Finding Comfort in the Enemy

What's become of the best rivalry in sports?
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It feels wrong to say it, but admitting you have a problem starts you on the road to recovery:

What’s happening to the New York Yankees is kind of terrible.

Now, it’s not tragic, or even particularly upsetting, but it’s at the very least a little sad. For how evil the team is perceived to be, and for all the eminently unlikable things about them, nobody deserves this. If Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera didn’t wear pinstripes, the loss of two of the best players of all time to dramatic injuries in unexpected instances would at the very least garner an acknowledgement of the unfortunate nature of the situation, if not outright sympathy.

The team they play for, though, and what they’ve done over the last century, is more important than who they are, so that the devastating loss of their two brightest stars has been met with, at best, snickers, and worst, palpable joy.

As a longtime Red Sox fan, being able to feel the joy course through my veins when waking up to the clip of The Captain (sorry, Tek) on the ground and, more importantly, with the Yankees down 1-0 in the American League Championship Series, was something I would have cherished at a different point in my life. Instead, a twinge of disappointment struck me while watching Jeter lay prone on the ground, the toughest player of his generation not only not getting up, but obviously incapable of doing so.

Was it just getting older and more mature, realizing that being a 38-year-old seems like its fairly terrible when your job is to compete at the peak of athletic performance every single night for upwards of 200 times a year? Or, worse, was it that I’d come to respect the work that Jeter and the Yankees had done for much of the last decade?

Struggling with why one likes, or at the very least sympathizes, with something is far harder than trying to discern why something makes your blood boil. Why something grinds your gears can usually be narrowed down to one thing, but figuring out where those pangs of admiration of/disappointment at the fate of someone else usually run deeper, the product of a plethora of possible factors, from the surprisingly specific to spectacularly general.

Maybe it was the juxtaposition of the clip of a supine Jeter with his first words to teammate-turned-manager Joe Girardi. (“Don’t carry me off.”) In that instant, I could imagine him approaching this thing he knew had gone terribly wrong with the same cool demeanor he assumed when dismissing a reporter bringing up the word of “panic” as the Orioles looked like they were going to be the 800-pound gorilla the Bombers would be unable to get off their backs. Perhaps in that moment I had realized that for all the oddly unabashed talk about how the now-retired Chipper Jones looked like a movie star, Jeter’s career has more often than not felt like a movie, and that as much fun as it is to hate the bad guys, the jocks, the cool kids that get their comeuppance, it’s not often that the comeuppance comes to a villain who goes about his villainy as nobly as Jeter.

Perhaps it was the idea that for the first time in his career he was finally getting the recognition he deserved as not only an integral part of five World Series champions, but as one of the handful of elite players of his generation, pushing past the epic slump that preceded his 3000th hit to have one of the better seasons of an already historically good career. He did so after nearly being dismissed from the team in the midst of a shockingly public—for the organization and especially for Jeter—contract dispute after the 2010 season, and with a living example of what can happen when someone toils in the infield past the age of 36 playing directly his right.

Looking back to only last year makes me think those reasons couldn’t have been entirely it, however. His slump in the first half of 2011 was a highlight for any fan, a slump so drastic and pronounced that it seemed to signify that his reign of terror was over and that he would fade away, taking his organization with him. Nearly a decade of talk of his supposed inadequacy at shortstop seemed to finally catch up to him, and while on the decline, he seemed genuinely distraught with his career and the company he kept for the first time. It was a beautiful sight for eyes sore from the spectacle of what seemed to that point to be one of the least enjoyable Red Sox seasons of all time, even before the Second Biggest Chokejob Ever or this year’s “Impossible Nightmare” season.

So, given that, I was left to wonder: Do these strange feelings for the Yankees go beyond Jeter?

Could it be that I’ve grown more welcoming in my mid-twenties? Has increased awareness of the mechanisms of sports—and life in general—finally reached its event horizon, turning a laser guided missile of sports loathing into some sort of amorphous blob of sports indifference? Or have years of unlikable Red Sox teams and the euphoria from two World Series titles in four seasons coupled with a full year of Bobby Valentine-and-Larry Lucchino torture porn doused fiery hatred felt as recently as 2009?

And what role did Mariano Rivera play in all this? I thanked God when Mo threw Game 7 of the 2001 World Series away, just past Derek’s outstretched glove, and was fundamentally indifferent when he went down near the beginning of this season shagging fly balls in the outfield like he had done nearly every game day for his entire career.

But, as this Red Sox season wore on, players-only meeting after bullpen blow up after salary dump, the consistency of a man filling his role on a nightly basis better than perhaps anyone had ever done anything in the history of organized sports began to create a hole in the objective enjoyment of baseball. Missing was the blaring Metallica that preceded a slight man with a single pitch coming in to collect another save, a stat he almost single handedly gave significance to, as entire schools of baseball thought revolve around recreating the platonic ideal of a closer made in his image.

How did this change of heart happen? Why feel this way about people you subjectively dislike and objectively root against?

Ultimately, it seems that this precipitous drop has made the value of villains become clear. Without rivalry, without a nemesis or an archenemy, the idea of meaningless competition becomes, well, meaningless. Feeling bad for the Yankees and Derek and Mo, I feel bad for the Sox and Dustin and Tito. Take it as an admission that, good or evil, everyone’s clock is ticking, and that because of this, an appreciation of everything is necessary.

So, I suppose that’s it. I’m fundamentally happy about the downfall of the Guild of Calamitous Intent. I just wish that Henchmen #424 and #21 didn’t have to go down to get there. I liked those guys.

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