The Red Sox, who have been better lately, come into Yankee Stadium this week to play the Yankees, who have been better than most people expected them to be all season long. The Yankees are No. 1 in the American League East. The Red Sox are No. 2. It might not be that way at the end of the regular season, even if I believe the AL East is going to send three teams to the playoffs. But it is that way now. Even in the first week of June, this series feels like something. It is a good baseball thing, especially if it is the beginning of a Yankees-Red Sox summer.
The rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox will always matter in baseball. Are you kidding? There is too much history for it not to matter, even if the modern version of that rivalry might already have been as big and hot as it could ever be. That was all the way back in 2003 and '04, when they played a total of 38 regular-season games and two seven-game AL Championship Series that will always be remembered.
One ended with Aaron Boone's bottom-of-the-11th home run at the old Yankee Stadium, on the night when Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in Game 7 too long. The Yankees came back to tie that game, on a night when the great Mariano Rivera pitched three innings for the Yankees and said later he was willing to pitch another inning, at least if Boone didn't finally go deep against Tim Wakefield with one of the most famous home runs the old Stadium had ever seen.
Somehow, all that became a loud overture to what happened the next October, when the Yankees had the Red Sox three games to none and were three outs away, at Fenway Park, from sweeping the series. Then Bill Mueller singled home Dave Roberts in the bottom of the ninth, and David Ortiz hit a home run later -- much later -- and the Red Sox were on their way to writing the greatest baseball story ever told; on their way to becoming the first baseball team to come from 0-3 down to win a postseason series, on their way to winning their first World Series since 1918.
The Sox were the Cubs then, before the Cubs. And on their way to winning two more World Series over the next nine years while the Yankees, which former Red Sox boss Larry Lucchino famously called the Evil Empire, won just one. The rivalry was still the rivalry. But the balance of power had shifted.
That was then. This is now. The Red Sox had already gotten younger before this season. The Yankees are getting younger and more exciting in front of our eyes. The Red Sox have the Killer B's: Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. The Yankees have Aaron Judge, who has been as much of a star as anybody across the first two months of the season and change, and Gary Sanchez, and more talented kids on the way.
And what everybody, both teams, might do across this season, and the next one, and maybe more after that, is not only reimagine Yankees vs. Red Sox, but, well … make the rivalry great again!
Oh, Yankees vs. Red Sox has had its moments in the years since '03 and '04. Last season, the Red Sox gave the Yankees a beatdown in September that essentially finished the Yankees' chances of even getting an AL Wild Card spot. A four-game sweep began with a five-run rally in the bottom of the 9th on a Thursday night at Fenway that ended with Hanley Ramirez hitting a 99-mph fastball from Dellin Betances nearly out of this world.
But even with the Yankees hanging around the playoff race, the sides never really looked even between the two teams last year. Now they do. Maybe for a while. It matters a lot. There are other rivalries. This one remains the home office.
The Yankees and Red Sox have arrived at this moment, this season, using different GPS routes, at least for now. Brian Cashman, the Yankees' general manager, transformed his farm system at the Trade Deadline last season when he traded away two of the game's best relief pitchers: Aroldis Chapman (whom Cashman re-signed as a free agent when the season was over) and Andrew Miller, both of whom ended up as leading men for their teams -- Cubs, Indians -- in one of the most memorable World Series ever played.
Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox's president of baseball operations, was willing to trade away two wonderful prospects out of Boston's already deep farm system (Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech) to get Chris Sale to come to Fenway and be the ace of a starting staff that already included 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello and David Price, who has just resumed pitching again after arm problems in Spring Training that scared Red Sox Nation half to death.
Dombrowski's team was supposed to be loaded this year, without question. Cashman compared them to the Golden State Warriors. Then the Red Sox scuffled through a lot of the first third of the season before finally looking like a complete team after a West Coast trip that saw them lose three of four to the A's, starting a conversation about John Farrell's job status. Of course, the Yankees have hit like crazy, had better starting pitching than they were supposed to have, and -- for now -- have survived an injury to Chapman.
Cashman has the same answer now that he did in April and May. When you talk to him about all the good things that have happened to his baseball team, starting with Judge being a great, big action hero at Yankee Stadium, he smiles and says, "It's early."
Then he says, "As much as I like talking about what our guys are doing at the big-league level, I'm just as excited about our guys at Double- and Triple-A."
Cashman has been able to rebuild and replenish and reboot without ever doing what the Red Sox did twice: finish dead last in the East. It is actually odd how the narrative has shifted in New York and Boston: It is the Red Sox who have occasionally gone all Evil Empire. It is Dombrowski who threw huge free-agent money at Price last year, the kind of money the Yankees threw around for years. It is Dombrowksi who made a win-now trade for Sale, even if he hardly mortgaged his team's future to do it, since Sale is just 28, and working on an extremely club-friendly contract. Even before Dombrowski took the Red Sox job, his predecessor, Ben Cherington, threw an insane amount of money at Pablo Sandoval, who has hardly turned into Papi Ortiz 2.0.
Cashman is right. Still early, even more than two months into the season. Too early to make lasting judgments. Too early for this to be a Big Series between his team and the Red Sox over three nights at Yankee Stadium. It is still the first-place Yankees against the second-place Red Sox. If the rivalry, for now, isn't what it used to be, it is at least beginning to stir again. Neither team has ever wanted to talk about rebuilding, not really, not with the fan bases they have. What we are seeing, though, is a grand baseball rivalry being rebuilt, in front of our eyes. Not just a good baseball thing. A great thing.