Two decades ago, the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings had the fiercest rivalry in all of North American professional sports. The clubs combined to make six Stanley Cup final appearances between 1995 and 2002, and they couldn’t avoid each other in the playoffs, leading to a series of high-scoring, intense encounters that defined that era of the sport.
That rivalry was exacerbated by the teams’ peculiar method of roster construction: About half of each squad’s roster comprised Hall of Fame–caliber players, with the other half was reserved for some of the nastiest, face-washingest, slew-footingest pests and goons in the world. During that era, a typical Wings-Avs game would feature some of the most technically exquisite hockey ever played to that point, interrupted periodically by a David Leitch movie.
Fighting is fairly routine in hockey—and all the more so 25 years ago—but these were not your garden-variety grab-and-swing affairs. Knee blows, rabbit punches, blindside hits—anything was fair game. Just pure, unadulterated hatred as some of the best athletes in the world beat the absolute piss out of each other.
That Avalanche–Red Wings rivalry was born out of long-standing grudges and repeated exposure. This week, baseball will get a taste of this sort of play, as by fortuitous seeding, both ALDS matchups will be motivated by hate. While we (fortunately) shouldn’t see that level of old-time hockey violence in these series, the next week of playoff action could be just as intense as anything Claude Lemieux and Darren McCarty could dream up.
Tampa Bay Rays vs. New York Yankees
This regular season, 821 batters were hit by a pitch, and countless others were knocked down, brushed back, or otherwise discombobulated by a ball that came disturbingly close. Not all of those incidents are created equal. A slider that drifts into a hitter’s leg or a wayward fastball to the thigh usually passes without further commentary. On the other end of the spectrum is this near miss from Aroldis Chapman in the ninth inning of a September 1 Yankees-Rays game.
This pitch did not actually hit Rays infielder Mike Brosseau, which is good, because if it had it might have gone through his head. Even so, the Rays were quite upset with Chapman’s momentary lack of command, and after the left-hander retired Brosseau to end the game, the benches cleared immediately. Chapman denied having any ill intent behind the pitch, but MLB nevertheless suspended him three games, and Rays manager Kevin Cash and Yankees manager Aaron Boone both got one game each. But Brosseau not only got even the following night, he got ahead by homering twice in a 5-2 win.
Of those 821 hit-by-pitch incidents, only a tiny fraction resulted in arguments, ejections, suspensions, or long-standing grudges. Even when tempers flare in the moment, the default reaction is to let bygones be bygones. But the Rays don’t seem like they’re eager to let the Chapman incident go.
In the aftermath of Chapman’s wayward fastball, Cash told reporters that he had “a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph,” a reference not to the depth and quality of his bullpen, but more an allusion to his own team’s ability to put a heater in someone’s ear should the need arise. So far it hasn’t, as the two teams haven’t faced each other in more than a month. But the quote endures. Rays pitchers have taken to wearing T-shirts adorned with a picture of horses in a stable, in reference to Cash’s threat. And right-hander Charlie Morton even modeled one in a press conference the night the Rays clinched their first division title in a decade.
Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Rays player, said before the ALDS: “They don’t like us, we don’t like them, and it’s going to continue to stay that way.”
Maybe Kiermaier and his teammates would be in a more forgiving mood if this were the first time these two clubs had nearly come to blows. In the last week of the 2018 season, CC Sabathia beaned Jake Bauers in the hand, and Tampa Bay reliever Andrew Kittredge responded by knocking down Yankees catcher Austin Romine with a purpose pitch. Following that, Sabathia put the first pitch of his next inning in Jesús Sucre’s thigh, earning an ejection and imperiling a $500,000 bonus for innings pitched. Sabathia threw at Rays DH Austin Meadows the following May, and in July sparked yet another benches-clearing kerfuffle against Tampa Bay when he exchanged words with Avisaíl García.
It doesn’t matter that the Rays were not unique in being the target of Sabathia’s ire; he explained on a recent episode of the R2C2 podcast that he’d hold grudges against opponents to psych himself up. He also admitted that one such feud, against a very confused Jackie Bradley Jr., was entirely the invention of Sabathia’s own imagination.
It also doesn’t matter that Sabathia, the primary Yankees-Rays instigator, is retired, or that Meadows is the only player involved in a pre-2020 incident that will play in the ALDS. Players participate in these feuds as much out of a sense of camaraderie as genuine animus. Merely putting on the uniform creates the obligation, like some fucked-up aggro version of The Santa Clause.
As if there was ever any chance that franchises with such oppositional identities could have coexisted peacefully. The Yankees are the richest club in MLB, the most successful franchise in North American pro sports, and a shorthand not only for the country’s biggest and wealthiest city, but for old money and enduring success. The Rays, meanwhile, are only a generation old, are a small-town club in a weird stadium, and make up only a quarter of their division rival’s payroll. (Whether the Yankees’ brute force financial might is in fact more odious than the Rays’ Wall Street owners running rock-bottom payrolls and seeking public funding for a new ballpark is an interesting question, but ultimately irrelevant in this series.)
The Rays, with their revolving door of players and tendency to disregard tactical norms, are built to lean into the role of the underdog. Indeed, this is just the fourth time in the franchise’s 23-season life span that the Rays have finished ahead of the Yankees in the standings. Even though Tampa Bay finished seven games up in the AL East and took eight of 10 games against the Yankees this year, it’s hard to think of the Rays as the favorite. Yankees manager Boone gave voice to that awkwardness last week when he jokingly told reporters, “We’re clearly the underdog now [against] the big bad no. 1 seed of the AL East.”
That incongruity might make the Rays a more natural foil for the Yankees than the Red Sox (for all the animus between the two fan bases, the Red Sox are essentially just the Yankees with beards these days). The simmering animosity between the Rays and Yankees could, combined with postseason intensity, boil into the division’s defining rivalry for the next decade.
Oakland Athletics vs. Houston Astros
Some rivalries are institutional, while others are personal. The biggest piece of baseball news in the past decade broke last November, when Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers told Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that his former Astros teammates had used a camera to steal opposing pitchers’ signs. The fallout from that revelation dominated baseball discourse during the winter, and would have continued to swamp all other running story lines if the 2020 season had gone on as planned. Even through the pandemic, though, the Astros sign-stealing story has chugged along in the background, casting a pall over the team’s 2017 World Series title and lesser successes since.
That revelation might have been shocking, but it was merely the tipping point in the Astros’ journey from exciting title contender to baseball’s greatest villain. The team made no secret of its relentless amorality under owner Jim Crane and then-GM Jeff Luhnow. Weeks before the sign-stealing story broke, Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman confronted a group of female reporters in the team’s clubhouse and shouted praises about Houston’s 2018 trade for Roberto Osuna, who’d previously been suspended by MLB for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. The ugliness of that incident was magnified by the cluelessness and arrogance with which the club handled the fallout. Shortly thereafter, Drellich reported that Crane and Luhnow had cultivated a toxic workplace culture in the Astros front office.
These stories, which came out over the span of just a few weeks, crystalized the team’s reputation. Previously beloved stars from José Altuve to Carlos Correa to Justin Verlander were now viewed as cheats and hypocrites. As baseball fans across the country watched their society brought low by disease, some considered the empty stadiums: With no fans in the stands, who could boo the Astros?
After alternating conspicuous silence and equivocal half-apologies for 11 months, the Astros are feeling their oats after a surprising first-round sweep of the Twins. “I know a lot of people are mad,” Correa said after the team’s Game 2 win. “I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here. But what are they going to say now?” That’s not the kind of thing Correa would say if he wasn’t prepared to carry on as a pariah for the foreseeable future.
The A’s have the standard reasons for detesting the Astros—as do 28 other clubs in the league—but they’ve also got a little extra spice thrown in. In August, Astros pitchers plunked Oakland outfielder Ramón Laureano three times in one weekend, including in back-to-back plate appearances in the Sunday series finale. On his way to first base, Laureano voiced his displeasure to pitcher Humberto Castellanos, and Astros bench coach Alex Cintrón responded by insulting Laureano’s mother. All hell then broke loose.
Fighting is always against the rules, but when any interteam contact carries the risk of COVID-19 transmission, it’s super against the rules. Laureano was suspended four games and Cintrón 20 as a result.
But whatever lingering resentment Laureano holds after being peppered with baseballs, there is (appropriately, given Oakland’s mascot) a bigger elephant in the room. As division rivals, the A’s and Astros faced each other 10 times this year, but Fiers did not pitch in any of those games. A’s manager Bob Melvin didn’t use Fiers in a five-game series at the Coliseum a month ago, but in the all-hands-on-deck environment of a playoff series with no off days, Fiers is much more likely to pitch.
Likely, but not certain. Fiers started Game 3 of Oakland’s first-round series against the White Sox, but lasted less than two innings and allowed more base runners than he recorded outs. Chris Bassitt is in line to start Game 1 of the ALDS, with Sean Manaea, Jesús Luzardo, and possibly Frankie Montas more likely than Fiers to take a turn in the rotation. If this series goes only three or four games and Oakland’s starters pitch deep into games, Fiers might miss the Astros yet again.
Astros manager Dusty Baker, who joined the club after the scandal, claims he hasn’t heard Fiers’s name all season in the Houston clubhouse. If Baker’s telling the truth, that would make his Astros players the only 28 people on the planet who are interested in MLB and haven’t been rubbing their hands together for a confrontation between Houston and the man who blew the whistle on the banging scheme.
Perhaps Fiers’s name will pop up in conversation at the Astros’ team hotel, which they are sharing with the A’s and no other guests for the duration of the series. We’ll soon see what happens when two teams with so much contempt become even more familiar.