The Boss Strikes Back

Analysis: Whether faced with real or phantom menaces, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has reacted with his customary financial force and fury.

The Yankees Get Alex Rodriguez

February 17, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has gone to great lengths to maintain his dollar-driven dynasty, but - believe it or not - the acquisition of superstar Alex Rodriguez is not about The Boss' flexing his substantial economic muscle.

This time, it's personal.

Steinbrenner has bought more than his share of American League pennants and World Series trophies, and he certainly is not above doing that again, but his motivation for pushing the Yankees' payroll near $200 million is much more complicated.

It is about a rivalry with the Boston Red Sox that has never been more visceral.

It is about the loyalty of two pitchers who have moved on to help another team rise up against him.

It is about a group of small-market teams that ganged up to punish the Yankees for their financial success and grab millions in a revenue-sharing program aimed at cutting them off at the knees.

It's even about improving AL East teams in Baltimore and Toronto who could pose a long-range threat to the existing balance of power in the division.

It is about a team under siege from several directions.

Remember, it was Red Sox chief executive Larry Lucchino who threw down the gauntlet last winter when he labeled the Yankees "The Evil Empire" after they signed international stars Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras to rich contracts. Then Boston came within an extra-inning home run of keeping the Yankees out of the World Series.

The classic rivalry dates to baseball's Golden Era, but the Yankees have always found a way to trump the Red Sox. Steinbrenner just did it again, after Boston acquired power pitcher Curt Schilling and reliever Keith Foulke and came close to getting Rodriguez for difficult outfielder Manny Ramirez in December.

The Yankees spent most of the winter reacting. Andy Pettitte jumped to the Houston Astros as a free agent and lured fellow Yankee Roger Clemens out of retirement for one more shot at the postseason, maybe even against their old team in the 2004 World Series. They were quickly replaced with Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez, with free-agent slugger Gary Sheffield thrown in to offset the loss of Nick Johnson in the Vazquez deal.

The Rodriguez deal was different, even though it was made after the Yankees lost third baseman Aaron Boone to a severe knee injury. General manager Brian Cashman acquired third baseman Mike Lamb from the Rangers to compete with a group of in-house candidates for the position. It was a hole, but it wasn't a crisis that required a $112 million solution ... especially when the loss of Alfonso Soriano in the deal created a new void at second base.

Steinbrenner acquired Rodriguez because everyone assumed that he wouldn't. He thumbed his nose at the revenue-sharing crowd by pumping up his payroll to the point where he'll have to contribute millions more to small-market teams.

The arrival of Rodriguez also sends a message from Steinbrenner to the Orioles and the Blue Jays: If you were waiting around for my team to get old and fall off the mountaintop, it might be a long wait.

Rodriguez, just entering his prime at 28, is now locked in pinstripes for the next seven years. Derek Jeter, the club's other Armani infielder, also is signed for the foreseeable future. Vazquez, considered a superstar in the making, joins Brown, Mike Mussina and Contreras in a solid rotation. No change of the guard appears imminent.

There has been a huge talent shift toward the AL East, fueled by the front-office rivalry with the Red Sox and the dynamic renovation of the Orioles offense, but that may actually reduce the likelihood the wild-card playoff entrant will come from the league's deepest division.

The recent switch to an unbalanced schedule means the improved Yankees and Red Sox may face stiffer competition from below them in the standings than the top teams in the other divisions. If that seems like an esoteric concept, consider the Red Sox will play the Yankees, Orioles and Blue Jays a total of 57 times, while the eventual runners-up in the Central and West may have only a couple of competitive teams in their own divisions.

In theory, that could keep the second-best American League team out of the playoffs and out of Steinbrenner's hair, though he probably didn't think that deeply about it when he sent Cashman after Rodriguez.

Pay the Yankees or ...

For about $200 million, you coulds pay the salaries of this season's Yankees. The again, you could spend it much more creatively. Here's a look at some of the things you could buy that would add up to $200 million:

Rolls-Royce Corniche: $360,785

56-foot yacht: $ 1 million

Used Learjet 31A (1998, low milage): $3.95 million

Trip to International Space Station: $20 million (cost to Dennis Tito in 2001)

50-inch plasma HD-ready wide-screen television: $8,800.

Membership at Caves Valley Golf Club: $125.000 (plus annual dues of $8,000)

Arena Football League team: $16 million

Grand suite on Queen Elizabeth 2 around-the-world cruise: $375,000

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