What Is A Rivalry?

As I sit here watching game 1 of the Crosstown Classic between the White Sox and Cubs, I think back to comments Bill Simmons has made in the past about the definition of rivalries. Rivalries have seemed to evolve over time from being a culmination of factors to mostly being about fan bases that hate each other. Players don’t hate each other on a personal level like players used to. Part of this is because the pro sports leagues are worried about image and after the Malice at the Palace most leagues are terrified of what could happen. So altercations never escalate and there isn’t as much of a reason for players to hold a grudge later. That begs the question, what dictates a rivalry?

It Has to Mean Something

First and foremost, it has to mean something. I know that every regular season game means something, but there’s degrees of meaningfulness. The six games the White Sox and Cubs play represent just 3.7% of each team’s games in a given season. Compare that to the two Bears vs. Packers games that represent 12.5% of their seasons and 33% of their division schedule. Meanwhile the Sox play the Twins, Tigers and Indians about 20 times each, or about 12% of their games. In the NFL last year, only 4 of the 8 division winners lost more than 2 division games, and two of the divisions winners went 5-1. That means if the Bears lose both games to the Packers, it means that their chance to win the division likely rests on winning all four against the Vikings and Lions.

The White Sox could lose all six to the Cubs and it’s very unlikely the impact would be catastrophic. Those 6 games represent about 3 games back in the standings, and it would seem that in recent history the divisions in the American League are decided by more than 3 games at a pretty stead clip.

There Has to be History

Interleague play has only existed in Major League Baseball since 1997. And although the White Sox and Cubs met in the World Series in 1906, there isn’t a soul alive who remembers it as it happened and most current fans couldn’t name five players total from both teams1. The rivalry has mostly evolved due to fans hatred for each other and the “big brother/little brother” mentality that existed in the 80s and 90s when the Chicago Tribune owned the Cubs. But because the teams didn’t meet regularly before 1997, there isn’t much history, and even now the players don’t get pumped up to play the games anymore than they do playing games against the Oakland A’s or New York Mets.

Counter this with Michigan and Ohio St. in college football where the teams have won a combined 77 of 168 Big Ten Conference titles dating back to their first meeting 1897. These teams have played 107 times dating back to the 1800s! That’s history.

It Has to be Important to the Players

The biggest rivalries exist in college sports. The aforementioned Michigan/Ohio St., Alabama/Auburn, Duke/North Carolina and Florida/Florida St. mean everything to these schools. The ebb and flow2 of college sports means that it’s hard string together long-term success. Additionally due to the fact that there are so many more teams, championships are hard to come by. Therefore, short of a national championship, most players of the teams above would rather go 1-11 and beat their rival than go 11-1 and lose to them.

Players legacies are often defined by their record against their rivals. Terrelle Prior just quit the Ohio St. football team for breaking serious NCAA rules, and yet when you hear his accolades mentioned, the fact that he went 3-0 against Michigan is almost always mentioned. No one is going to talk about Pedro Martinez’s record against the Yankees when they discuss his legacy.

It Has to be (Recently) Competitive

One of Simmons’ major tent poles is the idea that a rivalry has to remain competitive. He argues that prior to 2007-2008 the Lakers/Celtics rivalry hasn’t existed since the 80s. Most fans would probably disagree, but it’s true. They hadn’t played a meaningful game against each other since the 1987 NBA Finals. But after playing each other in three out of four NBA titles and 7 out 8 titles between them from ’80 to ’88, and featuring the two best players of the 80s, it is fair to call their rivalry huge, and when viewed in the vacuum of that time period, perhaps the best ever. But the Celtics failed to make the playoffs 7 out of 8 times from ’93 to ’01. The Lakers won two Championships during that run.

Ohio St. has beaten Michigan seven consecutive times, the last three of which have been pretty lopsided. The 2006 version which featured #1 vs #2 is the last one that could be considered competitive, but when one team wins that many straight times, it devalues the concept.

Wrap Up

So is White Sox/Cubs a true rivalry? It doesn’t mean anything, there isn’t much history and the players/coaches don’t care. It passes the competitive test—White Sox lead regular season series 41-37—but that isn’t enough. This rivalry 100% belongs to the fans. In all likelihood this is because neither team has had a recent history of playing meaningful games. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series in over 100 years and despite the 2005 World Series, the White Sox aren’t a perennial playoff team. In one of these two teams wins 4 or more games in this series their fans will bring it up in any argument between now and Opening Day 2012 unless the other team makes the playoffs. It’s great to see Chicago baseball fans get excited about something, but it’s hard to call what we have a rivalry.

  1. I can’t name one []
  2. Mostly due to the fact that college players play at most four seasons, and often only two or three []