David Ortiz’s retirement last season marked the end of an era. Ortiz was last in the line of a generation of talented, competitive core players that fueled the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, one of the most intense rivalries in all of baseball.
If you have been following spring training, you may have noticed a few new additions to these rivalries; young stars dominating headlines and outfield fences alike.
You may have seen Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez — who made his major league debut last season — throw out two Blue Jays in the same inning Sunday. You may have seen an inning of the intense Yankees vs. Red Sox game Tuesday, where a split team of Yankees beat the Red Sox in an impressive show. Your jaw may have dropped after Yankees’ rookie first baseman Greg Bird — who made a brief rookie appearance in 2015 but has not been seen in the Major since — launch two homers in that very same game.
You may have noticed that the story of the rivalry’s revival is not the Yankees’ acquisition of designated hitter Matt Holliday, or even the Red Sox’s acquisition of electric starting pitcher Chris Sale.
The narrative finally belongs to the young guys. For the first time in a baseball generation, the biggest agents of the historic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry are the teams’ youngest players.
We met many of the players last season — Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi made an impressive showing at the end of 2016, participating in the Sox’s AL East division title and playoff run. Benintendi even earned a mention in the conversation of players — such as young stars right fielder Mookie Betts and shortstop Xander Bogaerts — to who will fill the void Ortiz left.
During a sunny Saturday afternoon game last August, we met the Yankees’ core “Baby Bombers:” right fielder Aaron Judge and first baseman Tyler Austin, who, in back-to-back debut at-bats, hit back-to-back debut home runs. Austin and Judge joined the Sanchez in the clubhouse the day after Alex Rodriguez made his controversial departure during a rainy retirement ceremony — a ceremony almost immediately forgotten with the record-setting arrival of the Yankees’ newest members.
The entrance of Judge and Austin almost seemed to be a metaphor for the rivalry’s continuation and consequent evolution, which we already have seen in spring training. While its history is undoubtedly a springboard for the expectations of competition between these two ball clubs, the rivalry’s image is changing in many ways.
First, players are taking cues from each other rather than from the recent departures of their veteran counterparts. MLB.com’s Ian Browne reported Tuesday on the mutually complimentary remarks of both Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi and Red Sox’s manager John Farrell: Girardi expressed great respect for the Red Sox’s successful cultivation of their young stars, and Farrell commented on how he did not want to “underestimate a group of young guys” like the Baby Bombers.
Rather than focusing on the teams’ respective old guards, the two managers seem excited to thrive on each other’s newer talents.
The rivalry is not completely devoid of veteran commentary, of course — Derek Jeter met with 20 Yankees prospects last Tuesday for dinner and Alex Rodriguez — now the Yankees’ newest spring training instructor — did the same two days later. And while this connection between recently retired veterans and exciting prospects illustrates a torch-passing quality for the 2017 season, it was in no way an attempt to pull the prospects in the same direction of the Yankees of the past.
The sheer impact of the young Yankees and Red Sox will drive the rivalry toward a new legacy: more athletic, powerful play and perhaps shorter games will accompany the deluge of new faces.
And as baseball evolves and players incorporate more brute athleticism into a quicker paced game, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry will also evolve, now more than ever. The rookies and young stars on both teams illustrate the ability of a rivalry to be inherited, yet changed.
Because sports rivalries best survive when both teams are not only highly competitive with each other but also both fighting for top league titles — especially with the addition of the second wild card — the Sox and Bombers competition is going to be explosive, especially considering the impressive spring training showing and depth of young talent on both sides.
These young stars have injected a new energy into the rivalry at a time when baseball needs it most.