Lately, when we ponder the profound consequences when the Yankees play the Red Sox, we always seem to do so measured against the chill of October, since that’s when the most expensive chips sit on the table.
Of course, until 1999, the Yankees and Red Sox never played one postseason inning against each other. And since 2004, they haven’t played any, even though we keep waiting for the next chapter, even as everyone from Harlem to Hyannis Port expects there to be an epic addition to the rivalry this autumn.
But the very best of these games, and these teams, often announces itself at almost exactly this part of the calendar, as the midway point of a season beckons, as the teams start to stalk each other, as the sun sizzles and the humidity barks and the tensions run high and patience wears thin.
“This,” George Steinbrenner told me over the telephone almost 14 years ago, “is when I know it’s really summer. When we’re playing well. When the Red Sox are playing well. And when it’s put-up-or-shut-up time. That’s when it’s fun. That’s when it’s real. Just in time for my birthday!”
This was the great New York-Boston summer of 2004, and Steinbrenner was days away from his 74th birthday when Derek Jeter took his forever dive into the seats along the third-base line to chase down a Trot Nixon pop fly that ended the top of the 12th inning of a game the Yankees would win in the bottom of the 13th.
There were 55,265 people jammed into the Old Stadium that night, when every pitch felt like a warning shot and every hit carried the possibility of venom on the basepaths. That is the moment you can point to, the last time this rivalry truly crackled as it does now, as it will across these next three days at Yankee Stadium.
Yes, they would meet again that October, but those games contested at that time of the year are filled with fear and loathing and it’s hard to enjoy them when you have a dog in the hunt. There have been stolen pieces of heat and passion in the 13 seasons connecting that summer and this one. But this is the time that most approximates that time.
It was a few days after that catch that someone asked Jeter what would compel him to vault into harm’s way like that, and he took a second to answer, puzzled that it wasn’t as obvious as the bandage on his chin.
“You do know who we were playing, right?” he said.
The funny thing about baseball is that it somehow always seems to anticipate these moments. Every notable summer of the Yankees-Red Sox feud has included a key collision at just about this time of year, just as June is melting into July, just as the sport’s wheat begins to separate from the chaff.
It was on June 28, 1949, when Joe DiMaggio, hobbled all season by a bad heel, hopped out of bed in his room at the Hotel Edison, discovered the pain that had been there the night before was gone now, dressed quickly, called a cab, and went to Yankee Stadium to take batting practice in the deserted park.
He felt good, there were no such thing as “rehab assignments” in 1949, and so he took another cab to Idlewild Airport, hopped a shuttle to Boston, alerted Casey Stengel he was good to go, and proceeded to go 5-for-11 with four home runs and nine RBIs as the Yanks swept the Red Sox at Fenway Park in a season that would famously end with the Yankees winning Games 153 and 154 at home for the pennant.
Twenty-nine years later, the Sox took the first game of a two-game series with the Yankees on June 26, 1978, to go 30 games over .500 and 9 ½ games up on New York. A night later, Graig Nettles hit a walk-off homer in the 14th inning that would only loom huge three months later when both teams ended the season 99-63.
And then, of course, in both 2003 and 2004 the Sox came to The Bronx at the precise moment when this rivalry went fully into overdrive. On July 7 of ’03, Pedro Martinez plunked Jeter in the final game of a four-game split that was something of a harbinger for the hard feelings to come. A year later Jeter made his dive, John Flaherty delivered his signature moment as a Yankee, and Steinbrenner had an early birthday present.
This year? Well, both teams are playing at a 108-win pace and show no signs of slowing down at all (and while topping 100 may seem like old hat for the Yankees, the Sox haven’t done it since winning 104 in 1946). Both are averaging better than five runs per game, and both will be showing off legit aces (Luis Severino, Chris Sale) to boot. Maybe by October, the fear and loathing will overtake everything else.
For now, we have summer, we have Sox-Yanks, and we have the Stadium, filled to the brim and ready to behave like it’s the third encore of a U2 concert. As a wise philosopher named Mick Goldmill once asked Rocky Balboa: “WHAT’RE WE WAITIN’ FER?”
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