The Performance Heard' Round the World
Game: Yankees vs. Rays
For the longest time there was only one rivalry in the AL East, which was the epic Red Sox/Yankees. Even after the short dominance of the Blue Jays, the short dominance of the Orioles, and the inclusion of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Yanks and Red Sox remained the only rivalry in the division worth truly noting. Then came 2008, when the Rays literally came out of nowhere and snatched the division over the Red Sox and the Yankees. But before the division crown was claimed, the Yankees and Rays got into a heated fight in spring training, and the Red Sox and Rays had some tense moments. Before the Rays would enter the World Series, they engaged in a 7-game showdown against the Red Sox in a hotly-contested ALCS.
Fast-forward to today, with the Rays proving they are no fluke thanks to outstanding management, a deep farm system, and a talented group of young players. Now, the three-way rivalry between the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays has gotten so out of hand that Major League Baseball has considered expanding the playoffs to give other teams a chance. They’ve even considered splitting up the three because the AL East emerged as the toughest and most competitive division in any professional sport.
Enter September 15th. The Yankees were in Tropicana Field for a big series against the Rays. After the Rays took the first game in a close game, the Yankees won the second game of the series with a very tense victory in extra innings. The usually-awful James Shields was going up against the rising star Phil Hughes. It was the rubber match and the Rays were leading 2-1 (great pitcher’s duel---with Shields settling down after a wild first) when Derek Jeter stepped to the plate on the 7th inning. A close pitch went towards Jeter, striking him, and awarding him first base.
But a funny thing happened. Derek Jeter did not get hit by the ball. As a matter of fact, there was a cork sound as the ball landed around the Yankee captain. The ball hit the bat. Now, what happened next started a firestorm that nobody could have predicted. The Rays were furious, the fans exploded in disgust, as the once-honorable man reduced himself to a decent acting performance as he pretended like the ball struck him on the arm, hurting him temporarily. Instant replay showed that it was not an obvious call by the umps, but the sound should have been evidence that Jeter was faking. But why question the Yankee captain? Was he really stooping this low? Were the Yankees beginning to fear the Rays? They couldn’t win the old-fashioned way?
The pretend hit did more than just give Jeter first base, it got Joe Maddon ejected from the game, and then it allowed a home run by the next batter, sending the stadium to a frenzy that does not happen enough in Tampa Bay. The Yankees took a 3-2 lead by the time the Rays went up to bat. The playoff atmosphere was oozing everywhere, as everyone was still bitter about the Jeter hit. The fans, the spectators, the commentators, were all still in utter shock that one of baseball’s golden stars did what he did. Now us Rays fans had more reason to hate the Yankees, especially if they walk away with this close game over that call.
Crawford and Longoria were out in the bottom half of the 7th inning. Phil Hughes was looking good, and ready to win the series. Matt Joyce however smacks in a single, giving the Rays a little emotional boost. Dan Johnson was up to the plate, with already one home run under his belt. We couldn’t have expected another home run off of Hughes, that’s just too much. He was just playing in Japan we would be asking too mu---oh my goodness.
Dan Johnson blasted a second home run, pushed the momentum the other direction, and sent Tropicana Field into an absolute frenzy. The Rays led 4-3 and first place was once again within their grasp. By the time the game had ended, the Rays were in first, were gaining much more respect in the baseball world, and Jeter's seemingly innocent move turned into major controversy about sportsmanship, and about his legacy.
However this series was not without its consequences. The Rays and the Yankees were so fatigued fighting so much (especially during this three-game series) that their stamina was coming to an end as the surging Rangers showed up and beat them in the playoffs. The reason I picked this game was because it was an early September game with more playoff atmosphere than the Rangers/Rays actual playoff series several weeks later. It was also a game that would remain embedded in Rays fans' memories because of Jeter's performance. Whether or not it was wrong one thing was certain: the Tampa Bay Rays were no joke, no fluke, no one-year wonder---this team is here to stay in the top tri-state rivalry in all sports.
To be continued...