Perhaps the only down side to yesterday’s Yankees-Rays spring training brawl was that Billy Crystal is scheduled to make his lame appearance in a Yankee uniform (the “Designated Hebrew?” Stop it, Billy, you’re killing us) one day too late. It might have been fun to see the 60-year-old actor out there with the rest of his Yankee “teammates” trying to push around a bunch of kids less than half his age.
The Red Sox winning the Mayor’s Cup aside, there has been nothing more encouraging for the prospects of the 2008 season than what we witnessed in St. Petersburg yesterday, when Yankee great Shelly Duncan plowed into second base, spikes up on Tampa’s Akinori Iwamura. Benches cleared. Words were spoken. All of a sudden, nobody can wait for the next installment of Yanks-Rays, a statement that I believe has never been uttered.
It’s easy to point to last weekend’s incident as the genesis for this budding rivalry, when Tampa’s Elliot Johnson broke future Hall of Fame catcher Francisco Cervelli’s wrist by barreling into him at home plate. In reality, there has been tension between the two clubs ever since the Rays’ inception. New York and Tampa have shared the Floridian area as their spring training homes since 1998, and with no Mayor’s Cup to civilly settle the always tense boast of which team owns Tampa-St. Pete, this was bound to happen sooner or later.
It’s always the Rays, isn’t it? I guess a decade of being just plain awful has to explode from time to time. First the Red Sox, now the Yankees. I can’t wait to see how Yankee Bob Watson differs in his punishments this time around. (Ten games for you, Jonny Gomes. Mr. Duncan, just don’t do it again, all right?)
Not that we like to promote the physical sort of bad blood in professional sports, but there is nothing better that could have happened to these Rays than to have the Yankees continue a simmering feud yesterday afternoon. As everyone dispersed and got back to playing ball, Tampa manager Joe Maddon was probably walking back to the dugout figuring out how long it would take to get his contract extension.
Heading into the 2008 season, the Rays are a chic pick for the team to be most improved. (Note, that doesn’t read competitive thanks to the tough schedule that the AL East provides, and the mere fact that these are still the former Devil Rays, who have finished higher than last place once in franchise history.) To predict them to be in a pennant race is sort of akin to saying the world will one day be run by living, breathing giant pretzels. People will look at you sort of funny.
But with the addition of Matt Garza and the maturation of Tampa’s young talent, they’re better, sure. And now they have fire as well. Thank you, Shelly Duncan.
We need this rivalry, don’t we? Oh, sure, Yankees-Red Sox, Greatest Rivalry in Sport, blah, blah, blah. But, c’mon, while it remains one in the hearts of the fans, it’s become more of a front office rivalry these days, used to sell “Red Sox Nation” memberships while the players kick it behind the batting cage and simply reminisce about the days when Jason Varitek shoved his mitt in Alex Rodriguez’s mug. There’s some animosity, for sure, as there is between any given players on any given team. Mostly, they’re just colleagues playing roles on teams that are supposed to hate each other.
The Rays and Yankees look and sound like they might hate each other.
“In Tampa, that play you saw was a good, hard baseball play,” Maddon said. “What you saw today was the definition of a dirty play. There’s no room for that in our game. It’s contemptible. It’s wrong. It’s borderline criminal. I can’t believe they did that.”
Duncan, whom Surviving Grady reminds us was the player who signed a 10-year-old Boston fan’s ball, “Red Sox Suck” last season, alluded to more trouble brewing when the New York Post asked him on Sunday if the team planned any retaliation for what happened to Cervelli.
"I don't know, that will be determined between third and home,'' he said.
Second had to suffice.
This will be the only first of 6,765 times that Yankee fans will wonder “Would this have happened under Joe Torre?” The answer is probably not, which is yet another reason why we couldn’t be happier with Joe Girardi taking his place. While Torre is basking in the laid-back SoCal atmosphere, not having to deal with the pressures of what it takes to manage and succeed in ravenous New York, his former bench coach will be baptized into the job with the highest payroll in the game and a firm expectation to win it all with a pitching staff that includes two young unproven studs, a solid ace, an ornery over-the-hill veteran, and a guy who’s apologized to everyone except the fella who owns the trans fat-free hot dog cart on 14th and 6th for using HGH. Anything less than a ring is a complete failure. Have fun.
Torre might have had some of these younger guys, like Joba Chamberlain (Kevin Youkilis says hello), and Duncan, whipped into line after an incident or two. With Girardi, clearly still angry over the incident this past weekend, it’s a wild card, and that can only promise more fireworks. When’s the last time you looked at a schedule and wondered if a Yankees-Rays game will be on ESPN? I’ve done if five times since I woke up.
They’ll meet 18 times this season, which means somewhere along the way we’re bound to see a Pedro Martinez-Gerald Williams-type incident. Blaine Neal will be played by Jason Giambi. The part of Trot Nixon will be assumed by Carlos Pena. Yankee Bob will do what he does best and provide preferential treatment, making the Rays all the angrier and feistier. This can only get better.
We’ve got a simmering feud on our hands, a budding rivalry that has nothing to do with marketing a product and everything to do with severe animosity. I just wish they were playing today and that Tampa could find a way to raise former Crystal co-star Jack Palance from the dead. I’d like to see the look on Crystal’s face when he sees that guy throwing at his head.