Jason Varitek - A-Rod fight

Ten years ago today the Alex Rodriguez-Jason Varitek brawl changed the narrative of the Sox-Yankees rivalry

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People still talk about the Red Sox and Yankees like it’s some highly pitched rivalry, but it’s not that special these days. Or at least not that heated. Back in 2004 it was heated, brother. They met in the playoffs in 1999 and 2003, the Yankees prevailing both times. The Aaron Boone game happened in the latter instance. There was a palpable hatred between them. It was a lot of fun!

On July 24, 2004, the Yankees were cruising. They had an eight and a half game lead over the Red Sox, who were tied with the Twins for the wild card. They beat the Red Sox 8-7 the night before. A month before that they swept Boston in the Bronx. On this Saturday, New York was up again, 3-0 in the top of the third when Alex Rodriguez stepped up to the plate to face Bronson Arroyo.

A-Rod wasn’t yet the pariah he would become. Yes, a lot of people hated that he made the money that he made, but he had yet to be implicated in the PED story. He had yet to be caught cheating on his wife and dating pop stars. He had yet to strike narcissistic poses in glossy magazines and be on the outs publicly with his team. He was merely the best player in the game at that point who had maybe-a-bit-too-publicly forced a trade to a contender the previous winter. But heck, the Red Sox were actually the front-runners for him. Even struck a deal with Texas to acquire him, only to see it nixed by the union because A-Rod –selflessly! — had offered to rework his contract to make it happen.

But A-Rod had driven in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of the Yankees victory the previous night and the Sox were a tad frustrated.  Then this happened:

 

It was a pretty good brawl as far as these things go. Not the half-hearted shoving you typically see these days. But it wasn’t a terribly special brawl. We’ve seen this sort of thing before. Sometimes we see them with more haymakers. But one thing did make this brawl special. This picture:

source: Getty Images

Everyone knows this picture. It was taken by J. Rogash of Getty Images, and it has become iconic.

It’s a tad misleading, though. It’s talked about now as if it were an instance of Varitek simply telling A-Rod to “shove it.” As if he just got tired of A-Rod’s crap and told him, more or less, to get lost. But really it’s just a single frame from the start of a brawl that looked a lot like other brawls we’ve seen. A plunked batter jawing at a pitcher who clearly hit him on purpose and a catcher walking with said plunked batter down the line leading to a shoving match and a benches-clearing brawl. It wasn’t Jason Varitek simply laying into Rodriguez. There were almost simultaneous shoves. It happened in a split second.

But sometimes even a somewhat misleading photo can capture truths. And this photo by Mr. Rogash captured one. It captured what every Red Sox fan felt about the Yankees in July 2004. That they were sick and tired of coming out on the bottom of their dustups. Sick of New York’s superiority and entitlement. A superiority and entitlement that came not just from besting Boston on the field, but by besting them during the hot stove season too, with this A-Rod guy being just the latest example of it.

Both A-Rod and Varitek were ejected. The Red Sox would take the lead in the fourth. The Yankees would score six runs in the top of the sixth. The Sox would claw back in the bottom of the sixth. New York would take a 10-8 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Nomar Garciaparra led off the Sox’ half of the inning with a double and would score on a Kevin Millar single off of Mariano Rivera. Bill Mueller would then take Rivera to a 3-1 count before taking him downtown with a walkoff homer. The Sox won 11-10. It was one of the wildest days in the history of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.

The Sox won again on Sunday. They’d split the final six regular season games between them. New York, however, would once again win the AL East and then take a commanding 3-0 lead over the Sox in the American League Championship Series. Once again the Yankees looked poised to come out on top in this increasingly one-sided rivalry.

But, of course, Boston had different ideas. And in October 2004, the script to which we had become accustomed was flipped. The Red Sox would win the ALCS and the World Series. They’d win two more after that. And, some time between then and now, the feel of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry would forever change.

Did the shove and the brawl on July 24, 2004 change it? Logically it doesn’t make a ton of sense. One fight doesn’t affect pitches thrown in October and, of course, these guys are professionals. They’re not subject to the sort of motivations and turning points that you’d see in a Hollywood film. Ballplayers don’t tend to respond to “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” moments. Baseball seasons are long and they’re always trying to win.

But if you ask most Sox fans, they’ll tell you that 2004 was a turning point. And when talking about 2004, they’ll almost always talk about the time that Varitek shoved his mitt in A-Rod’s face and how, after that, everything changed.

And that happened ten years ago today.

The Marlins have made a “monster offer” for Kenley Jansen

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Kenley Jansen #74 of the Los Angeles Dodgers delivers a pitch against the Chicago Cubs in the eighth inning of game three of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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OXON HILL, MD — The morning after Aroldis Chapman signed for a record $86 million, the Miami Marlins are reported to have made similarly lucrative offer to the other top free agent closer, Kenley Jansen.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo says that the Marlins have made “a monster offer” of five years and more than $80 million to Jansen. This despite the fact that the club is coming off of a 79-win season and, tragically, lost their top pitcher Jose Fernandez in a fatal boating accident, which will substantially harm their competitive prospects. While it seems like a stretch to say that the Yankees will compete for a playoff spot, thereby making such an historically large investment in a closer a bit suspect, the Marlins doing so is even more questionable.

Meanwhile, the Nationals are said to be interested in Jansen as well, though Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post says the Nats are “uncomfortable” with the financial commitment signing him would require.

Jansen most recently pitched for the Dodgers and there have been no reports that they’re totally out on him, but there has been nothing to suggest that they are pushing hard for him either.

Jansen, 29, finished this past season with 47 saves, a 1.83 ERA, and a 104/11 K/BB ratio in 68.2 innings. That’s not quite Aroldis Chapman good, but he seems poised to collect something close to Aroldis Chapman money.

The Yankees are paying $86 million for a one-inning reliever

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OXON HILL, MD — The Yankees signing of Aroldis Chapman late Wednesday night came as something of a surprise. And the money — $86 million — was something of a shock. Yes, we knew that Chapman was going to break the bank and likely set a record as the highest paid relief pitcher in history, but seeing it in black and white like that is still rather jarring.

In the coming days, many people who attempt to analyze and contextualize this signing will do so by pointing to the 2016 playoffs and the unconventional use of relievers by Terry Francona and the Indians and Joe Maddon of the Cubs. They’ll talk about how the paradigm of bullpen use has shifted and how relief pitchers have taken on a new importance in today’s game. Chapman’s astronomical salary, therefore, will be described as somehow more reasonable and somewhat less shocking than it first seems.

Don’t buy that jive for a second.

Yes, Andrew Miller and, to some extent, Chapman himself were used unconventionally in the 2016 playoffs, but not long into the 2017 season we will see that as an exception, not the rule. And not just because Chapman showed himself unable to hold up to that level of use in the playoffs. It will be the exception because the Yankees have shown no inclination whatsoever to deviate from traditional bullpen usage in the past and there is no reason to expect that they will do so with Chapman in the future.

As you no doubt remember, the Yankees had Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller for the first half of 2016. Such an imposing back end of a bullpen has rarely been seen in recent history. All of them, however, were used, more or less, as one-inning-a-piece guys and no real effort was ever made to break any bullpen usage paradigms or to shorten games the way many applauded Terry Francona for doing in the playoffs.

Miller pitched 44 games for the Yankees, totaling 45.1 innings. He pitched more than a single inning on only three occasions. Chapman pitched 31 games for the Yankees, amassing 31.1 innings. He was used for more than one inning only twice. Betances worked in 73 games, totaling 73 innings. On 11 occasions he pitched more than one inning.  It was unconventional for a team to have three relievers that good, but they were not, in any way, used unconventionally. Nor is there any reason to expect Chapman to be used unconventionally in 2017, especially given that Miller is not around and Chapman has shown no real ability to be stretched for multiple innings for a sustained period.

None of which is to say that having Chapman around is a bad thing or that he is any less of a closer than his reputation suggests. It’s merely to say that the Yankees paying Chapman unprecedented money for a closer should not be justified by the alleged new importance of relief pitchers or that changing role for them we heard so much about in the playoffs. Indeed, I suspect that that changing role applies only to pitcher use in the playoffs. And I do not suspect that this transaction alone pushes the Yankees into serious playoff contention, making that temporary unconventionality something of a moot point in New York for the foreseeable future.

It is almost certain that the Yankees are paying $86 million for the same one-inning closer Aroldis Chapman has been for his entire seven-year career. His contract may or may not prove to be a good one for New York based on how he performs, but don’t let anyone tell you now, in Decemeber 2016, that it’s better than you think because Chapman will somehow transform into a 1970s-style relief ace or something.