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Now, as to Mr. Johnson: All he did was back his ball club, the Arizona Diamondbacks, into a complete corner. Since beating the Yankees in the 2001 World Series, the Diamondbacks had fallen on hard times, and by the middle of last year, with Arizona mired in last place and a year and a half left on his contract, Johnson began making noise that he might waive his own no-trade clause if, say, the Yankees were involved. Why? Well, Johnson knew that ever since he helped beat them in '01, Steinbrenner has coveted himand he also knew that no other team in baseball would be willing to pay $16 million a year for a pitcher past the age of 40. (Unless his name is Roger Clemens, that is. Suffice it to say that if the Yankees had known that the red-glaring Rocket wasn't really going to retire, Johnson probably wouldn't have been so hotly pursued and certainly not for that kind of money.) Though the Johnson trade didn't happen in time for Darth Steinbrenner to make use of him last year, Johnson will indeed be in pinstripesvery long pinstripesas the Yankees look to settle their score with the Bosox next year.
It should be noted that as absorbing as this latest round of can-you-top-this? wheeling and dealing may be for local baseball fans, most people outside New Yorkor at least outside the Northeast and the ever frothing Red Sox Nationfind all these eight- and nine-figure machinations to be just more stark evidence of the decline of authentic competitiveness in our so-called national pastime. Without pro basketball's salary caps or its successful, we're-all-in-it-together owner-player philosophy, or football's multi-graded free-agent slottings, Major League Baseball continues to let the discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots spiral on their merry way. It's often forgotten that as recently as the mid '90s, major-league teams were restricted in the number of free agents they could sign, which prevented wholesale turnover of personnel and encouraged the development and retainment of players brought up through team minor-league systems. Which, in turn, helped fans develop relationships and loyalties to individual players. That such a notion seems almost nostalgic now is one of the sorrier facts of life on the modern baseball diamond.
Apropos of which: Don't go expecting the Big Unit to fully embrace the Big Apple anytime soonif ever. At that January 11 news conference, Johnson reiterated how grateful he was for his years with the Diamondbacks, and how much he liked it there. In fact, the native Californian dryly noted, even though he was now a Yankee, he and his family would continue to live in Arizona. Hearing that put one in mind of the old Buck Owens hit: "I Wouldn't Live in New York (If They Gave Me the Whole Danged Town)." Put that in your spin cycle.
Billy Altman writes frequently about sports, music, and pop culture.