The news that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez tested positive for steroids came as a big surprise to baseball fans in the same way that it is surprising to walk outside of your door in New York in January and find that it is cold out. Ramirez had already been linked to steroid use and suspended. Additionally, If any player over the last few years had the change in numbers and physique to suggest he was taking steroids, it was David Ortiz.
The latest steroid scandal will force many baseball fans to do something more difficult than recognizing that Ortiz, a great and beloved player in recent years, was cheating. It will force them to rethink a central narrative about theYankee-Red Sox rivalry and baseball more generally.
The Yankee-Red Sox rivalry has been particularly intense over the last decade because these years, just as in the late 70s and late 40s, both teams have been contenders. The Yankee-Red Sox rivalry is based on more than just regional loyalties; it is also based on a narrative which many fans seem to believe. The narrative can be summed up, and dramatically exaggerated, by saying it is about the Evil Empire-Best Team Money Can Buy Yankees against the Underdog-Long Suffering Red Sox. This narrative is even more nonsensical than most, but it is surprisingly persistent among casual fans.
Yesterday’s news should put this misperception to rest. Contrasting the two most visible players for each team over the last seven to nine years, makes that extremely clear. Jason Varitek, Josh Beckett and others may be beloved in New England, but nationally Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz were the face of the team until Ramirez was traded to the Dodgers last year. Manny and Big Papi are both great players, extraordinary hitters with, in the case of Ortiz, an eerie ability to seemingly always come up with a big hit in the clutch. In the period of only five and a half years they were teammates, they won two more World Series with the Red Sox than the team had won in the 83 years before Manny joined the team. There is another part of this story too, that seems to not fit the narrative so well. Neither of them came up from the Red Sox minor league organization. They were both signed as free agents and, in the case of Ramirez, very expensive ones. According to the narrative, this is supposed to be the Yankee, not the Red Sox, way. We now also know that they were both taking steroids while with the Red Sox.
The Yankees, of course, like the Red Sox, and the other 28 teams, are not untouched by the steroid scandal. They probably have as many highly profile players, such as A-Rod, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and even Andy Pettitte, who were effected by the steroid scandal as anybody. However, the two players most associated with the team over the last decade, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera have been free of even a whiff of suspicion regarding steroid use. Both are reminiscent of baseball stars of another era, people who did not stand out for their size and strength, but who nonetheless possessed great skills. Mariano Rivera does not look at all like a great athlete, but he is, at 39 years old, still one of the very best closers in the game.
Jeter and Rivera also challenge the Red Sox-Yankee narrative in other ways. Neither of them came to the Yankees as high priced free agents. They are both products of the Yankee farm system. Jeter and Rivera have now played together for the Yankees longer than Ruth and Gehrig or Mantle and Berra, and they are closing in on Mantle and Ford. If you include their minor league years, Jeter and Rivera have been teammates since 1994.
Jeter and Rivera are obviously both extremely well paid, but Yankee money, in the cases of Jeter and Rivera, has been used to keep great Yankees with the team. This is certainly an ability that not all teams have, but resigning your home grown stars is a little different than picking up expensive free agents. The Yankees obviously do both.
The Yankees and Red Sox, other than the fact that Papi and Manny took steroids and Jeter and Mo did not, are far more similar than they are different. Both throw a lot of money around; both have large and impatient fan bases; both had key players doing steroids. The Red Sox, moreover, have been far more successful in the last five years; and their two signature players for that period are now known to have been steroid users. While it seems unlikely that the newest revelations about steroid use will prod baseball into doing anything more about the problem or result in any serious punishment for Papi, Ramirez or anybody else, it should force people to rethink the Yankee-Red Sox narrative.