"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice



Christmas, 2002, and it’s the same as it ever was between the Yankees and the Red Sox. The Yankees signed Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras to a 4-year $32 million on Christmas Eve day, ousting their arch rivals yet again. Contreras had reportedly been Boston’s number 1 priority all winter. But when the bidding was allowed to begin last Monday, it didn’t take long for Boss George and the Yankees to swoop down and snatch the muscle-bound ace right from Boston’s clutches. The deal, was completed by Tuesday afternoon.

Once again, the Yanks beat the Sox. The Yanks get anything they want, while the Sox get bubkus. It’s the same old song. The Boston Globe accurately noted that the “Yankees…are making a mockery of their supposed mandate to cut the game’s fattest payroll.”

But are the Sox better off paying an accomplished amatuer pitching talent like Contreras, essentially the same money the could chose to give to Bartolo Colon? I don’t know that you can say “yes” with any sense of assurance, unless you think Colon is a chump. Peter Gammons citing a “club anaylst whom I deeply respect,” estimated that Contreras would fall in the middle of the pack of this winter’s available pitching crop—ahead of Clemens, Glavine, Ortiz, Dessens, and Hampton, but behind Millwood, Colon, Maddux and Vazquez. I have no true sense of how good Contreras can be; I do feel like Bartolo Colon still has a lot to prove as a bonafide ace, but he did get it together long enough to deliver a fine season last year. We know his stuff is dominant.

In Thursday’s New York Times, Murray Chass suggested that Sox may not be as burned as they may feel. “In fact, one general manager suggested yesterday that by losing out on Contreras, a Cuban defector, the Red Sox could come out ahead. If they aquire Colon instead, the general manager said, the Red Sox would probably have the best 1-2-3 starters in the game.”

That’s a straight up diss to Hudson, Mulder and Zito in Oakland, but the addition of Colon to the Sox sure would put them in the mix.

But for now, Boston’s Larry Lucchino appears content licking his wounds and stoaking the Yankee-Red Sox fire.

“Boston’s desire to at least keep pace with the Yankees, with players, if not expenditures, is fueled by its desire to supplant the Yankees at the top of the A.L. East but also by the bitter relationship between Larry Lucchino, the Boston president, and George Steinbrenner.

‘Steinbrenner has aimed all of his venom at Lucchino,’ a baseball offical said. ‘He told his people “Lose Contreras and you’re done.”‘
“When Lucchino was contacted after the Yankees won Contreras, he initially offered a brusque ‘no comment’ Then he changed his position.

“‘No, I’ll make a comment,’ he said. ‘The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.’ [Did you forget Japan?] Adding another comment, he called the Yankees’ acquisition of Contreras ludicrous, echoing the view of officials of just about every other team…”

There is little doubt that the Yankees are the bullies of baseball. Yo Larry, tell me something I don’t know. Isn’t this the way it’s been for the better part of 80 years? The Yanks used to be U.S. Steel, today they’re Microsoft. I understand the criticisms of the Yankees as a ruthlessly cold spending machine. It’s hard to begrudge anyone their sense of righteous indignation when it comes to the Yanks. For most baseball fans, hating the Yankees is an inalienable right.

Signing the Cuban pitcher Contreras just adds fuel to the Yankee-haters’ inferno. What makes it different in Boston is that it is personal. If not with the players, then at least with the fans, not to mention management. Lucchino is preaching to the choir when he calls the Yankees “The Evil Empire”. What, did the Contreras deal suddenly change somebody’s mind about the Yanks? No, but perhaps it gave voice to the anger that must have shot through Red Sox Nation Christmas Eve. Lucchino’s frustration is understandable, but he came across as second-rate, James Woods red ass calling the Yankees the “Evil Empire”. He looks like a whiner. If he were still in San Deigo, fine. But the Sox cursing out the Yanks amounts to Gimbels bitching about Macys.

Not that George doesn’t deserve it. George courts it. George Will wrote that “Steinbrenner is a bore and a buccaneer, overflowing with the animal spirits that fuel capitalism in its rawer forms.” Regardless of the new baseball climate, Steinbrenner has remained obstinate, no matter how many cavities may go unfilled in the lower ranks of the Yankee family tree. When the chips are down, he’s going to outspend everyone to put a winning team on the field. His fellow owners may gripe, MLB may cringe, but there it is, Boss George upholding a time honored tradition.

(The agents aren’t complaining however. “Steinbrenner is just unbelievable,” one agent told the Daily News the other day. “He just doesn’t give a damn. God bless him. He’s obviously gonna spend whatever he feels like he needs to win. He’s unbelievable.”)

“Are the Yankees good for baseball?” For me, the answer is simple because I’m a Yankee fan. For the average fan, I would most likely think the answer would be “no”. As much as the Yankees polarize fans, is the answer simply black and white?

In an article published on August 6, 1990, just prior to Steinbrenner’s second lengthy suspension from baseball, George Will wrote, “It is baseball’s double misfortune that Steinbrenner is not just an owner, but the owner of the Yankees. Damn them to your heart’s content, they have been important to the game’s health…[Competitive] balance is better for baseball than the sort of dominance the Yankees enjoyed [from 1926-64]…However, it was good for baseball when the most glamorous team, the Yankees, had glamour. To be blunt, Steinbrenner’s mismanagement of the Yankees matters much more than the mismanagement of the Braves. The Yankees, the source of so much of baseball’s most stirring history—Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle–are simply irreplaceable as carriers of a tradition that lends derivative glory to teams that compete against them.”

Without discounting the greatness of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Schilling, the Dimondbacks will be most famous for defeating the great Mariano Rivera and putting an end to the Yankees stranglehold on the Championship trophy, pure and simple.

Of course Will’s article was written at a time when Steinbrenner had all but wrecked the once-great Yankee franchise.

“Of course, nothing lasts. The ravages of time are lethal, especially when assisted by the ravages of a Steinbrenner. The Yankes were once, it seemed, one of those rare institutions that could not be ruined…The Yankees had a huge market, a vibrant farm system, a fat treasury, an inspiring tradition. And yet they were brought low by the ten-thumbed touch of their owner.”

My how times have changed.

Throughout the recent run of Yankee success (1994-present) it’s interesting to note just how strong a resemblance George Steinbrenner’s public reputation compares with that of his favorite president, Richard Nixon. After serving his second suspension, Geroge lucked his way into great fortune: the opportunity for redemption. Not just for the depressed Yankee organization, but for his own legacy.

Nixon seemed to have succesfully repaired much of the damage he brought on himself by the close of his life. He was an elder statesman, once-disgraced, but in the great American tradition, forgiven. If Nixon was not venerated he was begrudgingly respected. He wore his detractors out, or at least died trying.

George Steinbrenner will die out-spending his enemies. That hasn’t changed since he bought the team in 1973. I doubt whether George himself has actually changed that much either, but even George isn’t dumb enough to dick up Joe Torre’s restoration job of the Yankees. The George of 2002 is a more guarded, veiled ruler. Where he once battled his players and managers for the biggest headlines and photographs in the newpapers and on television, George has been relatively content to operate from the distance of Tampa, on the low.

Everything is relative though. George may not humiliate his employees in public much any more, but behind closed doors the monster still roars.

I’ll take today’s George over the old George, any day. It’s easier to swallow. At least most of George’s tumult is implied, reported second hand these days. While his lust for the personal gratification of celebrity may have waned, his lust for success at any cost is still ripe. When the papers report that everybody’s ass is on the line if Contreras doesn’t get signed, we take them at their word.

By this point, anyone who has followed the Yankees for more than 15 years, knows the script. We’ve practically memorized it. Only the names and dates have change. At this point Yankee fans can be thankful that George’s wrath is properly directed at the rest of the league, and not at itself.

Who knows how much George’s “baseball people” wanted Contreras? This clearly became a pissing contest with the Red Sox, and George doesn’t lose many of them.

As a Yankee fan, I’m resigned to George’s “star fucker” deals as a fact of life. Why fight it? Do I take great joy in beating out the Sox in December? Hardly. By nature, I’m too superstitious for that. At least the championship core is still intact. There is no telling how long this run will last before the downward cycle begins again. But with George in charge, there is always the possibility that it may come sooner than later. “[Steinbrenner] lacks an attribute essential for baseball (and, not coincidentally, for democracy): patience, ” concluded Will, 12 years ago. “One cause of Steinbrenner’s downfall is that at first he seemed able to buy success. His swashbuckling impatience seemed validated by spending (for Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, especially) that helped produced the 1977 and 1978 Series winners. But baseball is a great leveler, punishing the impatient who throw money rather than intelligence at problems.”

The Yankees have justly been praised for balancing the two since their return to glory. But that delicate balance is always threatened by the bully behind the curtain.

…What About the Mets?

The Mets were resoundingly bumped off the backpages this week, but Bob Klapisch reports on the impact Cliff Floyd may have out at Shea next year.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver