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Red Sox-Yankees peaked 17 years ago. Can a winner-take-all AL wild-card game jolt the rivalry?

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BOSTON – Kyle Schwarber was an 11-year-old slugger in Middletown, Ohio, when Alex Rodriguez turned toward Jason Varitek, uttered a few choice words and dared the Boston Red Sox catcher to brawl, Varitek only too happy to comply. He’s never forgotten it.

Gerrit Cole, perhaps already realizing his destiny as a burly, dominant, right-handed pitcher, watched raptly whenever Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez “duked it out,” as Cole put it, in perhaps the most compelling chapters of this rivalry.

Alex Cora? He was just 3 years old, and “walking around with a big yellow Wiffle bat,” in Puerto Rico, as he put it, when Bucky Dent popped a division-clinching home run over the Green Monster, the first and only one-game playoff in the history of the Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees rivalry.

That will change Tuesday night, when the Red Sox and Yankees, winners of 92 games this season, congregate at Fenway Park for the American League wild-card game, the winner advancing to play the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL Division Series starting Thursday.

And doesn’t that alone sound a little wrong?

These are the Red Sox and the Yankees, the franchises of Ruth and Gehrig and Pedro and Jeter, not a pair of middleweights clinging to the ropes, hoping to survive long enough to play an expansion team in the Sun Belt.

Oh, it should be a fantastic game Tuesday. Cole, the Yankees’ $324 million ace, will start opposite Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi, two burly right-handers who stretch the limits of radar guns and competitive integrity. Their power will only be exceeded by those wielding the bats, from Yankees musclemen Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton – the latter posting a historic three-game home run binge in a sweep at Fenway 10 days ago – to Rafael Devers, an MVP waiting to happen whose two-homer game Sunday carried Boston into the playoffs.

New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) throws to a Boston Red Sox batter during the first inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) throws to a Boston Red Sox batter during the first inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

Yet the significant flaws of both teams have been on display all season, the Yankees suffering a seven-game losing streak earlier this summer, Boston imperiling its playoff hopes with five losses in six games with one week left, a stretch marked by wretched baserunning and fielding gaffes.

“At the same time, with one swing, we can win. We are who we are,” Cora said Monday at Fenway Park. “We know we’re not perfect.”

Hardly a rousing endorsement for this Red Sox club to live up to its recent lineage. Sure, the teams are loaded with 21 All-Stars, former MVPs and Rookies of the Year and perhaps a future Hall of Famer or two.

Yet either club piecing together a playoff run feels unlikely. Given the pressurized environment of the one-game wild card format, there’s a better chance they produce an indelible moment that may inspire today’s preteen.

Fight for attention

The rivalry could use that, too. It’s easy to forget that just three years ago, the clubs met in a best-of-five AL Division Series. What’s more, they were terrific ballclubs – the Red Sox won 108 games, on their way to a World Series title; the Yankees won 100.

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The series itself, though, wasn’t particularly memorable. Boston prevailed, winning 3-1, with the biggest takeaway Cora’s deft and daring use of his starting pitchers out of the bullpen, as Rick Porcello and Chris Sale appeared in relief, a harbinger of David Price and Eovaldi doing the same in the World Series.

It’s possible this rivalry peaked with its absurd run in 2003-04, which began with current Yankees manager Aaron Boone homering in the 11th inning of Game 7 to win the ’03 pennant. Then came the most celebrated comeback in modern baseball history – Boston’s rally from a 3-0 ALCS deficit to prevail in seven games and ultimately claim its first World Series since 1908.

Tough act to follow, eh?

Throw in the fact Boston won again in ’07, and ’13, and ’18 and, well, what comes after kind of blends together. Cora played for the 2007 title team and was a Red Sox from 2005-2008. Yet, he struggled to recall any specifics from Yankee-Red Sox tilts from his time in the rivalry.

“It was more about the characters, right?” says Cora. “The players, the bigger-than-life personas – Manny (Ramirez) and David (Ortiz). Even David now, retired, he’s Big Papi. Jeter, Posada… The names at that point it was like, wow, these guys are unbelievable players.

“They used to fight, too, back in the day. Jason and Alex. So, I think that gave it a little more, for the fan base, for baseball.”

There’s precious little fighting these days, at least not since Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly drilled Tyler Austin and instigated a brawl in April 2018. Cole and Eovaldi spoke Monday about their mutual respect. A rumor that Cole froze out a gaggle of Red Sox players at July’s All-Star Game failed to gain tabloid traction.

Earlier Monday, Major League Baseball released its list of the 20 top-selling jerseys in 2021. Judge, at No. 7, was the only player from either team on the list (although Yankee first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who arrived from Chicago in July, ranked No. 12.

One Yankee, no Red Sox, yet four Dodgers, and two players each from the Padres, Braves and Cardinals?

Could this rivalry be irrelevant?

‘It matters here’

Not so fast. While that 2018 ALDS was over quickly, it delivered the goods that make networks salivate over these northeast behemoths – the decisive Game 4 provided a ratings boost of 63% from the previous year and was the highest-rated non-Game 5 division series telecast since 2011.

Thus, the chicken and the egg: Are the Yankees and Red Sox popular because they’re always on, or always on because they’re so popular?

“It always felt like when you flipped on ESPN on Sunday night,” Schwarber said, recalling his childhood, “it was Yankees-Red Sox.”

Tuesday night, they’ll have the national stage alone for the umpteenth time. Yet their first one-game shootout in 33 years will undoubtedly stoke the atmosphere at Fenway.

“Amazing,” Boone said, envisioning it already. “There’s a buzz here. It matters here. It’s fun to compete in games here, it’s tough to compete in games here. There will be tension, electricity, everything you want in a winner-take-all playoff game.”

And perhaps there will be another light-hitting infielder on one of these teams immortalized in baseball lore for putting the right swing on the ball at the most opportune time.

“Bucky Dent, right?” Cole said when asked of the game’s history.

Don’t buy his oblivious shtick. He knew.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Yankees-Red Sox peaked in 2004. Can AL wild-card game jolt rivalry?