Last Thursday night, I witnessed a piece of history. I watched Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz step up to bat against the Yankees, the last time he would ever participate in baseball’s most coveted rivalry.
The Yankees won 5-1 but the win wasn’t the most important story, Ortiz was. At the age of 40 and after 19 years in the MLB, Big Papi is leaving baseball, and the Yankee rivalry, behind.
Even as a Yankee fan, you have to respect Ortiz. Since his 2003 signing, he has brought the Red Sox countless wins and three World Series championship rings. The 10-time All-Star is 17th on the MLB all-time home run list with 541 and holds the Red Sox single-season record for home runs with 54. He is also the all-time leader in MLB history for hits by a DH with 2,192 and RBIs with 1,569.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, it’s hard to match Ortiz’s skill. While the Yankees have undeniable historical clout, the team started to struggle when Ortiz joined the Sox. The Yankees won three straight rings starting with the 1998 season. But when No. 34 came onto the Boston scene, things changed. The Red Sox are 3-1 in championships since Ortiz’s arrival.
The Yankee-Red Sox rivalry is one of the best, and something Ortiz has surely played a major role in. The relationship is so strong that former Yankee Mariano Rivera presented Ortiz with an oil painting of the slugger tipping his cap at the Bronx stadium after the Thursday night game. The moment signified the huge respect these teams share for each other.
That’s what a rivalry is all about: mutual admiration. The game got me thinking about other great teams with such cutthroat histories.
The NBA doesn’t know much of rivalry now, but it did in the past, particularly with the Celtics and the Lakers. I’ve only seen clips of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird going head to head but it must have been a thing of beauty.
The two teams have met a record 12 times in the NBA finals, starting in 1959. The Celtics won eight rings starting that year, beating the Lakers every time, often by 4-3 margins. Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett took over Johnson and Bird’s place at the rivalry helm in 2008. Overall the Celtics and Lakers have won the two highest numbers of titles, 17 and 16 respectively.
After the NBA Western Conference Finals, there was hope that the Thunder and the Warriors would reinstate rivalry in basketball. But after Kevin Durant’s shocking free agency move to the Warriors, its highly doubtful.
Despite my love for basketball and baseball, my favorite rivalry is between three individual athletes: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. This trio of champions has established a rivalry unlike any other.
The three men hold a total of 43 Grand slam singles titles, with Fed besting Nole and Rafa with 17. Djokovic and Nadal have met 13 times in slams, seven of which were in the finals. Unlike Rafa, Fed has a losing record against Nole, 6-9 in slams and 1-3 in finals.
Federer and Nadal have played eight times in slam finals, with Rafa prevailing six times, one of which is arguably the greatest of all time. The 2008 Wimbledon final is without a doubt the most incredible contest I’ve seen. Rafa took the greatest men’s tennis player to five sets, and after four hours and 48 minutes he capped off the fifth 9-7 to win the match. Sport, competition and rivalry were in the purest form that day.
No matter the game, rivalry makes sports that much more incredible. The mutual respect creates a bond unlike any other, despite the misery and disappointment after a loss. I don’t know if anything gets better than the rivalries above but maybe another generation will rise from the ranks and prove me wrong.