Tyler Austin, Joe Kelly and the Myth of the Reborn Yanks-Sox Rivalry

“This certainly looks more like old-fashioned Sox, Yankees at Fenway Park!” NESN announcer Dave O’Brien bellowed during a third-inning bench clearing that could be best described as an on-field coffee klatch between the two storied opponents.

Brock Holt took exception to what was a questionably hard slide by Tyler Austin, who attempted to break up a double play. Four innings later, Sox reliever Joe Kelly uncorked a 97 MPH fastball into Austin’s midsection. Austin slammed his bat, Kelly baited the Yankees first baseman toward the mound, and the brawl was on.

Today, headlines in both cities will breathlessly blare the rivalry is “back on!” However, despite photos of bodies piled on the infield, unfurled jerseys, and steely-eyed glares, the papers — like the fans and the teams themselves — are fooling themselves. There is no rivalry to restart because the ancient spirit of the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry – as fans in both cities knew it – no longer exists, and no amount of fisticuffs and baseball brew-ha-ha will resuscitate it.

The classic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is for a different era of the game for the franchises, the fans, and even the cities themselves.

Decades of heartbreak, misfortune, and almosts turned into calculated determination in 2002 when Theo Epstein assumed control on Yawkey Way. He gave the Red Sox the institutional and on-field gravitas they lacked for decades, and he put a plan in place to not only slay the pinstriped giant but to make the Red Sox a giant in their own right.

Meanwhile, the Yankees were still in the glow of their turn-of-the-century dynasty. Relying on their remaining core of homegrown talent and acquiring seemingly any superstar George Steinbrenner had on his wish list, the Yankees took a no-holds-barred, spare-no-expense approach to tacking one more title onto their dynastic ledger.

The 20th-century rivalry, the one that culminated with the epic 2003 and 2004 ALCS matchups, featured two teams on different plains of existence. Different attitudes and different rallying cries. The Yankees were the game’s historic goliath. The Red Sox were the downtrodden David, who finally vanquished their enemy and their curse in baseball’s greatest postseason comeback. And at that moment, the inequity was no more.

When the Red Sox finally hoisted the commissioner’s trophy in 2004, we should have known then what is clear today – the rivalry we loved is nothing more than a legend in MLB’s 21st century. Since current Yankees manager Aaron Boone’s 2003 pennant-winning home run, the Red Sox have won three titles to the Yankees one. The teams operate on the same financial pedestal. There is no dollar amount the Yankees could offer a free agent that the Red Sox couldn’t match.

While Red Sox fans may still believe they are the scrappy underdog, they are no different than Yankees fans. Both fan bases expect wins, and expect them NOW.

Surely, this series is an early-season barometer for both teams. Both clubs have high expectations for 2018. Entering Tuesday’s series opener, the Red Sox aimed to prove their 8-1 start, mostly gained with wins over the gutted Rays and Marlins, was real. The Yankees, meanwhile, are off to a clunky .500 start dotted by injuries and blown leads. It is natural for both clubs to stiffen their lip and feel more juice for their first showdown of 2018.

But make no mistake. This was not A-Rod and Jason Varitek – the black and white knights of their era – squaring up. This was not Pedro Martinez deftly headlocking the grandfatherly Don Zimmer to the ground, or Roger Clemens throwing at Manny Ramirez. It wasn’t even Karim Garcia wanting a piece of Pedro.

Last night’s brawl featured two guys, who survive on the back of their respective rosters going at it because Tyler Austin scraped Brock Holt (another roster hanger-on) with his spike. For the crime of maybe going into second too hard, Kelly drilled Austin (after missing on his first attempt). Austin, who is in the lineup while Greg Bird recovers from injury and can’t afford to miss playing time both for his own sake and the team’s, needed to defend his honor.

In the midst of the melee, stars Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton calmly used their formidable size to keep the brawlers apart. When the field cleared, Red Sox outfielders Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. could be seen on NESN cameras having a laugh at the whole thing. The two images said it all.

The respective stars on both teams are not interested in fighting. They are not interested in risking their bodies or their playing time to prove who is more alpha. So, scenes from the second week of the 2018 season are what we are left with. A flareup, between two of the game’s juggernauts, both loaded with young talent and sporting swollen payrolls, headlined by two ultimately replaceable parts jawing and swinging at each other. Watching Tyler Austin race to battle Joe Kelly and ensuing tussle… it all just felt so… manufactured.

Much like the wishes of a reborn Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.