The Beauty of Rivalries

By Jeremy Sickel

Geoff Ratliff, Editor

Rivalries. The sports world could not endure without them. Some, like the NFL’s Colts versus Patriots, last for only a few years, but are no less intense because they allow us as fans to repeatedly see two of the leagues best – Manning and Brady – competing at a high level. The NHL currently has a similar gem in Ovechkin vs. Crosby, assuming Sid the Kid is able to skate again. Others, like the NBA’s decades-long Lakers versus Celtics battle for league supremacy, thrive because of consistent team excellence and historical context. But when all is said and done, the best rivalry in all of sports belongs to baseball.

The beef between the Yankees and Red Sox is by far the George Washington of the Rivalry Mt. Rushmore. As stated in a recent column, these two teams have a long and deep hatred for one another that has more major plot lines than one cares to count. The infamous Babe Ruth trade…Ted Williams’ magical .406 campaign playing second fiddle to DiMaggio’s “56”…The implausible and unprecedented comeback – or collapse if you’re a fan of the Yankees – in the 2004 ALCS. You get the picture.

True rivalries have substance, but the common theme that makes them great is a pure disdain for the opponent. The hatred often evolves from a series of occurrences involving on-field competition between the teams. Other times it stems from some combination of external events that neither team has control over. But regardless of their origin, these instances unquestionably combine to fuel the competitive fire. Using the “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” argument, one wonders whether it is the fans that stimulate the rivalry, or if the fans’ interests are inspired by the actual outcomes of games? I think that over time, one will find that it is likely an equal dose of the two.

What about newly formed, organic rivalries that seem to emerge every season? The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers spat is a perfect example. While they have played in the same division for years, resulting in many head-to-head match ups, this year’s series seemed to have had an intensity that never previously existed between these two clubs. We’ve seen star players thrown at, near bench clearing brawls erupt, and managers prattling at each other during and after games. It makes for great entertainment for sure.

This rivalry was undoubtedly sparked by Milwaukee’s emergence as the new Kings of the NL Central, a crown long worn by the Cardinals. Presumably sick of being treated like redheaded step-children for years, the Brewers not only snatched the scepter from the Cards, but left them noticeably wounded, no one more so than manager Tony LaRussa. LaRussa has never been mistaken for the most even tempered guy in baseball, but he is so outwardly frustrated by this very real threat to his team’s dominance that his explanations for “protecting” his approach to dealing with the Brewers, came off as absolute gibberish. It was hard to believe that even LaRussa himself believed the words that were coming out of his own mouth.

For this rivalry to survive and earn a permanent place in the hearts and minds of the fans, both organizations and their respective fan bases must fully embrace the hatred that is central to all such battles. Even the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry lost a little bit of credibility when Roger Clemens and Johnny Damon willingly switched sides and Big Papi started hugging it out with New Yorkers in commercials. Until that day comes for the Brewers and Cardinals, we’ll have to settle for it being a series of memorable moments in a great 2011 season, and yet another reminder of why we love baseball.

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