Rivals in Exile: Off-Season Review

Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are twenty-something baseball fanatics living in Rochester, 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 city, rooting on opposite ends of the most passionate rivalry in sports, we couldn’t resist putting them together.

Ben Jacobs: Well, this has certainly been an exciting off-season. We knew that things were going to be interesting in the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry this winter, but I don’t think anybody could have expected this. The Red Sox, having lost another heartbreaker to their archrivals, went out and acquired two of the best pitchers available and nearly traded for one of the two best position players in the game.

The Yankees, having failed to win a World Series title for the third straight year, reacted more dramatically than they ever had before. We had seen how George Steinbrenner reacts to not winning in the previous two off-seasons, but those now seem tame compared to what’s happened this year.

Four pitchers (Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, David Wells and Jeff Weaver) who combined to make 120 starts last year are now on different teams. One of the team’s best hitters (Nick Johnson, who made 92 starts between first base and designated hitter) is in Montreal. The team’s two-time All-Star second baseman is in Texas. Three third baseman (Robin Ventura, Todd Zeile and Aaron Boone) who combined to make 152 starts last year are unlikely to play for the Yankees this season. Four right fielders (Raul Mondesi, Karim Garcia, Juan Rivera and David Dellucci) who combined to make 153 starts last year are gone. Finally, only one pitcher who threw at least 20 innings out of the bullpen last year is returning.

This was a team that went to the World Series last year, but only eight players who made a significant contribution to that World Series run are returning. Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera and Jose Contreras are back. Everybody else is either new or didn’t play a big role last year.

Before I tell you what I think of New York’s moves this off-season, I want to know how you feel as a fan of the Yankees. Is this a team you can get behind? Are there too many new faces? Is there too much pressure because of all the stars? Do all of these moves embarrass you as a fan?

Larry Mahnken: I don’t know Ben, are you embarrassed that your team hasn’t won a title since World War I?

No fan should ever be embarrassed about the moves their team makes, especially when they’re moves that help the team win. If you’re embarrassed that your team is trying to win, maybe you should question how big a fan you really are.

What should the Yankees have done? Sit on their hands, not sign any free agents or make any trades that increased their payroll, and let the Red Sox catch and pass them? I’m thrilled that the Yankees are being bold this off-season, and ultimately, I don’t really give a damn what fans of other teams think.

That’s not to say I don’t think the Yankees have an unfair advantage, they do. But to me, it would be worse if they were just pocketing the money and not going all out. The rest of the teams are going to keep trying to take that money away from them, so they might as well exploit the hell out the system while they can.

This system needs to change, though. I’m in favor of a massive increase in revenue sharing, but one based on market size rather than revenues. The current system rewards failure. It encourages teams to not invest in their product, and it punishes the successful teams for running their businesses well. A market size-based revenue sharing plan gives all teams the same incentive to compete, and gives all teams the same punishment for failure.

I vehemently oppose a salary cap, though, which does little more than tell teams with high payrolls that they can’t try and get better. Well, that and limit labor costs, which is why the owners are such big fans of it in the first place.

But to answer your first question, yeah, this is a team I can definitely get behind. It’ll take a few weeks to get totally used to A-Rod and Sheffield in pinstripes, but by mid-May, it’ll feel weird seeing video of them playing in another uniform.

As for the rest of your questions, just asking them shows how nervous the Yankees’ moves make you. If something’s going to go wrong in the Bronx, it’s going to be injuries. The pressure isn’t going to get to them. Kevin Brown and Gary Sheffield were on the ’97 Marlins and know what it’s like to be on a team that’s expected to win it all before the season starts, Alex Rodriguez had three MVP-caliber seasons while under the pressure of living up to his massive contract, and Kenny Lofton has played in October almost every season for the past decade.

Joe Torre might be in his last season as manager, but he’s not a great leader because the players know he’ll still be around tomorrow, but rather because he treats his players like men, let’s them know exactly what’s expected of them, and does his best to divert Steinbrenner’s frustrations away from them. Indeed, Torre may be the best possible manager for this team. If the team stays healthy for the most part, or at least in the playoffs, they’ll be just fine.

But tell me, how do all these moves look from down there in second place?

BJ: If my favorite team had won 26 championships, it would make me pretty confident too. But I‘d still realize that the season hasn‘t started yet, so the Red Sox can‘t possibly be in second place. In fact, it might be the Yankees who have to settle for second place for awhile.

From the beginning of the season until May 21, the Red Sox play 43 games and the Yankees play 41 games. They have seven games against each other and they each have six games against Tampa Bay and three games against Kansas City.

In the rest of that time, Boston plays Toronto 10 times, Baltimore and Cleveland seven times each and Texas three times. Meanwhile, The Yankees play the White Sox seven times and have six games against each of Oakland, Seattle and Anaheim.

I doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to picture the Red Sox in first place at that point, and it requires even less imagination to think about just how pissed off Steinbrenner might be if Boston has a three or four-game lead approaching Memorial Day.

Obviously, injuries are the biggest concern for the Yankees, but I think it’s more than a little naïve to dismiss the pressure and expectations as insignificant. This is essentially an All-Star team, and it’s going to get awfully uncomfortable if they struggle to start the season, which is exactly what the schedule sets them up to potentially do.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend the Yankees don’t have a great team because they obviously do. However, the Red Sox also have a great team, and I’ll be very surprised if October arrives and both teams aren’t in the playoffs.

That said, if you made me pick one of the two teams as more likely to miss the post-season, I’d pick the Yankees. New York has the potential to be an amazing team and fly past 100 wins if everything goes right, but there are also more risks (both injury-related and pressure-related) on that team than on Boston’s team.

Most people, both writers and fans, were willing to concede that the Red Sox were about as good as, or even better than, the Yankees before the trade for Alex Rodriguez. As a Red Sox fan, the reason I’m happy about the Yankees trading for A-Rod is that it increased the expectation level for the team by a much larger amount than it increased the talent level of the team.

I’m happiest as a baseball fan when the Red Sox are doing well or when Yankees fans are miserable. It’s best when those two things coincide with each other, but that hasn’t happened much since I’ve been old enough to really care. This year, however, there’s a chance that it could.

This Red Sox team is better than any Red Sox team I’ve ever rooted for and the expectations for this Yankees team may be higher than ever before. To see the Yankees lose when many people seem to think they’re more likely to make the World Series than they are to miss it would be great. To see the Red Sox be the team that makes that happen would be beyond description.

Since I’m such a nice guy though, I’ll make a deal with you: if the Red Sox top the Yankees this season, I’ll buy you a beer to cry in.

LM: And I can drink it out of the Holy Grail, because they’re as likely to find that thing as the Sox are to win.

Seriously, though, of course the Red Sox have a chance. They’re a fine team, with a spectacular offense and great pitching. We’ve all seen over the past four seasons that any team can win once it gets into the post-season, and that having great pitchers at the top of the rotation only helps. Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe are great pitchers, but their teams are also 3-7 in the last 10 postseason games they started — and the Yankees have a top three that’s arguably just as good or better.

If I had to pick which one of these teams is most likely to miss the postseason, I’d first ask which teams’ charter plane is going to crash. The Yankees absolutely have more injury risks, but they have a mountain of talent. They won 101 games last season with a squad inferior to this one despite losing Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Nick Johnson and Mariano Rivera for more than a month each, Steve Karsay for the entire year, and with Jason Giambi suffering from knee, eye and hand problems all year. If everything goes right, they won’t just blow past 100 wins, they could blow past 110. Total disaster has to strike for them to miss out on the postseason.

The Red Sox could very well be in first place by a couple of games on Memorial Day — though I don’t think they’ll make up enough ground in those games against Toronto, Cleveland, Baltimore and Texas to make up for the seven they’ll lose to the Yankees — but they were in first place on Memorial Day last year. And in 2002. And 2001. In 2000 and 1999, too. Where you are at the end of May doesn’t do anything more than make you feel good at the end of May.

If the Red Sox are in first after 43 games, they’ll probably have the best record in baseball, with the Yankees only a couple of games behind. Sure, George would like it a lot better the other way around, but he’s not going to start firing people indiscriminately or criticizing his players in the media for something like that. Well, he probably wouldn’t. Besides, when the Yankees are in first at the All-Star break, nobody will care where they were a month and a half earlier.

The pressure of expectations is not going to affect the Yankees any more than the failed A-Rod trade is going to affect Manny Ramirez or Nomar Garciaparra. They’re not going to be throwing things at each other because they split a four-game series instead of winning three games, although I can’t say the same thing for myself.

These are two great teams, and they’re going to play between 19 and 26 great games against each other. The Red Sox aren’t going to finish on top, but hey, if it’ll make you feel better, maybe the Yankees will lose in the World Series.

I think there’s one thing we can both agree on, though: when the Yankees and Red Sox are both this good, all eyes in the American sports world are on them — and that’s a great thing for Baseball.

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