A League of Their Own

New York baseball clubs' spate of superstar signings is all about the best offer on the table

It was about a year ago that Jerry Seinfeld paid an impromptu visit to WFAN, where he lamented just how much baseball had changed since he was a kid growing up on Long Island and cheering on the Mets. With neither franchises nor players showing much loyalty to anything except the almighty dollar in these greedy times, quipped the comedian, "When you root for a team these days, you're mostly rooting for laundry."

Laundry—soiled laundry, at that—came to mind a few weeks ago when superstar pitcher Randy Johnson made his decidedly less than grand entrance into town as the newest member of the Yankees. Talk about going to the videotape. Watching the umpteenth replay of Johnson's January 10 tirade against a channel 2 cameraman who tried to photograph him as he strode down Madison Avenue en route to a team physical, you couldn't help but be impressed. At 41, the future Hall of Famer showed no signs of age regarding his ability to hurl precision invective after precision invective at the always clear and present danger known as the New York media.

"Don't get in my face," warned Johnson no less than five times in an encounter that lasted all of a minute—although if you want completely accurate stats, one of the spewings was technically a more proactively nuanced "Get out of my face." A curious choice of words, to be sure: The Big Unit is 6-10, and not many mortals outside of those who make their living on a basketball court are physically capable of getting anywhere near—let alone in—his face. And you had to love the additional bonus of hearing Johnson tell the poor lens-bearing schlub not to talk back to him, lest "You'll see what I'm like."

Talk to the hand: New Yankee Johnson
photo: WCBSTV
Talk to the hand: New Yankee Johnson

As they say, nice guys finish last.

Later that day, of course, Johnson released a written apology, as the pitcher was obviously feeling a bit more secure about himself after passing that physical and thereby closing his deal with the Evil Empire—to the tune of a contract extension that will pay him close to $50 million over the next three years. The following afternoon, Johnson used the January 11 Yankee Stadium press conference that "officially" introduced him to town to further apologize for his actions. Sort of. He pledged to try and accommodate the media hordes as much as possible—provided, of course, that everyone understood that on most non-pitching days at the ballpark he wouldn't "cheat himself," timewise, regarding his important physical and mental regimens (an hour of stretching, an hour of scowling, etc.). Nothing like a cold-pressed olive branch.

Meanwhile, across town just a few hours previous, everything at Shea Stadium was sweetness and light as the Mets trotted out their latest acquisition—center fielder Carlos Beltran, the crown jewel of this year's crop of free agents. "I feel proud to be part of a new family," said Beltran. "I call it the 'new Mets' because this organization is going in the right direction, the direction of winning," he elaborated, referring no doubt not only to the fact that general manager Omar Minaya had gotten the OK from owner Fred Wilpon to spend $119 million to secure Beltran's expected power-hitting, fleet-footed, slick-fielding services over the next seven seasons, but had also recently outbid the world champion Boston Red Sox to get their superstar free-agent pitcher Pedro Martinez for four years at a cool 50 mil-plus.

The other direction the Mets are going in, it's been duly noted in the media, is south—as in Latin America. New GM Minaya, who grew up in Queens, is of Dominican descent. Martinez also calls the D.R. home, as we know from hearing him during last year's play-offs, when he conjured up visions of his poverty-stricken youth spent under the spreading mango tree. Beltran is from Puerto Rico, and the Mets tried awfully hard to snag yet another high-profile Puerto Rican native, first baseman–slugger Carlos Delgado, before losing him to one of their division rivals, the Florida Marlins.

While all these story lines are making great copy for a city whose baseball season never sleeps, scratching below the surface of the Johnson, Beltran, and Martinez deals uncovers very different and very sobering narratives. In all these cases—indeed, in virtually all superstar baseball signings in recent memory—we've witnessed nothing more than players going for the best offer on the table, period. For example, while Pedro Martinez insisted that he'd given the Red Sox every chance to re-sign him, leaked details of the negotiations revealed the following: Martinez and his agent simply kept upping their demands (two years plus an option for a third year, then more money, then three years plus an option, then more money) until Boston decided to hold its ground—at which time the only other serious player in the Pedro sweepstakes, the Mets, guaranteed basically the same money and the four years, and got him.

In Beltran's case, agent Scott Boras similarly succeeded in forcing the player's old club, the Houston Astros, to increase its offer of six years for $96 million to seven years for a reported $108 million—only to then demand a no-trade clause on top of that. When Houston, under a time deadline for negotiating because Beltran had rejected its offer of salary arbitration, balked at the no-trade addition, Boras apparently offered the outfielder to the Yankees at a "bargain" price of $100 million for six years before delivering his client to the Mets for seven years, $119 million (that offset the Houston offer—no state income tax in Texas) and the no-trade clause, of course. All of this took place in the space of a few scant hours on Saturday, January 8. That's how tenuous the emergence of Carlos Beltran as the (now) presumptive savior of the "new" Mets really was.

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 him—and 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 pinstripes—very long pinstripes—as 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 York—or at least outside the Northeast and the ever frothing Red Sox Nation—find 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 soon—if 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.

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