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.

Report: Teams reluctant to gamble on Cliff Lee

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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In Saturday’s column for the Boston Globe, Nick Cafardo suggests that free agent Cliff Lee is seeking a guaranteed major league deal between $6 and $8 million plus incentives. That is turning some otherwise interested teams away, as the lefty is still recovering from a torn flexor tendon in his left elbow. Lee hasn’t pitched since July 31, 2014.

Last month, Lee’s agent Darek Braunecker said the pitcher would need “a perfect fit” to pitch in 2016. He also noted that Lee has begun a full offseason throwing program.

In his most recent season, Lee compiled a 3.65 ERA with 72 strikeouts and 12 walks in 81 1/3 innings for the Phillies. The Phillies had signed him to a five-year, $120 million contract in December 2010 but declined a club option for the 2016 season, instead buying him out for $12.5 million.

Orioles reconsidering signing Yovani Gallardo

Yovani Gallardo
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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In an article for MASN on Friday, Steve Melewski noted that the Orioles were reluctant to forfeit their first round draft pick (14th overall) in order to sign free agent starter Yovani Gallardo. The club is now reconsidering its stance and rechecking the right-handers medicals, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reports.

Gallardo, who turns 30 on February 27, posted a 3.42 ERA with 121 strikeouts and 68 walks over 184 1/3 innings for the Rangers last season. The Rangers had acquired him in a trade with the Brewers, sending Luis Sardinas, Corey Knebel, and minor leaguer Marcos Diplan to Milwaukee.

Gallardo has posted an ERA below 4.00 in six of his last seven seasons. He remains unsigned into February, however, because his strikeout rate has rapidly decreased with each year since 2012. Per FanGraphs, that rate was 23.7 percent in 2012, then went to 18.6 percent, 17.9 percent, and 15.3 percent progressively. Some of that may have to do with diminishing fastball velocity, as Gallardo’s 90.4 MPH average marked a career low among his eight full seasons with at least 100 innings pitched.

The Orioles lost starter Wei-Yin Chen, who signed with the Marlins, and the back end of their rotation is highly speculative with Kevin Gausman, Mike Wright, Odrisamer Despaigne, and Tyler Wilson. Adding a veteran like Gallardo, even if he is apparently declining, may be stabilizing.

Freddy Garcia is calling it a career

Screenshot 2016-02-07 at 10.16.43 AM
Elsa/Getty Images North America
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MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez passes along word from the Dominican Republic that right-hander Freddy Garcia will hang up his cleats for good after Sunday’s Caribbean Series championship game.

Garcia will start that game for the Tigres de Aragua out of Venezuela. He’s taking on Mexico’s Venados de Mazatlan.

“Venezuelan fans are expecting something good from Freddy and so is everybody,” said Tigres de Aragua manager Eddie Perez, who also serves as the bullpen coach for the Atlanta Braves. “Knowing that it’s his last game is going to make it very special. We all hope he pitches a really good game so he can retire in a good way and bring the title for Venezuela. Everybody who is rooting for Venezuela expects him to do well.”

Garcia’s last major league game was in the 2013 postseason. The 39-year-0ld will finish with a 4.15 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 6.4 K/9 in 2,264 career regular-season innings. He had a 3.26 ERA in 11 playoff starts, winning a World Series title with the White Sox in 2005.

Video: 2016 will be a season to remember

Carlos+Correa+Houston+Astros+v+Arizona+Diamondbacks+Ctyu5RiU3SWl
Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
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MLB.com put together this very cool video montage reviewing the 2015 season and setting us up for what should be a wild 2016. Young stars, veterans chasing milestones, unpredictable divisional races.

It’s so close to spring training. Let’s do this.