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Ten years ago today the Alex Rodriguez-Jason Varitek brawl changed the narrative of the Sox-Yankees rivalry

Jul 24, 2014, 8:06 AM EDT

People still talk about the Red Sox and Yankees like it’s some highly pitched rivalry, but it’s not that special these days. Or at least not that heated. Back in 2004 it was heated, brother. They met in the playoffs in 1999 and 2003, the Yankees prevailing both times. The Aaron Boone game happened in the latter instance. There was a palpable hatred between them. It was a lot of fun!

On July 24, 2004, the Yankees were cruising. They had an eight and a half game lead over the Red Sox, who were tied with the Twins for the wild card. They beat the Red Sox 8-7 the night before. A month before that they swept Boston in the Bronx. On this Saturday, New York was up again, 3-0 in the top of the third when Alex Rodriguez stepped up to the plate to face Bronson Arroyo.

A-Rod wasn’t yet the pariah he would become. Yes, a lot of people hated that he made the money that he made, but he had yet to be implicated in the PED story. He had yet to be caught cheating on his wife and dating pop stars. He had yet to strike narcissistic poses in glossy magazines and be on the outs publicly with his team. He was merely the best player in the game at that point who had maybe-a-bit-too-publicly forced a trade to a contender the previous winter. But heck, the Red Sox were actually the front-runners for him. Even struck a deal with Texas to acquire him, only to see it nixed by the union because A-Rod –selflessly! — had offered to rework his contract to make it happen.

But A-Rod had driven in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of the Yankees victory the previous night and the Sox were a tad frustrated.  Then this happened:

 

It was a pretty good brawl as far as these things go. Not the half-hearted shoving you typically see these days. But it wasn’t a terribly special brawl. We’ve seen this sort of thing before. Sometimes we see them with more haymakers. But one thing did make this brawl special. This picture:

source: Getty Images

Everyone knows this picture. It was taken by J. Rogash of Getty Images, and it has become iconic.

It’s a tad misleading, though. It’s talked about now as if it were an instance of Varitek simply telling A-Rod to “shove it.” As if he just got tired of A-Rod’s crap and told him, more or less, to get lost. But really it’s just a single frame from the start of a brawl that looked a lot like other brawls we’ve seen. A plunked batter jawing at a pitcher who clearly hit him on purpose and a catcher walking with said plunked batter down the line leading to a shoving match and a benches-clearing brawl. It wasn’t Jason Varitek simply laying into Rodriguez. There were almost simultaneous shoves. It happened in a split second.

But sometimes even a somewhat misleading photo can capture truths. And this photo by Mr. Rogash captured one. It captured what every Red Sox fan felt about the Yankees in July 2004. That they were sick and tired of coming out on the bottom of their dustups. Sick of New York’s superiority and entitlement. A superiority and entitlement that came not just from besting Boston on the field, but by besting them during the hot stove season too, with this A-Rod guy being just the latest example of it.

Both A-Rod and Varitek were ejected. The Red Sox would take the lead in the fourth. The Yankees would score six runs in the top of the sixth. The Sox would claw back in the bottom of the sixth. New York would take a 10-8 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Nomar Garciaparra led off the Sox’ half of the inning with a double and would score on a Kevin Millar single off of Mariano Rivera. Bill Mueller would then take Rivera to a 3-1 count before taking him downtown with a walkoff homer. The Sox won 11-10. It was one of the wildest days in the history of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.

The Sox won again on Sunday. They’d split the final six regular season games between them. New York, however, would once again win the AL East and then take a commanding 3-0 lead over the Sox in the American League Championship Series. Once again the Yankees looked poised to come out on top in this increasingly one-sided rivalry.

But, of course, Boston had different ideas. And in October 2004, the script to which we had become accustomed was flipped. The Red Sox would win the ALCS and the World Series. They’d win two more after that. And, some time between then and now, the feel of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry would forever change.

Did the shove and the brawl on July 24, 2004 change it? Logically it doesn’t make a ton of sense. One fight doesn’t affect pitches thrown in October and, of course, these guys are professionals. They’re not subject to the sort of motivations and turning points that you’d see in a Hollywood film. Ballplayers don’t tend to respond to “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” moments. Baseball seasons are long and they’re always trying to win.

But if you ask most Sox fans, they’ll tell you that 2004 was a turning point. And when talking about 2004, they’ll almost always talk about the time that Varitek shoved his mitt in A-Rod’s face and how, after that, everything changed.

And that happened ten years ago today.

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