Nobody saw it coming.
The underdog Tampa Bay Rays are heading to the World Series for the first time in their 11-year history after defeating the Red Sox 4-3 in the American League Championship Series.
This series had it all, from blowouts to tight games, from power hitting to quality pitching. But it gave the fans something much more important: a rivalry that is very, very personal. Call me crazy, but this feud may surpass the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry as the most passionate and emotionally intense rivalry in baseball.
The longtime contention between the Yankees and Red Sox is well-documented. The Yankees got Babe Ruth for nothing in 1919 and then claimed dominance over Beantown’s seemingly inferior team for the next 85 years. More recently, the Red Sox have garnered the upper hand, winning two world championships as New York struggles to find its identity.
While the Yankees try and reclaim their place in baseball’s elite, the Rays literally fought their way to the top. After having a huge brawl in a spring training game against the Yankees, the Rays looked like they may have been venting the frustration of yet another losing season before it even began. How wrong that assumption was.
With their $43 million payroll, the Rays weren’t going to take it anymore, and six months later, they beat out the Red Sox as American League East Champions. This was more than just your average playoff race, however. It was a struggle within the confines of nine innings, but it was also a battle with fists of fire and a history fueled by hostility that was planted over eight years ago. And no, you probably don’t remember it.
Backtrack to 2000. The Red Sox are rolling toward the playoffs, and the team formerly known as the Devil Rays is in the basement of the division, as usual. Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez is on the mound pitching a one-hit shutout when veteran outfielder Gerald Williams strolls to the plate. On the fourth pitch, Martinez nails Williams on the left hand, apparently enraging the Devil Rays outfielder.
Possibly out of frustration, Williams rushes at Martinez, nearly knocking him to the ground with a forceful shove and then landing a punch with an overhand right. Benches clear, and eight Tampa Bay players are ejected in the subsequent brawl. This has the Devil Rays steaming, as no Red Sox players are tossed after the melee.
A couple more hit-by-pitches and a few brawls later, we arrive in 2008, as the drama this season revolved around Sox outfielder Coco Crisp.
Crisp was hit by a pitch in the right thigh by pitcher James Shields in a June 5 game at Fenway Park. The biggest bench-clearing brawl of the year followed, as Crisp infamously dodged a flaring fist from Shields and landed a punch of his own before the pile-on began.
This series may not have been as physically intense as Crisp and Shields’ mid-summer fisticuffs, but the Rays needed to win for this rivalry to succeed. Tampa Bay may have won this battle, but the animosity and fire will remain for a very long time. The war will wage on as long as both teams have a pulse and want to prove their team’s build is the true method of success.
Michael O’Donnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org