Red Sox's Lucchino must resurrect A-Rod deal

ON BASEBALL

December 21, 2003|By PETER SCHMUCK

Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino probably meant every word of it when he said Thursday that the blockbuster deal to send Manny Ramirez to the Texas Rangers for superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez was dead, but that doesn't mean it won't get done.

Lucchino isn't above a little bluster. He was understandably angry and frustrated when the Major League Baseball Players Association rejected a plan to restructure the remainder of Rodriguez's record $252 million contract. It's also fair to assume he was a bit peeved at Rodriguez for publicly siding with the union after tentatively agreeing to the deal.

When Lucchino gets mad, he has been known to shoot from the lip.

Remember, it was Lucchino who angrily branded the New York Yankees "The Evil Empire" after they signed international stars Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras last winter. Now, the Red Sox seem more than willing to walk on the dark side in the pursuit of their first world championship since 1918.

The A-Rod deal was going to be the bold stroke that put them over the top in their long-standing rivalry with the Yankees, so it will be no surprise when the highly competitive Lucchino changes his mind and resumes negotiations with the Rangers to find a way to get it done without upsetting baseball's collective bargaining relationship.

What choice does he have?

The Red Sox clearly have painted themselves into an uncomfortable corner. They have not done a good job of hiding their attempts to ship out marquee shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to make room on the infield for Rodriguez. Now, they might have to trade him regardless of the outcome of the A-Rod situation.

They also have made it clear to Ramirez that they are so tired of his strange act that they are willing to do just about anything within economic reason (a relative concept in baseball, to be sure) to get rid of him.

Lucchino has several options, but only one solves all the Red Sox problems. He'll soon have to summon up all the dark power of the new Evil Empire North and declare the Rodriguez deal undead.

Then the dominoes finally will begin to fall. Garciaparra will go to either the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Odalis Perez or to the Chicago White Sox for power-hitting outfielder Magglio Ordonez. The Red Sox, who already have acquired dominating starter Curt Schilling, will be - at least on paper - as good or better than the Yankees.

And, of course, they'll still lose Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series to the Yankees, because Lucchino will never, ever, be quite as evil as George Steinbrenner.

Labor pains

Union officials got to wear their black hats again when they refused to allow Rodriguez to accept a revised contract that they determined to be worth less than the original, but they did exactly what the players pay them to do: They acted in the best interests of the vast majority of union members.

It would have been easy to make a popular exception to union policy on contract renegotiation, but it would have set a dangerous precedent. The restructured A-Rod deal would have opened the way for major league teams to pressure other players to restructure their contracts to help meet budget goals, pushing baseball closer to an NFL-style economy.

There might be an argument to be made that the NFL model would be good for Major League Baseball, but the union can't be expected to embrace a concept that it has resisted for decades - to the unquestionable benefit of the players.

Counterpoint

The case could be made, however, that making an exception in A-Rod's situation might actually benefit the union, since the possibility of future contract flexibility might make it easier for baseball owners to justify other mega-deals like the ones given to Rodriguez and Ramirez.

No doubt, union obstruction of the A-Rod/Ramirez deal has simply given owners one more reason to limit the length and value of superstar contracts, not that they needed much more convincing.

Games people play

Orioles officials were not happy when free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez told a Miami television station that the O's had offered him a four-year contract. Their insistence that they still are offering only three years came with the implication that agent Scott Boras is trying to manipulate the market to improve I-Rod's value.

The club believes that Boras has embarked on a disinformation campaign to convince rival free-agent catcher Javy Lopez that the Orioles are low-balling him. In theory, if Lopez takes the bait and signs elsewhere, I-Rod's bargaining position with the Orioles would be greatly enhanced.

There's no way of knowing if their suspicions are true, but Boras is so good at maximizing the value of his clients that almost anything is plausible.

Boras, who re-acquired I-Rod as a client after Jeff Moorad was unable to get him a suitable three-year deal last winter, would seem to be under pressure to get a much better contract from the Orioles than the one Moorad bypassed last year.

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