IF YOU GROANED when you learned the subject of this story, I have a confession for you. So did I.
Trust me when I tell you I have even less interest in writing a stale story about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry than you have in reading one. That’s especially true this year, when the Opening Day orgasm of self-congratulation over Fenway’s centennial has been followed by the team’s basement dwelling in the standings and lineups cobbled together with enough unfamiliar names to make fans worry they’d accidentally driven to Pawtucket.
But after I stopped groaning, I realized that wasn’t the story my editors were looking for at all. Instead, they wanted the answer to a basic question about the rivalry between Boston and New York: Where did all this nonsense begin? I knew the roots of squabbling between these sibling cities stretched back a lot further than baseball. But as a history buff who has lived in Massachusetts my whole life, with the exception of a three-year sentence in New York, I was embarrassed to admit I couldn’t offer anything better than that.
That realization triggered more questions in my mind. If Boston was once the undisputed hub of the New World (though, let’s be serious, never the universe), when, exactly, did New York win? At what point did Gotham’s ascendancy create an unbridgeable gap?
Beneath this trivia from Boston’s past there are weighty questions lurking about our present and future. For as much as the rivalry seems hopelessly lopsided, I knew there had to be a few areas of actual parity between branch-town Boston and the metropolis 200 miles to our south. So I began hunting for the turf that both sides are fighting over today and aggressively angling for advantage with when it comes to tomorrow.
My journey for answers would take me down into the dusty bowels of library archives and into a gondola high above the East River. It would take me to Roosevelt Island and a decrepit hospital that offers priceless views of the United Nations and the Chrysler Building. It would take me into an MIT auditorium where a professor’s insider cracks about a computer platform — “I’d be remiss if I didn’t dump on Hadoop” — prompted big, knowing laughs from the crowd of laptop-tappers that contrasted with the bewildered look playing over my face. And, yes, my journey would take me, briefly, to Fenway Park, to nosebleed bleacher seats inhabited by a pair of New York characters so memorable you’ll simultaneously want to grab a beer with them and hope your paths never cross.
If the sibling metaphor for the two cities endures and if we’re being honest, New York has to inhabit the role of the strapping guy with an arm outstretched to hold his annoying little brother at bay by the neck, ignoring the pipsqueak’s squawking while scanning the room for more interesting people to hang out with. In what universe could a city of 8.2 million preoccupied souls be expected to fixate on Boston, an outpost of just 625,000, making it smaller than Charlotte, Columbus, and even hollowed-out Detroit?
That’s a hard reality for us to face in Boston, especially on weekends like this one, when the Sox face off against the Yankees and we assume that New Yorkers, like us, have been thinking about little besides the rivalry since our last encounter. The whole relationship reminds me of that years-long stretch when David Letterman devoted endless airtime to wondering why Oprah loathed him. Then one day, her proxy, Dr. Phil, came on the show and broke it to Letterman that she almost never mentioned him. “You wouldn’t worry so much what people think of you,” the clean-domed doctor drawled, “if you knew how seldom they did.”
Still, while New Yorkers are hardly obsessed with Bostonians, they do look over their shoulders more often than they would care to admit. That’s because every time Boston has been written off, left for dead as the petrified province of Puritans, this city has managed to claw its way back to challenge New York — not for overall hegemony, of course, but for dominance in one important realm or another.
Consider this current example. We Bostonians take pride in our identity as College Town, USA, the egghead capital of the nation, anchored by Harvard and MIT and fortified with a host of other competitive universities that would dominate their regions if they were located anywhere but here. On that score, New York has nothing on us, right? Actually, that’s wrong. When I ask Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reflect on this Boston-area advantage, the data-driven Medford native returns a hard volley through his aide: “New York has more college students than Boston has people.” Continued...