It is still the Yankees and the Red Sox, except that it is not. It is now the Red Sox and the Yankees, very clearly in that order. This is not necessarily a permanent condition. But it certainly is a different condition.
When the two teams meet this weekend in Fenway Park for three games, the new order of things will be given something of a test drive. It is true that neither of the teams will be in first place in the American League East when the series opens on Friday night. It is also true that neither of them will bring even a winning record to this occasion. But recent history states clearly that one of them will be in first place when the season ends. The stakes have in no way been diminished.
Nobody can subtract any of the 26 World Series championships won by the Yankees. Their historical standing remains intact. But for the moment, when the rest of baseball gazes up to see the best in the game, they see the Red Sox.
The Sox, in addition to being the defending World Series champions, are the only team to have won two World Series in this relatively new century. The Yankees are eight years removed from their most recent Fall Classic victory. The Yankees, in fact, have not won a postseason series in over three years. The postseason turning point seems to have been the epic 2004 AL Championship Series in which a 3-0 New York advantage turned out to be not quite enough.
Last year, the Red Sox, before they even reached the level of October triumphs, had broken the Yankees' nine-year stranglehold on first place in AL East. Thus, there could be no contending that the 2007 Red Sox were, in the way of the 2004 Boston club, a Wild Card team that became hot at precisely the right moment. The 2007 Red Sox were better than the 2007 Yankees for roughly seven months.
What next? The 2008 Yankees have an altered organizational direction; new for them, traditional for the game. They are increasingly focused on homegrown talent, particularly pitching talent. In the not-so-distant past, the Yankees would have traded every prospect with a pulse for a Johan Santana. This winter, they just said no to that sort of approach, allowing Santana to head for Mets and the other league, but retaining their core of prized young pitching prospects.
Over time, if this approach is maintained, this will be one of the most intelligent things the Yankees could have done. If you combine a truly productive player development system with the Yankees' advantage in financial resources, you are looking at a theoretically unbeatable situation.
But that's a long-term outlook, and there will be the question whether the Yankees will have the organizational patience to stay the course. For the moment, the Yankees will be depending on two young pitchers in their rotation. While there is no doubt about the potential of either Phil Hughes or Ian Kennedy, even the most talented young pitchers will scuffle periodically. But better those two growing into the job than this year's version of Kevin Brown being paid enormous sums for past performances that can no longer be duplicated.
The Red Sox also have two young pitchers -- Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz -- in their rotation. Over the course of the season, the success of both teams will be determined not only by the development of their young pitchers, but by the depth and quality of their entire staffs. This is the area in which the Red Sox, after years of chasing, finally caught and surpassed the Yankees.
No one can reasonably doubt the offensive punch of the Yankees, a team that led the Majors with 968 runs last season and returns essentially the same personnel. But some of the mainstays are at less than full health, even before the rigors of the regular season have taken effect. Derek Jeter missed time this week with a quadriceps strain. Jorge Posada has a shoulder problem.
The Red Sox haven't been pain-free either (Curt Schilling's shoulder, more briefly Josh Beckett's back, more recently Mike Lowell's injured left thumb). Even World Series victories do not come with warranties.
For a long time, this rivalry was a one-way street. The Red Sox had hopes and aspirations. The Yankees had championships. The 2004 postseason changed that. Everything that happened in 2007 changed it further.
But it is still a one-of-a-kind rivalry. First baseman Sean Casey, new to the Red Sox, but an 11-year big league veteran, said of joining the fray: "I've only seen it from afar and admired it from afar, but I think that every player who plays Major League Baseball would love to experience that rivalry first-hand."
Now we come to the 2008 edition of The Rivalry. For the moment, the roles have changed, but the intensity, the meaning, the stakes -- none of that will be altered.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.