As many of you saw a couple days ago, the Tampa Bay Rays' (sans "Devil" these days) Elliot Johnson barreled into Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli in a play at home plate, breaking Cervelli's wrist. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said the play was uncalled for, which I disagree with whole-heartedly.
This Johnson guy is trying to make the team, I can't imagine that the talent evaluators for the Rays are going to be mad that he was going full steam. And as Tony Kornheiser said on Pardon The Interruption, if you don't gear up in spring training, you're going to run the risk of not gearing it up during the regular season. Most fans have no trouble telling the difference, but with 162 games during the season, it's all about creating the right habits for your players. That means in spring training, you go all out.
But of course, it didn't stop there. Before last night's game between the Yankees and Rays, Yankees outfielder Shelley Duncan said, "They showed what is acceptable to them and how they're going to play the game, so we're going to go out there to match their intensity - or exceed it." When you accuse the other team of playing dirty, then talk about "exceeding" their "intensity," people are going to start thinking that you're planning to retaliate.
Fast forward to inning one of the game last night, where after two runs had been scored already, Yankees pitcher Heath Phillips skimmed Rays starting third baseman Evan Longoria with a pitch. Phillips was immediately ejected, and warnings were issued to both dugouts. A sensible person would say, "Alright, that's about enough of that, we don't really want to hurt anybody, we're just trying to protect our pride." But ballplayers have never been accused of being sensible.
On a quirky play in the second inning, Shelley Duncan hit a liner off of the third baseman's hand that trickled into foul territory. The third baseman grabbed the ball and threw it to second, where Duncan was fast approaching Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura. Just before reaching the base and the waiting Iwamura, Duncan dropped to his buttocks and kicked his legs up in the air, sliding hard into Iwamura's legs. Iwamura thankfully didn't appear to be injured, and Duncan was ejected on the spot. Jonny Gomes flew in from off camera and tackled Duncan, no doubt saying something like "I don't approve of the level of intensity you're bringing to this game!" Benches cleared, no punches were thrown, and a couple of other folks were ejected, including Gomes.
At first, my Yankee-hating blood made me think that Duncan was being an asshole and should be suspended for his actions, but remembering the shoulder tackle by Elliot Johnson that I supported a few days ago, I tried to figure out why I thought this was different. I came up with two reasons.
First, sliding in spikes up is a no-no regardless of the game situation or if you're trying to make a team. It's a dirty slide anywhere, whereas barreling into a catcher, while obviously violent, is considered a reasonable attempt to reach home plate within baseball circles.
Second, Duncan has plenty of warning beforehand that he shouldn't do it. His own manager said he didn't approve of that intensity of play. Then, he was stupid enough to open his mouth beforehand. If you're gonna talk trash, you'd better not do anything, because you're going to get the hook. Finally, both teams had already received warnings. I don't know how many different ways you can tell someone not to make a dirty play, but that seems like it should've been enough. Duncan is an idiot.
Now, regarding the rivalry question I asked in the title of the post, I think short-term yes, long-term no. The first few games of the season between these two teams will probably be pretty heated, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some brush back pitches and hard slides, if the situation allows for it. But over the course of this season, and the next five, ten, twenty seasons, these recent exchanges don't have enough gusto to perpetuate a rivalry.
Look at the great rivalries (or even just the good ones) throughout sports, and they all have one thing in common: they involve a lot of games with high stakes. Red Sox/Yankees, Ohio State/Michigan, Duke/UNC, Redskins/Cowboys. The reason those are all great rivalries, producing emotionally-charged games, is because the teams involved have played (and will continue to play) so many games with something on the line. When Ohio State and Michigan play at the end of the regular season in college football, it's almost always for a trip to the Rose Bowl (or more recently, a BCS bowl). The Rays and Yankees won't be playing for playoff spots or a trip to the World Series anytime soon.
This can be how rivalries start, but the way rivalries stay is through playing games that matter. Until then, we'll just have to hope that someone can get through to Shelley Duncan and ask him to take control of his rage-filled life.
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