While handled in each instance with taste and all the required respect and deference, Mariano Rivera’s 2013 stadium-to-stadium farewell tour had to it the air of a funeral procession. With every plaque or lump of mound dirt it became more and more obvious that something more than just a great career was coming to an end.
Nowhere was this palpable feeling of eulogy more apparent than at Boston’s Fenway Park on the evening of Sept. 15 - the night the playoff-bound Red Sox bid adieu to their longtime nemesis. With a tongue-in-cheek video roast, along with a somewhat odd string quartet rendition of “Enter Sandman,” the farewell tribute to the sport’s all-time saves leader was a gloomy reminder to every Yankees fan of one increasingly obvious fact: while the 20th Century unquestionably belonged to the New York Yankees, the 21st probably belongs to a team like the Boston Red Sox.
With their third World Series win in this still young new century - earned, appropriately enough, against one of baseball’s other titans, the St. Louis Cardinals - the Red Sox have established themselves as a model organization, and quite possibly the face of Major League Baseball for years to come.
This baseball revolution, like many revolutions, began with a small band of determined individuals. When historians look back to find the asthenic underpinnings of the Yankee Empire, the Lexington and Concord moment will, in all likelihood, be the 2004 ALCS. Arguably the greatest comeback in professional sports history, the Red Sox from that day forward became baseball’s embodiment of everything the Yankees could never be: the underdog. Indeed, no matter how big their payroll, or how numerous their all stars, the Red Sox have built a brand around being the habitual comeback kids - an identity premised on playing the league’s Good Guys.
Such a narrative of course requires a bad guy, and the Yankees have been more than happy to fill that role in recent years. Some of this was out of the team’s control: the late-'90s Yankees teams enjoyed much success, and with success comes envy and eventually resentment. Win it once and people will applaud you; win it four times in five years and eyes begin to roll. Practices that once upon a time symbolized a modest and dutiful deference to the gods of baseball history - nameless uniforms, clean shaves, tight haircuts - gradually became symbols of the overly-polished and corporate culture that came to embody the Bronx Bombers.
The same cannot be said of the Red Sox. With their scruffy beards and ‘Idiots’ ethos, the 2013 Sox - much like 2004’s motley bunch of upstarts - appear to approach the game with a passion and playful recklessness long forgotten by New York’s five-piece pinstripers. Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz - the one bit of continuity linking the 2004 team to this year’s champions - plays the game with a flair and, at times, anger that only makes him more endearing to the Fenway faithful. His story - originally signed as “David Arias” by the Seattle Mariners, and later dropped by the Minnesota Twins in order to clear salary cap space - fits perfectly with the Red Sox romance.
Occasional Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s early trajectory looked much different from Big Papi’s. Whereas Ortiz appeared destined for a career of modest success, A-Rod the wunderkind was always bound for greatness. It seemed laughably unfair when the Yankees acquired the Hall of Famer-in-waiting back in 2004. Fresh off his first MVP award, Rodriguez was at the top of the baseball world. Alex’s arrival would, as many believed, breath new life into the Yankees dynasty, and solidify him as one of the game’s all-time greats. A-Rod would join names like Mantle, Gehrig and Ruth, and his number would one day find its way out to Monument Park.
But something funny happened on the way to Cooperstown. While Rodriguez spent the week fending off claims of obstruction in MLB’s ongoing Biogenesis investigation, Ortiz (his own alleged PED use notwithstanding) was busy carrying his team to its third title in a decade. A-Rod will undoubtedly go down as one of baseball’s great players - asterisk or no asterisk - but his resume and accolades won’t win him the status of beloved legend that Ortiz has won in Boston. Both may have cheated, but one played for the Good Guys while the other - an admittedly unlikeable fellow to begin with - played for the bad guys. Baseball is now a game for bearded underdogs and angry upstarts.
Winning heals most wounds in pro sports, and the Yankees can turn their fortunes around in short fashion with a little more of it in the years to come. But the prospects, if you’ll forgive the pun, look dim. While the Red Sox continue to produce in-house success stories like Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Xander Bogaerts, the Yankees can only look at farm flops such as Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain and wonder where it all went wrong.
The problems likely go deeper than one cheater and an aging "core" - something is rotten in the Bronx. As Keith Olbermann recently noted, there are a number of reasons why fewer and fewer Americans are watching baseball, but a big reason is that baseball stopped being a national sport years ago. So while the Yankees were busy building an empire, baseball internalized, got smaller. While the Yankees tore down their rickety, charming - and historic - old stadium and replaced it with the sports equivalent of the Mall of America, the Red Sox opted to make modest, piecemeal improvements to baseball’s most revered ballpark, Fenway.
The MLB of the future will look a lot more like the NHL or even MLS, and some teams are prepared for that adjustment. The Yankees, like an aging and overextended empire, might need to scale back those imperial ambitions and settle instead for a now unfamiliar role: underdog.