ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Winning creates a rivalry, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays claim, rather than years of testy relations between the teams.
That was the message coming out of the AL championship series Thursday, with both sides trying to play down a history of brawling that’s adding spice to the buildup.
“Bad blood?” smiling Boston slugger David Ortiz said. “There’s no bad blood. This is not the WWF. It’s a baseball game, bro.
“I mean, come on. I walk out there and they’re hugging me, and I hug them back. It’s a game. Sometimes you have things happening. It stays on the field. It’s not like you’re going to walk to the parking lot and wait for somebody,” he said.
The wait for the start of the ALCS is almost over. Game 1 in the best-of-seven series is Friday night.
“I know a lot is being made of past pugilistic events. But that has nothing to do with today. Nothing,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
“Those were when the Devil Rays were really struggling, and the games had an entirely different tone to them. We’re a different team. We’re a different organization now.”
They’re AL East champions, to be more precise. And, looking to end wild-card Boston’s quest for a third World Series title in five years.
Now, that’s something that can turn Rays-Red Sox into a genuine rivalry, Maddon said.
“We had the one incident this year. That to me also is ancient history,” Maddon said, referring to a bench-clearing brawl June 5 at Fenway Park that led to eight suspensions.
“The rivalry is being built because we’re good. That’s why. We’re in the same division and now we’re good. … It has to begin somewhere. It’s got to be this genesis where everything begins. That’s what’s happening right now. This year truly is building into a legitimate rivalry, whereas in the past I think it was more fabricated.”
The tension between the teams lingers in 2000, when Pedro Martinez plunked Gerald Williams in the first inning of a game in which the only hit the Boston ace yielded was a ninth-inning single to John Flaherty.
Williams rushed the mound and was ejected. And, there’s been trouble ever since.
Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford was one of the players suspended in June when Boston’s Coco Crisp charged the mound after being hit with a pitch by James Shields.
Crawford likened the most recent scrap to a younger brother finally deciding to stand up to an older brother who’s always pushing him around.
Crawford noted it was not so long ago the Red Sox were a similar position with the New York Yankees.
“We’re a lot alike,” Crawford said. “And sometimes when get people who are alike get together and going after the same thing, they don’t get along. … It’s not personal, though, between the players. It’s what happens in baseball.”
Boston manager Terry Francona agreed that with what’s at stake in the ALCS, past skirmishes are the furthest thing from the minds of the players.
Shields will start Game 1 for Tampa Bay, facing 18-game winner Daisuke Matsuzaka.
“You want to stick around for the whole series,” said Tampa Bay’s Jonny Gomes, who like Shields, was suspended for his role in the June fight. “No one is going to act out. This isn’t the time or the place.”
The Rays won the season series 10-8, including eight of nine games at Tropicana Field. The Red Sox were 7-2 at Fenway Park, where the series shifts after Red Sox ace Josh Beckett faces Scott Kazmir in Game 2 here Saturday.
Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia said it’s not a fluke the Rays are in the ALCS.
“There were people writing them off in May. They kept plugging away and winning games and ended up winning the American League East,” Pedroia said.
“They proved everybody wrong. They know they belong here and they’re one of the best teams in baseball. If we want to advance to the World Series, we’re going to have to play better than them.”
Eight months ago in spring training — during which the Rays twice scrapped with the Yankees — Maddon dared his young team to believe they not only could compete in the division, but win the pennant.
Now, they’re four victories away.
“One of my early messages was: ‘Let’s understand one thing. Nobody’s going to give us anything, now or in the future. If we want something, we definitely have to take it,” Maddon said.
“That’s how you have to approach it, you’re taking all the time in the most positive selfish way possible.”