Since this 2020 season began, Yankees manager Aaron Boone has regularly been asked how playing baseball in empty ballparks has felt different. For the most part, he has answered that once the game is underway, it hasn't all that much.
Yet that wasn’t the case with this weekend’s series against the Boston Red Sox at the Stadium.
“It's been a pretty normal experience, though I will say the last two games against Boston [differed] because obviously any time we play the Red Sox here in the Bronx or at Fenway, it's special,” Boone said in a pregame Zoom news conference. “It's a special environment that you certainly notice and certainly miss having. As well as for our fans, being able to experience such a special sports rivalry.”
The fans, however, are only a small reason that the first two games between the long-time rivals undeniably have lacked pizzazz. The Yankees are among the favorites to win the pennant. The Red Sox have taken a significant step backward and are in rebuilding mode.
With the Yankees (6-1 entering Sunday night's game) atop the AL East and the Red Sox (3-6) in the cellar, the games just don’t feel as big to viewers.
Asked if their places in the standings changes the vibe around the series, Giancarlo Stanton replied, “In terms of the rivalry, you could say that a little bit. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who's over there. We're looking to beat them up a bit.”
He added, “I mean, it definitely didn't feel like an Opening Day versus the Red Sox [like the] norm. But that’s what we’ve got. That’s what the year has in store for us.”
After boasting the largest payroll in baseball the past two seasons, the Red Sox made getting under the luxury tax threshold a priority this past offseason. Boston traded away its top player, free-agent-to-be Mookie Betts, and starting pitcher David Price to the Dodgers and let other free agents walk. Their Opening Day payroll was about 75% of the Yankees’, and much of that was tied up in injured players. The combined salaries of the players on the active roster ranked 16th of 30, according to Spotrac.com.
Also, ace Chris Sale is out after Tommy John surgery and Eduardo Rodriguez, another top starter, is trying to come back from myocarditis after contracting COVID-19.
Aside from Betts, much of the lineup looks familiar: J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts. The pitching has been a different story. Boston's team ERA was second worst in the American League as the Yankees sought to sweep the series on Sunday night.
Yet Boone thinks it is too early to know what these Red Sox really will be this season.
“I look at their lineup and I know how heavy it is and know what they're capable of,” he said. “I know from game-planning and an execution standpoint, we've got to be on top of our game. I understand we get so consumed, especially in the 60-game season with a small sample size, but, in baseball, it is that. It’s been a week of play.
“I look across at some of the names over there and know what they're capable of. So I don't really look at it in a big-picture sense. We're focused on tonight . . . and we got to go play well and try and have a finish off what's been a really successful start to the series.”
The Red Sox will be back for a four-game series at the Stadium on Aug. 14. Perhaps they will have a resurgence before that, bringing back the '‘big game’' feel to the contests. But if the teams continue on their current trajectories, they could be even less buzzworthy.