|Friday, December 27
Steinbrenner wielded his power in signing Contreras
By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com
The insult, delivered from Fenway and fired straight to the Bronx, reached all the way to Tampa on Thursday where Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's anger bubbled close to the surface. So say members of the Yankees front office, who insist Red Sox president Larry Lucchino's comments about the Bombers' "evil empire" nearly prompted a public response from The Boss, but not quite.
"He's seething," one club official said of Steinbrenner, who nevertheless declined comment. But that's not to say the Yankees altogether ignored Lucchino's bitter assessment. When the Boston executive told the New York Times, "the evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America," after Cuban free agent Jose Contreras had chosen the Yankees, one Bomber official shot back.
"The Red Sox have no right to complain about the way we spend, considering they voted for this (Basic) Agreement," the executive said. "They must've been satisfied that this system was fair, the way it taxes us and takes 34 percent of our local revenue and gives it to other teams. But they voted for it and they're still complaining? Give me a break."
The Yankees say it's not their problem that Contreras had already made up his mind to wear Pinstripes and that no amount of Red Sox money was going to blur that preference. Yankees officials say so, in response to suggestions that any deal that could've been consummated so quickly -- just 24 hours after clubs were legally allowed to begin negotiating with Contreras -- must've been rigged.
Quite the contrary, the Yankees said. It was the Red Sox who, if they didn't break industry rules, went to bizarre extremes to ensure a negotiating edge. Bomber officials said Boston's entourage booked every available hotel room in Managua, Nicaragua, where talks were being held -- hoping to monopolize Contreras and his agent Jaime Torres long enough to sway the pitcher to Fenway.
It didn't work. As Yankees GM Brian Cashman put it, "we were told by both the player and the agent that they wanted this negotiation concluded before Christmas, and that Contreras wanted to be a Yankee. Obviously, we're happy to have him."
Upon learning of Contreras' decision, Boston GM Theo Epstein reportedly broke a window and a door in the same Managua hotel. Team spokesman Kevin Shea denied the incident ever occurred. But, according to the New York Daily News, Epstein broke a chair during the winter meetings in Nashville after realizing free agent Edgardo Alfonzo had chosen the Giants over the Red Sox.
Epstein's anger is understandable, especially in its focus towards the Yankees. He is, after all, competing against the richest sports machine in baseball history, and as any other owner will attest, Steinbrenner refuses to lose the dollar-war. Yankees insiders say The Boss instructed his lieutenants weeks ago to land Contreras -- no matter what the Red Sox offered, even if they were prepared to pay $40 million over four years.
As it turned out, Contreras' eagerness to play for the Yankees snuffed out a bidding war before it ever started, and kept Steinbrenner from paying more than the $32 million over four years that Contreras agreed to. Even so, the Yankees' payroll is now at a staggering $140 million, and that's not even counting the $9 million deal Roger Clemens is expected to sign within days.
In fact, it's possible the Yankees will pay in excess of $50 million in luxury tax and revenue-sharing costs in 2003, which is why officials question why other teams are still complaining about Steinbrenner's commitment to winning.
Said one Yankee official, "the more Steinbrenner spends, the more that eventually goes back in their pockets. Wasn't that the whole idea behind this (Basic) Agreement, which every team voted to ratify?"
But why, exactly, does Steinbrenner continue to spend, knowing a portion of his wealth is returned to his rivals? Cashman explained, "as long as the fans continue to support us, our owner is going to keep putting money back into this team. It's that simple."
For now, Cashman still believes he can slash the Yankees payroll, which was Steinbrenner's initial impulse after the Basic Agreement's implementation. And he exacted a $3 million pay-cut from Robin Ventura, will get a 25-30 percent reduction from Clemens, and even forced utility man Enrique Wilson to take $20,000 less for 2003. But that was before Steinbrenner became intoxicated with the idea of an international All-Star team, signing Hideki Matsui to a three-year, $21 million contract, and now paying Contreras an average of $8 million a year.
Of course, the Yankees embrace certain risks in relying on foreign players -- the first of which is, who can guarantee their long-term success? After all, no Japanese player has ever come to the major leagues as a home run hitter. And despite Contreras's insistence that he's 31, some baseball people have suggested he's at least four years older.
But Cashman said, "the day you become gun-shy on foreign players, that's when you'll miss out on the next great superstar. You have to rely on your scouts. You can't be afraid to take a chance."
Certainly not if there's a limitless reservoir of cash backing up those gambles. As Giants' assistant GM Ned Colletti told the Los Angeles Times the other day, "The Yankees shop on Rodeo Drive. Most all the rest of us shop in a strip mall."
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.