Yanks-Sox rivalry always has potential to heat up

June 9th, 2023

The Red Sox and Yankees play for the first time this season at Yankee Stadium over the next three nights, and it feels a lot quieter this time than it has been in the past, and that means even the recent past. The Yankees come into the weekend in third place, 8 1/2 games behind the Rays in the American League East. The Red Sox are in last place, which is where they ended up last season.

But it’s still Red Sox vs. Yankees. It’s still The Rivalry, even when the sound gets turned down. And this is all still close enough to the Red Sox beating the Yankees at Fenway Park in a Wild Card game two years ago, and just five years away from a four-game division series, also won by the Red Sox when they won the last two games at Yankee Stadium, before they went on to win it all.

“Maybe it’s not what it used to be,” Kevin Youkilis said. “But come on: How could it be?”

Youkilis, now doing such a terrific job working with Dave O’Brien broadcasting Red Sox games for NESN, knows plenty about the rivalry. He began his career with the Red Sox in 2004, which was only the year they came back from being 3-0 down to win the ALCS, and then sweeping the Cardinals in the World Series to win their first Series since 1918.

And then Youkilis finished his career as a Yankee in 2013, a season when the Red Sox won their third Series since 2004, beating the Cardinals again.

“That was interesting,” Youkilis said with a laugh. “When I signed with the Yankees and met with the press I said, ‘Listen, I can’t change my past. I’m always going to be a Red Sox player.’ That went over well. Made some very nice headlines in New York the next day.”

Youkilis laughed again and he said, “Yeah. First day in the big city and I pretty much got crushed.”

A bad back was already in the process of ending a 10-year career for Youkilis, most of it with the Red Sox, playing both third base and first with style and ending up with a .281 lifetime batting average. He only played 28 games for the Yankees, none of that very memorable.

But the most memorable thing he did in a Yankee uniform, he says, was help working out a big prospect of theirs one day when the Yankees were in Oakland.

The kid was Aaron Judge.

“Even then,” Youkilis said, “you could see all that raw talent. I called a friend of mine afterward and said, ‘I just saw this kid who’s built like a tight end, and you can’t believe how hard he hits the ball.’”

So that was how it ended for Youkilis, on the other side of The Rivalry. But it began for him in ’04, the year after the Yankees had produced what seemed at the time would be the singular October moment they’d ever had against the Red Sox, all the way back to buying Babe Ruth from them. After the two teams had played 19 regular season games against each other, they played seven more in an ALCS that ended with Aaron Boone hitting a bottom-of-the-11th home run off Tim Wakefield.

Then the next year the two teams played 19 times again in the regular season. And even before they got around to the most famous comeback in baseball history in another seven-game ALCS, they had already given us a moment during the regular season, when Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez got into it one Saturday at Fenway, Varitek sticking his mitt in A-Rod’s face and touching off one of the most memorable Red Sox-Yankee brawls of them all.

I asked Youkilis where he was during the festivities.

“I just remember grabbing Kenny Lofton before [Jorge] Posada grabbed me,” Youk said. He paused and added, “Yeah, those were the days.”

Youkilis talked then about how things have to be different now, and not just because of the way the Red Sox have fallen down over the past couple of years. He started with the schedule, and how no teams will ever play each other as often as they did in the old days. And then he talked about another way he believes baseball has changed over the 20 years since he first hit the big leagues.

“I grew up in this game in the time when it was pretty unacceptable to be seen talking to the guys on the other team,” Youkilis said. “That was the old way. I never really agreed with all that us vs. them stuff, frankly. But that attitude ... that’s one more thing I’ve seen change, and not just with the Sox and the Yankees.”

Youk paused again. “And let’s face it, this is always going to be a rivalry, wherever either of us are in the standings. You can’t change the past on that, either.”

It does all seem a little quieter this time. Third place vs. last place in the East. No Judge, because of an injured toe. But the past can still become the present awfully quickly with the Red Sox and Yankees. Know why? Because it always has. Somebody makes a big swing. Or takes a big swing. Just like that, it’s on.