Every year, the mainstream sports media and, since a lot of us have to watch ESPN to get the highlights, the rest of us are subjected to a select few rivalries in baseball which are acknowledged to be among the best in sports. Red Sox-Yankees is the one that sticks out like a sore thumb, thanks to both teams' results and (these are not mutually exclusive) large payrolls. Both teams get a ton of ESPN coverage as a result of where they play, and thus this is definitely the most famous rivalry in baseball. Cubs-Cardinals also comes to mind as another big baseball rivalry and, though it does not get the publicity of Yanks-Sox, it does get a lot of recognition in both cities. Again, it's a match-up of two large-market teams, and while it's not as overblown as the first rivalry mentioned here, do you, by any chance, see a pattern emerging in regard to the market status of the teams involved in the "big" rivalries? The word in quotes is a clue.
And yet, you can also see the appeal of lauding the Cubs or the Red Sox or the Yankees or the Cardinals, because why not appeal to the big markets when you're vying for ratings or national recognition? Is that a fair way to do things? No, of course it isn't. All thirty mlb teams deserve attention more proportionate to the numbers of teams in baseball, rather than proportionate to the market. In my experience, every team has its loyal fans. Every single team, not just the St. Louis Cardinals or the New York Mets or the Boston Red Sox.
Yesterdya afternoon's 7-1 Royals victory was a microcosm of why baseball is such a great game; a small-market team, fresh off signing a guy "for too much money and too many years" because he's all they could get for a number one starter, defeats the large-market team and their usual murderers' row of a line-up. On one warm afternoon at "The K," Gil Meche slew the Dragon that is the Boston Red Sox, limiting them to one run over seven innings. The well-paid Red Sox were generally quiet over the duration of the game, whereas the mostly young line-up of the Royals knocked Curt Schilling out of the box after four innings. Games like these highlight why you can never take anything for granted in this great sport, and that, above all, is what is so cool about baseball. To paraphrase Earl Weaver, you can't run down the clock in our nation's national pastime. You've got to give the other team its shot.
All of this is wonderful, and the sight of 40k+ fans at Kauffman Stadium, shouting their heads off, was a great sight. As it should be, the Red Sox were awarded ZERO points for just showing up and being a large market team. As a Red Sox fan, I'd sure like this victory to stay a friggin' microcosm. However, what I don't think any of the big-market lovin', small-market shovin', stupid two-timin' morons at ESPN has noticed is that the Royals-Red Sox has become an interesting rivalry. Since the beginning of the 2006 season, the Royals have been 6-4 against the Red Sox. Rivalry? Sounds like it to me! What baseball needs right now is more inter-market size rivalries, so let's take a look at the budding one that is Kansas City-Boston. The rivalry born in earnest last year, that was rekindled yesterday afternoon.
On July 17th, 2006, the Boston Red Sox were riding high at 54-36, a half-game up on the damn Yankees. The patrons of Fenway Park chuckled, seeing the hapless Royals, at 32-59 and last place by a billion games, were on the schedule for three games at Fenway. Boston sent fan favorite Tim Wakefield to the mound against Luke "Wait, Tim Has A Brother?" Hudson. It already in the big before it started.
Or was it? Wakefield didn't have it that day, giving up three second inning runs on a bases-loaded walk to John Buck and a two-run single by David DeJesus. That made it 3-0, and Luke Hudson was determined to make those runs stand up. Through five innings, Hudson was still shutting out the Red Sox, and the fans at the Fens were buzzing. Manny Delcarmen, the local boy, was pitching for the Sox by the time the sixth inning rolled around, and he allowed a run on a single by Mark Teahen, a HBP, a sac bunt by Buck (why???), and an RBI ground-out by DeJesus before he escaped the sixth. 4-0, and with Hudson cruising, it was looking good for the Royals.
It turned out that they needed to have got more out of the sixth. Hudson did indeed set the side down in order in the bottom of the sixth. However, when he was sent back out for the seventh, still with a four-run lead, he was greeted by a single by Manny Ramirez. After getting Trot Nixon on a fly-out, Mike Lowell singled to left, sending a hustling Manny all the way to second. Manny continued to show the wheels, scoring a single by Covelli Crisp, and it was 4-1. Hudson departed the game with runners on first and third and one out, with Doug Mirabelli striding to the plate.
The Sox fan lore aside, Mirabelli hit all of .193/.261/.342 with the Sox last year. As he stepped in on the right side of the plate, no one expected much out of him other than another swing-from-the-heels out. To the surprise of everything in the park, probably including Mirabelli, the Red Sox back-up catcher launched a towering fly ball over the left-center part of the Green Monster to tie the game at 4-4. The rest is, of course, history. Ramirez hit a sac fly in the eighth, and Papelbon shut down the Royals in the ninth for a 5-4 Red Sox victory that was as painful for KC as it was joyful for the home town team.
Two days later, the Red Sox complete a sweep of the Royals with two excruciatingly close games that included new Sox phehom Jon Lester shutting down the Royals for eight innings and making Brandon Duckworth six good innings for naught, and then Kram Namder, Gun For Hire was narrowly out-dueled by the idiotic Josh Beckett in the final game of the series. Three staight games, and the Red Sox were still in first, now by 1.5 games. The weary Royals, having dropped three straight one run games and wasting three quality starts, wallowed 30 games under .500 at 32-62.
Red Sox fans, who had seen their team go a healthy 4-2 the year before against the hated Royals, probably were left saying things like "what rivalry?" Little did they know, the underdogs from down under...Boston...yeah...Kansas City is...south...so like, down under, get it? Never mind. Try too hard.
Anyways, the Royals had just begun to fight. The Red Sox would show up at Kauffman Stadium less than a month later, now two games back of the surging Yankees and needing a couple key wins as the Yankees were in Chicago, with a couple tough games against the defending champs on their plate. Again, Luke Hudson took the mound in game one. Again, he gave in three runs on eight hits in 6something innings. Again the Royals took the lead early and lost it.
Leading 2-0 going into the fourth thanks to a sac fly by DeJesus and an RBI knock by The Devil In Reebok, Kansas City saw their advantage disappear thanks to a Kevin Youkilis RBI double and a monster two-run home run by Wily Mo Pena. 3-2 Sox, and an awful feeling of Deja Vu began to sink in for Kansas City. Jon Lester was on the mound, and the Sox prospect had continued to impress at the major league level.
However, Lester had walked far too many hitters thus far in the major league leagues, and his luck ran out in the fifth when Royals RBI leader Emil Brown hit a two-out, bases-loaded single to put the Royals back on top 4-3. Craig "Mmmm Bop" Hansen was brought in for the sixth, but he couldn't stop the bleeding; a second Royals sac fly, this time by Gruzielanek, made it 5-3.
David Ortiz hit one of his 54 home runs in the top of the seventh off reliever Jimmy Gobble who had started the sixth, and it was 5-4. With the crapshoot that was the Royals' pen, it looked like Big Papi and the Sox had a fighting chance. Emil Brown, determined to play Kryptonite to Ortiz's Superman, homered in the bottom of the seventh to return the Royals advantage to two runs at 6-4.
In the top of the ninth, another rivalry-defining moment occured when Ambiorix Burgos was called on to slam the door against the hated Red Sox. He immediately got off on the wrong foot, waling Coco Crisp, who then stole second. A paragon of maturity, however, Burgos recovered to induce a ground-out from Alex Cora. He then walked David Ortiz to avoid Papi's clutchiness.
Narrowing his eyes and bearing down, Burgos struck out Manny Ramirez looking on what MUST HAVE BEEN AN AWESOME PITCH, EH MANNY? sorry...sorry...anyways, that left it up to Kevin Youkilis. Without the intangible of "winner," Youk was predetermined to ground out to third. Which he did. The Royals had won. "Okay," said the Red Sox half of the rivalry "they had to get one sometime."
That stoicism would be tested the following night. After failing to take advantage of the Yankees' 6-5 loss the other Sox the previous day, Boston held a 4-3 lead coming into the ninth, needing a win to keep pace with the victorious Bombers. Jon Papelbon, whose ERA never went above 1.00 the entire season, was summoned to slam the door on the Royals. The invincible stopped was sent out to the mound, and "Red Sox Nation" breathed easily. They were now predetermined to win.
The wind of fate, however, shifted that night at the K. Esteban German, fresh off threatening Angel Berroa's life in order to get into the line-up, drove a Papelbon offering to the wall. By the time the Red Sox got it in, German had hustled into third. Papelbon bore down, or whatever it is you need to do to strike out Joey Flippin' Gathright. One down, and that brought David DeJesus to the plate. If Papelbon could get by him, then it would take a hit to bring in the run.
Little did the King of Pap know that that tricky bastard Allard Baird had snuck something into DeJesus's contract that read "everytime David doesn't get an RBI against the Sox, Runelvys Hernandez gets to kick him in the balls." Yes, Baird had become a bit loopy towards the end of his Royals tenure. Yes, it was still pretty damn good motivation for DeJesus. The Royals outfielder hit a flyball to left, and German scampered home on the sacrifice fly. 4-4, and the impossible had happened: Papelbon had blown the save.
With two down, Grudzielanek followed with a double, and Mike Sweeney singled in the winning run. A 5-4 Royals win, and the symbolic end to the Red Sox year. The following day, the incorrible Royals rallied from a 4-2 deficit in the eighth, putting up a three-spot on the exhausted Curt Schilling. Another 5-4 Royals win, and the rivalry had bloomed.
I could go on forever, as the bottom line is that the Red Sox and the Royals played some pretty effing good games last year. When the Royals came into Fenway in September, Blue took two (a wild 10-9 victory where the Red Sox came back from an 8-3 deficit to lead 9-8 going into the last inning, a 10-4 victory in twelve innings) of three (The Red Sox finally broke the Royals streak when Kram Namder was roughed up by David Ortiz and co.) to finish 5-4 on the season against a team that finished 10 games above .500. Call me old-fashioned, but one of the staples of any good rivalry is one team's ability to play well against their rivals, even when the rest of their season goes badly.
So quite frankly, I don't know why anyone would do anything but exault the fact that these two teams started up the season by facing each other. Because we know, no matter what happens this year, the Royals-Red Sox games will have their share of chills, thrills, and heroic performances. Another year or two of promoting this rivalry, and I fully expect some sappy Tim Kurjikian voice over piece about it.
Key Royal Players In "The Rivalry":
Emil Brown as Kryptonite
Luke Hudson as The Guy Who Always Has A Pretty Good Start To Set Up Late-Game Heroics
Mike Sweeney as The Aging Vet With The Game Winning Hit
Esteban German as The White Utility Scrub. Wait, what? Oops.
David DeJesus as the Red Sox Killer
Key Red Sox Players in "The Rivalry":
David Ortiz as The Big-Market Team's Clutch Hitter
Manny Ramirez as The Great Player Who Keeps Striking Out Against The Rivals For God Knows What Reason
Curt Schilling as The Tragic Hero
The King of Pap as The Invincible Closer
Doug Mirabelli as The Guy Who Sucks But Had A Big Hit Once In The Rivalry. Attaboy, Dougie!
Hope you enjoyed today's ESPN rivalry pi-um, I mean, today's article. Comments are, as always, welcomed/encouraged.
EDIT: John Buck! Break-out candidate! Who called that one?!