There’s only one way Yankees-Rays hatred can go too far: Sherman

I am in on bat flips. Encourage decorative footwear. Support swinging 3-0 regardless of the score.

I am a baseball fan of a certain age, yet none of this bothers me. Players should express themselves and not feel handcuffed by the unwritten rules — the only rules that matter are the ones that are actually, you know, rules.

But I am out on all the fraternization — and there is an in-print rule on this, a rare positive in pandemic baseball. In section 5.2 of MLB’s Operations Manual for playing amid COVID-19 comes this: “Players on opposite teams should not socialize, fraternize, or come within six feet of each other before the game, during warm-ups, in between innings, or after the game.”

Like the prohibition against spitting and walk-off dogpiles, this too was frequently ignored in 2020. Players from opposing teams just can’t avoid pre-game bromance gestures with friends, former teammates and countrymen.

Save it for after the game or away from public viewing if you must. Fans, I believe, want at least the illusion that it matters as much to the players as them, and hugging and yucking it up with the opponent 90 minutes before first pitch makes that harder. This is competition. The other guy is trying to keep you from all your personal and team goals. Stop hugging him.

So, yes, give me the Yankees and Rays because all they will be exchanging next week in their Division Series are glares and harsh words. I do not want it to escalate to 96-mph fastballs up at the head. Again, purposefully throwing at someone is against the written rules. But hard play and hard feelings, bring that on. The site might be neutral, the city among our most pleasant (San Diego), but I am pretty sure the Yankees and Rays would loathe each other even if they were sharing a spa day, much less a baseball field.

Maybe I am longing for Yankees-Red Sox from 2003-04, baseball with the most passion I have ever eyewitnessed. Those teams hated each other’s past and present, and certainly had the aim of making the other’s future miserable. It informed the play. Every pitch was laced with meaning, ardor, intensity. Losing was more than losing, winning more than winning.

Yankees-Rays does not have decades of baseball war and lore. It has no seminal starting point like the sale of Babe Ruth. Evan Longoria going deep in Game 162 in 2011 might have gotten the Rays into the playoffs, but it didn’t knock the Yankees out of the playoffs the way that Bucky “Freaking” Dent did to the Red Sox in Game 163 in 1978.

Still, for as much as the “I follow him on Insta” crowd can muster animus, the Yankees and Rays have it. The Rays long have reveled in being baseball Davids standing up to the Goliaths. They cannot go dollar for dollar with the Yankees or Red Sox. But they will go inside pitch for inside pitch, plunking for plunking, trash talk for trash talk.

This is an organization designed to maximize any edge it can derive and getting under the Yankees’ skin and throwing the overdog off its game was part of the Rays dominating the season series 8-2.

In a mostly quiet stadium, the two sides will hear each taunt, every insult. Every fastball that misses in will get the full Zapruder treatment. Neither side will be much into providing the benefit of the doubt for the other.

It is all schoolyard-y to play who said what first or which purpose pitch initiated hostility, but whatever was the trigger, the feud is real. The last few years have been hot and this year went from simmer to boil on Sept. 1, when Aroldis Chapman’s fastball and Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash’s veiled threats both came with purpose. Chapman was suspended three games (not yet served) for whistling a 101 mph heater over Mike Brosseau’s head. Cash responded by questioning the ethics of the Yankee coaching staff and noting the Rays have “a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph. Period.”

Them there are fighting words. Oh right, fighting is illegal this year too. But hatred is totally cool. So for those of us who want the teams to not like each other because it raises the intensity and stakes of games, count me among those who can’t wait for the Yankees-Rays Division Series.

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