If last year's dramatic conclusion of the American League Championship Series (ALCS) between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees wasn't enough to sate even the most rabid sports fans, the fun starts all over again at 5 p.m. PDT Tuesday.
While The New York Times
Web site features an
image of two boxing gloves
emblazoned with the rivals'
logos, the Boston Globe's site
plays up a picture of Red Sox
catcher Jason Varitek punching
Yankees third baseman Alex
Rodriguez in the face.
How heated is this Major League Baseball rivalry? MLB found out for itself this week, when it was forced to recall a Yankees-oriented T-shirt judged as too controversial by many Red Sox fans, who assaulted the league's Web site with a litany of angry missives. The shirts featured the slogan "Hey Red Sox...Who's your daddy?" as an interpretation of Sox hurler Pedro Martinez's recent quote on his frustration with his team's inability to conquer the Yankees.
For the record, the Yankees have won 26 World Series championships since the Red Sox last took the crown in 1918. And last year's Game 7 extra-innings, walk-off homer victory for the New York team may well have been the most exciting moment in the rivalry's history.
The participants in MLB's National League Championship Series were decided late Monday night, when the Houston Astros defeated the Atlanta Braves. Houston will move on and face the St. Louis Cardinals, who eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend. That series will begin at 5 p.m. PDT Wednesday in St. Louis.
The winners of the two league championships will meet next week in the World Series.
Crossed the line
MLB officials acknowledged on Monday that they were bowing to fans' complaints by pulling the "daddy" shirt from store shelves. But even Sox fans could see some humor and perhaps even inspiration in the shirt, as at least one person posting on the league's site observed.
"As a Sox fan, I think it's great because it will come back to reverse the Yankee mojo. The shirt will be our John the Conqueror Root," MLB.com member Serieswin wrote Tuesday.
Yankees fans pointed out in response that Red Sox fans have been wearing politically incorrect garments for years in an effort to vent their frustrations over their team's shortcomings. While acknowledging that the shirts may indeed have "crossed the line of good taste and sportsmanship," MLB.com member Hard Ball wrote that there will undoubtedly be many such shirts on display at Yankee Stadium when the game begins Tuesday night.
MLB.com is also featuring detailed analysis of the two teams' championship series on its home page, in addition to advertisements for a wealth of team and series merchandise. MLB operates the official Web sites for the two teams as well.News sites play along
Among the Web sites giving the most attention to the ALCS are those of the leading newspapers in both New York and Boston.
At first glance, it appears that Boston's papers may be focused more intently on the series than on their New York counterparts. Both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald featured the Red Sox as their top stories on Tuesday morning, while the New York Post gave equal billing to the and The New York Times buried its coverage in a sidebar.
Despite the series headline snubs, the Times, which also owns the Boston Globe, had perhaps the most apropos Web graphic dedicated to the rivalry--an image of two boxing gloves emblazoned in the teams' respective colors.
All four papers created ALCS content hubs to help Web surfers more easily find their baseball coverage. The Globe's Boston.com site took the most direct approach to stirring up fan fervor by using a picture of Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek punching Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez in the face as the centerpiece of its coverage. The two players fought in a regular season game held earlier this year.
In addition to an array of news stories and columns focused on the series, the site also offered Web surfers streaming video, message boards, music, games and a seemingly endless wealth of statistics on both squads.
Of the New York sites, the Times' pages offered the more detailed ALCS information portal. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the series-related coverage was an online slide show featuring pictures and reporting on some of the most emotional moments of the rivalry's recent history.
The first slide in the presentation was clearly meant to tug at Yankees fans' emotions, as it depicted a low moment from Game 3 of last year's league championship, when former Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer, 73, was thrown to the ground by Martinez, 32, after rushing the pitcher during an on-field fracas.
One of the sites covering the Sox-Yanks series with even more effort than the two cities' papers is ESPN.com, the home page for the cable TV sports news network. According to Neal Scarbrough, editor in chief of ESPN.com, the biggest difference in creating this year's package of ALCS content is his company's emphasis on engaging people even as they watch the game on TV.
"As much as anything, we're trying to do more of a live, two-screen experience. So if you're watching the games on TV, we have more available to you online--other than stats and data, which have been our forte in the past," Scarbrough said.
The best example of this effort may be ESPN.com's latest approach to offering real-time online coverage that coordinates with the actual games. For this year's championship series, the site is hoping to keep Web surfers more involved by offering interactive inning-by-inning analysis from its baseball experts that also gives fans the ability to respond in a Web chat format. The site is also encouraging Sox and Yankees fans to vote in online polls that rank the "most hated" members of the two teams throughout their rivalry.
"I think we should have a lively complement online for those watching the game on TV to get in there and throw a few elbows through cyberspace," Scarbrough said. "The difference this year is that we're building more tools to give folks a chance not just to type a comment, but to use technology and data to build their own sense of awareness in relation to the games."
The editor said the Sox-Yanks tradition generates the most interest of almost any sports rivalry ESPN.com covers, with the National Football League's face-off between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys ranking a close second. Scarbrough said ESPN.com makes a conscious effort not to have a bias toward the Sox-Yanks rivalry in order keep fans in other locales from complaining, but that it remains hard to do so based on the network's Bristol, Conn., location.
"I think that we've been able to handle it pretty well. But at the end of the day, we're here in Connecticut between the two cities. And we can't help but be influenced by the tug of war that goes on in our neighborhoods and local sports bars," he said.Fan sites to the fore
In addition to the development of professionally built sites covering MLB and its teams, fan sites have also made significant progress in terms of adding new forms of content, driving greater amounts of traffic and even luring baseball players themselves to join in online discussions.
Among the most popular MLB fan sites on the Web today are those hosting well-used message boards where people can, and do, dissect almost every imaginable aspect of their favorite clubs. The standard bearers in this regard for the 2004 ALCS teams are the Sons of Sam Horn site, which focuses on the Red Sox, and NYYFans.com, an online meeting place for Yankees aficionados.
While message boards are nothing new, specifically in the sports realm--where hard-core fans have been creating places to debate their opinions or jeer their opponents for years, the segment did enjoy a virtual shot in the arm this year. In a series of now famous posts to the Sons of Sam Horn (also known as SoSH.com), pitcher Curt Schilling, the Red Sox starter for tonight's ALCS match-up, began posting about his own impending trade from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Boston team.
According to Jim Frasch, who founded NYYFans in 2000 and continues to operate the site today, traffic has increased dramatically over the last few days. While the site, which has more than 8,000 registered members, typically receives about 80,000 page views per day, it has been averaging almost 110,000 hits each day since the MLB playoffs began last week.
In fact, Frasch said he bought extra server space from his hosting company and disabled registration for the site in order to keep troublesome posters from stirring up trouble among the NYYFans regulars. The people who join the site during the playoffs are typically those supporting competing teams who are looking to rib their rivals, he said.
Surprisingly, Frasch, who runs the site as a "labor of love," said the most annoying users of NYYFans are not the Red Sox devotees who sign on with the intent of provoking the opposition, but rather Yankees fans who dwell on the team's shortcomings or fixate on a somewhat meaningless midseason loss.
And while Frasch said he didn't expect to attract quite so many full-time users to the site when he launched it, he isn't surprised that fans have embraced the message board medium.
"The flood of online interest is only natural," Frasch said. "Sox and Yanks fans are very hard-core; (the rivalry) consumes everything in their lives, and when they go online, they're looking to seek out someplace to discuss things with other fans of the team or banter with fans of the opposing teams."