Cons: It's a rehash of every other angle of the rivalry
The Bottom Line: Also appears on Lit Bases, my blog on baseball literature
Well, that's all, folks. That's all she wrote. After being the MLB headliner for most of the last decade, the universal order appears to have returned, and the Boston Red Sox are again second banana to the New York Yankees in Ma Nature's master plan. It has come time to admit a secret truth that all of us want to deny: The Yanks/BoSox rivalry is sorely one-sided and overrated, except for those two dramatic years in the middle, 2003 and 2004. Sure, the fans are always going to hate each other, and yes the rivalry is a good one for baseball. But let's take a look see at the numbers: The Yankees have 40 Pennants to the Red Sox 14, and 27 titles to Boston's seven.
Even though I wear on my sleeve the logo of the Pinstriped Stormtroopers of the Evil Empire, I am not trying to take anything away from Boston's accomplishments. 14 Pennants and seven titles are numbers most baseball fans would kill to see their own teams reach. (My favorite sports team is the NHL's Buffalo Sabres. Believe me, I know the feeling of cheering a consistent bridesmaid.) The point I'm trying to make is that the fiercest rivalry in professional sports is also one of the most overrated. Yes, they play each other hard and frequently have the talent to equal one another. But in most other respects, this is a bug/windshield rivalry.
What tipped off this frustrated comment? Emperors and Idiots, by Mike Vaccaro. Vaccaro covers sports for the New York Post and has won more than 50 awards for his journalism. In Emperors and Idiots, Vaccaro chronicles the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry through its most powerful and dramatic apex, the 2003 and 2004 seasons. In the process, he coughs up just one more hopelessly insipid commentary on The Rivalry.
It could be that I was simply expecting a lot more, or that Vaccaro showed up too late at this party to look fashionable. The main thing proved by Emperors and Idiots is that there are no more fresh ways to cover the brawls between New York and Boston. The rivalry has been covered at every angle in every conceivable way, shape, and form.
Mike Vaccaro attempts to give us insider accounts, the angle from the fans who follow the teams, the angle from the players, the history, and many of the coincidences of the long-rooted fight. If this sounds like something a million other baseball scribes have tried, that's because it is. There's a reason Peter Golenbock and Roger Kahn and later contemporaries like Jeff Pearlman haven't attempted strict coverage of the Yankees and Red Sox yet: They know the material has been milked so much that the cow is dehydrating. Poor Vaccaro apparently never got the memo that this rivalry is all covered out.
Among the scenes Vaccaro introduces in Emperors and Idiots is one where a Red Sox fan prays at Babe Ruth's grave. He brings us back to the days of the Boston Pilgrims and the New York Highlanders, and opens each chapter with some of the more interesting quotes said about the rivalry. Sometimes the fan viewpoints can be pretty interesting: Vaccaro mentions one couple, at a counselor and about to be married, bringing up their respective loyalties to the Yankees and Red Sox as a potential marital rift. He writes about a Yankees fan who was inspired to his fandom after his first glance at a Reggie! bar. While the fan viewpoints can be interesting, that's not because of anything unique on Vaccaro's part. It's more because every fan has a different way of being a fan. They're also not as prevalent as they could be.
On the player and history front, there is little to say. Emperors and Idiots is detailed enough to be an adventurous primer for those who are new to baseball, the curse mythology, and the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry. Longtime baseball folk, however, will have heard it all before. We get some commentary from the players about the Curse of the Bambino. We get another rehash of the Ted Williams/Joe DiMaggio rivalry. There are recounts of some famous coincidences marking high points in The Rivalry. Fisk/Munson, the collapse of the Red Sox in the 1920's, pretty much all of it is here.
With the wide array of ways in which Vaccaro tries to cover The Rivalry, Emperors and Idiots is just made to lend itself to a lot of skipping around between fans, history, and the modern era, revolving primarily around the two ALCS series which came to define The Rivalry in a way not seen at any other point. Fortunately, there does appear to be a kind of method to Vaccaro's skipping, and many of the sections segue pretty cleanly into the following sections. Vaccaro only covers the important aspects of the games he's writing about, which is to his credit because trying to cram everything he does into Emperors and Idiots really wouldn't lend itself well to detailed play by play narratives.
Vaccaro's writing style isn't exactly bare-boned, but it's pretty slim. Again, this is an advantage because of the range Vaccaro tries to cover. I can also give Vacarro credit for refusing to take a side which is absolutely clear. However, if you're a Boston fan looking for an account of the BoSox's ultimate triumph, hoisting their first Commissioner's Trophy in 86 long years, this ain't your book. An account of the World Series may have helped out the book a little bit, but it's understandable why Vaccaro opted not to include one: First, this book is about the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, and the St. Louis Cardinals, aside from taking the 1946 and 1967 World Series away from the Red Sox, don't play much of a role. The 2004 World Series was hardly memorable. While the Cardinals looked like they might steal the fourth game for a brief moment, Boston used the momentum it took out of Yankee Stadium to administer a royal beatdown in the previous three games that year. While St. Louis was better on paper, the actual Series was an anti-climactic mismatch which Boston won in four games, three being comically one-sided romps.
The Yankees/Red Sox rivalry is often considered the greatest in all of sports. Being a Yankees fan, that's the view I once took myself. But the more you look at history, the more you see that little era in 2003 and 2004 was really the only era in which the Yankees and Red Sox were truly rivals. For 20 years, Boston dominated the American League while New York scrapped in the basement. Then for the next 80, the Yanks rode a streak in which they were always better in the moments which really counted. Even as Boston rebuilt over the last ten years and took home two titles, the Yankees were having dire problems with pitching and team chemistry. That the equally ferocious and more even-handed Giants/Dodgers rivalry is constantly shafted in favor of this one is one of the sport's unlamented tragedies.
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