Truly Great Rivalries Are About Championships

The great rivalries in sports work their magic by consolidating the complex set of illusions on which being a fan depends, adding up to the religious conviction that the outcome of the game matter

Oct 13, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

The great rivalries in sports work their magic by consolidating the complex set of illusions on which being a fan depends, adding up to the religious conviction that the outcome of the game matters, then throwing in one more element. Some will call that element "hatred" or its like, while others will chalk it up to backyard bragging rights or the sportswriter's tick about flying blind with destiny narration.

But when we look at the two big rivalries in sports at the moment, understanding that each has lived a deep, extremely rich history, we realize they're only a little bit about geography and a little bit about history. They're practically all about winning the championship.

If championships weren't on the table, the scalding baseball rivalry between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox would be Elder vs. Withrow. And the Texas-Oklahoma football game played last Saturday in Dallas for such high stakes would be no more than Texas Tech vs. Oklahoma State.

Look back more than a century with each rivalry, and what you won't find is two historically compelling pairings that have waged war for control of Olympus since the beginning of time. Instead, these rivalries have only recently become consistently relevant on the national scene and are much more important for that than for their local flavors.

Folks in New York, Boston, Norman and Austin can object, if they'd like, but it isn't for their passions that these games are nationally broadcast to huge audiences living nowhere near those places. The importance of these rivalries goes well beyond their boundaries.

Take two college basketball rivalries, Duke-North Carolina and Cincinnati-Xavier. Dick Vitale once remarked while broadcasting UC-XU that the game lacks the national implications of Duke-North Carolina, "but right here it's something special, baby!" Though UC-XU sometimes play for some stake in the rankings, it's a huge event locally even when they aren't. It's kind of a local holiday, one of the folkways of the city.

Until very recent years, the Yankees-Red Sox and Oklahoma-Texas were the same kind of animal — good enough to keep around the house but not good enough for the dog show. Even to the extent that, say, the Yankees and Red Sox have always told the story of baseball, it's only recently become the story of the moment.

We hear all this about the Curse of the Bambino, which is supposed to have jinxed the Red Sox out of winning the World Series since 1918, then notice the Yankees and Red Sox are in the American League Championship Series for the third time in six years, and one would think these two clubs have waged their epic battle for control of the universe since God said, "Let there be light!"

The reality, of course, is that the Red Sox have been no match for the Yankees for most of the last 85 years. Only in the last six years have the Red Sox been an impediment to the Yankees, and then only briefly.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner loves that the Yankees have the Red Sox to pick on, which is why he's so committed to beating them. And the Red Sox must be fuming to finally beat the Yankees some day, while the Yankees just wait until they're down three in the seventh inning and say to each other, "Wait for the ghost." They know they're going to beat the Red Sox.

Even before the Red Sox's infamous sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, Boston and New York were rivaled in a historically curious way. The professional baseball played late in the 19th century was known as "The Massachusetts Game," before a few changes in the rules turned it into "The New York Game."

Following the 1919 season, of course, the Red Sox sold Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 and a $300,000 mortgage on Fenway Park because the Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, needed to finance his Broadway run of No, No, Nanette. The Red Sox, who had won six American League pennants and five World Series since 1900, suddenly occupied last place for almost all of the next 15 years while the Yankees grew into the greatest franchise in the history of professional sports.

The Red Sox improved a lot when Tom Yawkey bought the club in the mid-1930s, but it wasn't until after World War II that they were seriously competitive again behind the great Ted Williams. The Red Sox declined again in the late 1950s, then the Yankees went into an uncharacteristic 10-year drought beginning in 1965.

By 1975, the Red Sox developed a core of good players and free agency revived the Yankees. The Red Sox won the AL pennant in 1975, followed by the Yankees in 1976. Both, of course, lost to the Reds in the World Series. And no one forgets 1978, when the Yankees beat the Red Sox in a one-game playoff after overcoming a double-digit deficit to the Bostonians in August.

Then came the 1980s, with its championship balance throughout the game, followed by the 1990s, which introduced the wild card playoffs that have so helped the Red Sox become a factor. That, and the Red Sox's willingness to pay outrageously for their players — a tendency in which they're exceeded only by the Yankees.

Fox and Major League Baseball are telling every story they can to pitch the rivalry, which clearly features the two best clubs in the American League. But it's still the Yankees, who've won 39 pennants and 26 World Series since the Ruth sale, versus the Red Sox, who have won four pennants and no World Series since then. Until the Red Sox can actually beat the Yankees, the character of this rivalry won't change.

That character is always the achievers vs. the romantics — the Yankees with all those championships against the Red Sox, who probably have inspired more people to take up their childhood dreams and live in the game than any other club. But the setting for this rivalry has changed. As long as the Red Sox are good enough to challenge the Yankees with the pennant on the line, this rivalry will be the state of play in the American League. And that will make it the rivalry it is.

Likewise, the setting for Texas-Oklahoma has changed dramatically since 1996, when both schools entered the new Big 12 and the competition took on a whole new meaning. And it's gone up even a notch higher in the last five years, since Mack Brown took over at Texas in 1998 and Bobby Stoops took the lead at Oklahoma a year later.

Every time they've played this game since 1923, they've done it on the Texas State Fair Grounds in Dallas on the second Saturday of October. In a region so given to football, the game always has marked time and driven passions.

But the game has seldom mattered outside Texas or Oklahoma. Only nine times in the 99 meetings have both teams entered the game ranked nationally in the top five. But three of those have occurred in the last four years, including this year, when Oklahoma went in at No. 2 and Texas at No. 5.

With a 12-0 win against Texas Oct. 9, the Sooners have beaten Texas five straight times — lengthy streaks are the norm in this series — and are right back where this win always puts them, with a pretty straight shot to the national championship game if they don't slip. And this loss puts the Longhorns right back where it always puts them, virtually out of the running for even a BCS bowl, which means this Texas football season continues the usual drone — a loss to OU and a lackluster night at the Holiday Bowl.

The stakes are higher now. It no longer is just about pride, but no truly great rivalry ever is.

A truly great rivalry must be about the championship. Otherwise, it's just a ritual. Fortunately, both Yankees-Red Sox and Texas-OU go well beyond ritual.