expectations are anymore. I’m sick and tired of turning on the television and the radio and hearing people called experts who yap on about how unbeatable the Yankees are and how unfair it is to everyone and so on.

Many of these people are the same ones who until last year talked about “The Curse” as if it was a real thing that the Red Sox would have to overcome, rather than an interesting side-story.

I’m absolutely positive that if things go right for the Yankees, then no, it won’t matter what the Red Sox do, the Yankees will run away with the AL East. But the chances that everything will go right for the Yankees is small. They have a lot of older players, a lot of injury-prone players, and several players who are coming off of performances that they had never previously approached. And they paid no attention to their depth in the offseason, making any injury an almost immediate disaster.

The Red Sox have pitchers who can step into the rotation and do a passable job if someone goes down, backups who can not only fill in when the regulars get hurt, but will likely be useful during the season even if everyone’s healthy, and bench players who can actually hit. The Yankees have none of those things, and they’re more likely to need them than the Red Sox.

It’s because of this that I really can’t pick the Yankees to win the AL East this season. They could, but I expect more than enough to go wrong for them to finish a couple of games behind Boston.

But then, who cares?

The Wild Card team has won the last three World Series, four of the last six pennants, and came within one win of the other two. I have little doubt that the Yankees will make the playoffs, and I don’t think there’s any team better built for the postseason, provided too much doesn’t go wrong. I don’t think there will be a better 1-2 pitching combo in October than Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina, and I expect them to hit as well as any team, expect maybe the Red Sox and Cardinals.

BJ: Who cares about the division title? I do.

The Red Sox had a magical season last year, and I certainly can’t complain about anything that happened. They won their first World Series title in 86 years, swept two postseason series and made the biggest comeback in playoff history in the other one.

But they didn’t win a division title, and they haven’t won one since 1995. Ten years is too long to go without winning the division, even if there are four playoff appearances and a World Series title in between (and yes, I realize there are fans whose teams have gone even longer, and without the other stuff either).

Winning your division doesn’t guarantee success in the playoffs at all, but it does guarantee that you’ll have something to look back at when the season’s over and say, “They won that.”

Winning the wild card just doesn’t have the same feeling. It’s more of a, “They didn’t win anything, but at least they were the best team that didn’t win anything.”

I’m not saying a World Series title isn’t as fulfilling if you get it via the wild card instead of a division title, I’m saying the division title is something to aim for because it’s a bigger accomplishment than the wild card. Then, you just hope that you’ve got the hottest team out of the eight left.

With all that said, I agree with you. I think the Red Sox will win the AL East. Of course, I thought that last year as well, and it didn’t quite happen (not, as I said, that I’m complaining).

As for which team is better built for the playoffs, well, you’re right there as well. The Yankees seem to be better constructed to win in the playoffs than the Red Sox are. But the playoffs are more than six months away, and a lot of things are going to change between now and then.

The exciting thing will be finding out what changes, and how each team responds to it. In addition to Boston’s superior depth that you mentioned, I would also say that Boston has a better ability to respond to a true crisis this season.

Boston’s farm system isn’t great, but it’s definitely better than New York’s. Also, the Red Sox have players at the major league level who are talented enough and cheap enough that they could be included in a deal as well. The Yankees don’t have many good prospects to trade, and they don’t have any good players who are reasonably priced that they could part with from the major league roster.

And if the Yankees do make it to October with a healthy Johnson and Mussina and most of the rest of the team, well, they’ll definitely be favored to win it all. But even then, I don’t think they’d be prohibitive favorites over the Red Sox (assuming Boston stayed mostly healthy as well).

No, if these teams meet in the ALCS again, no matter what, the real long shot wouldn’t be either team’s chances at making the World Series. The real long shot would be them providing more drama than they have the last two times. I’d sure love to see them get the chance to try though.

LM: Well, of course I’d like the Yankees to win the division, but I take no comfort in their AL East title from last season, 2003, 2002, or 2001. Their seasons were failures, because the standard is higher for the Yankees. As long as they’re pouring this much money into the roster, that’s gonna be how it is. Which sucks.

I guess you could say I’m jaded, I don’t think I feel entitled, though. I think the reason is that for the Yankees, unlike… pretty much every other team in baseball, they don’t have to have things go right to make the playoffs. Every single player on the team could have a bad year by their established standards (not horrible, mind you), and the team will almost certainly win over 90 games, and probably make the playoffs. What went right for the Yankees last season? All of their starting pitchers disappointed, some of them terribly, the bullpen fell apart, and the only hitters who exceeded expectations were Hideki Matsui and Miguel Cairo. Gary Sheffield pretty much met expectations, but everyone else had a generally down season. And if it hadn’t been for a psycho hot streak by Boston in August and early September, they would have won the division in a walk.

I don’t want the team to have bad players, and I’m not complaining that they have great players, either. But in 1993, they contended because almost everything went right, as it did in 1994, and 1996, and 1998. There was almost no frustration, because they were exceeding expectations the whole time. Now the expectations are so high, that it’s nearly impossible to exceed them. It’s more fun to root for things to go right than to root for them not to go wrong.

I’ll enjoy this season. I’ll be frustrated at times, exhilarated at times, but in the end my enduring memory of 2005 will be whether they win the World Series or not, because if things don’t go badly, that’s what they should do.

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