The Joneses thumb the Red Sox

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Red Sox owner John Henry just emerged from an office at Fenway Park and saw his shadow. That should be good for at least six more months of winter in New England.

"Beating the Yankees is what people live for," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman crowed Monday, "and it's what they're going to continue to do."

So much for Boston's master plan to keep up with the Joneses. Three seasons may have come and gone since the Yankees last won the World Series, but it's only been eight weeks since they found something else to lord over the rest of baseball.

And now this.

Now they trot out Alex Rodriguez in pinstripes, so The Boss can strut and pose by his side and remind everybody why he's the most hated man in baseball. As if the bruised and battered Red Sox Nation actually needed reminding.

"George Steinbrenner is the center of evil in the universe," actor and unofficial Boston spokesman Ben Affleck said.

We'll address that in a moment, but first, admit that you figured that brief fainting spell last month would slow down George, if only for a little while. So did Henry and the rest of the folks over at Fenway. Weeks earlier, Steinbrenner responded to their pickup of ace Curt Schilling by landing two big-game pitchers of his own, Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez. Then, for good measure, he brought in slugging outfielder Gary Sheffield and veteran leadoff man Kenny Lofton.

But that's the difference between King George and everybody else. He never, ever stands pat.

He's the guy sitting at a blackjack table holding 18 and saying "hit me" when the cards come around. That he happened to draw the card the Red Sox so desperately wanted only made it all the more satisfying. It's not just the biggest trade in baseball since Boston put Babe Ruth on the train to New York; it's also The Boss' most diabolical. Ever.

The Red Sox courted A-Rod first, and they did so shamelessly. They offered to pick up what remained on his quarter-billion-dollar contract, trade away their two best everyday players, and leave tickets at the box office for every one of Rodriguez' yet-to-be-born grandchildren for the rest of time. Yet after all that aggravation, still some $20 million apart from sealing the deal, Boston folded its hand. And Steinbrenner saw to it they weren't dealt another one.

While everybody else in baseball has one eye trained on the bottom line, the Yankees spend.

They will go to spring training with a payroll of about $185 million. That's more than six times what some of their competitors will spend and approximately $50 million more than their closest pursuers, the Red Sox, will part with. Their revenue sharing and luxury-tax bill alone came to $62 million last year. And Steinbrenner hardly needed reminding that that's a few dollars more or less than the Diamondbacks, Angels and Marlins each spent to capture the last three World Series.

Because that's the beauty of being The Boss. He may be, as Affleck moaned, the center of all evil in baseball, but the Red Sox and everybody else can't pretend that's news. While a weak-kneed commissioner and all the other owners wrestle with questions of competitive balance, he worries only how to make the Yankees better. Better still, when the business is personal, as it has become with the Red Sox.

Sure, New York needed a third baseman after Aaron Boone went down. And who knew that the best player in the game, not to mention the best shortstop ever, would be willing to change positions? The answer is nobody. But Cashman knew exactly why the Red Sox struck out, and he also knew that if a similar deal with A-Rod fell into his lap, a blank check from Steinbrenner would be burning a hole in his pocket.

A-Rod doesn't solve all of New York's problems. Jason Giambi's shaky knee and Joe Torre's even wobblier job status are major concerns, especially since the manager will need a different chemistry set to keep the clubhouse percolating at the same steady rhythm of the last few years.

Still, imagine how the Red Sox must feel. They just spent all the change they could scrounge from between the sofa cushions to upgrade their house, only to discover the neighbors just put on a new addition.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist with The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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