After lying lower this off-season than Raul Mondesi‘s on-base percentage, the Yankees made their first moves last weekend—by playing hardball. Crouching (Gene) Michael, Hidden (Brian) Cashman threw a swift punch to Robin Ventura‘s wallet, re-signing him for 2003 at $5 million (or 39 percent less than his previous $8.25 million paycheck). Next, they said sayonara to lifelong Yank Ramiro Mendoza, the injury-prone reliever dubbed “the Iceman” for his impassive game demeanor. Then, on Friday night, they put a two-year, $4.6 million contract up for grabs—and gave the Braves’ Chris Hammond, ex-Met Mark Guthrie, and their own Mike Stanton 15 minutes to decide. (Whoever bit first would get the job.) Not only did the Bombers break new ground in player negotiations with their bizarre immunity challenge (what next, pin the tail on Don Zimmer?), they revealed a cold-blooded ruthlessness worthy of the Corleones. Instead of offering arbitration to Stanton, linchpin of the Torre-era bullpen, they made him an offer he had to refuse. A few days earlier the sanguine southpaw, expecting a three-year deal for at least $10 million, had observed, “The Yankees do things their own way.” Do they ever.

While Steinbrenner‘s henchmen garnered headlines with their antics, they’re not the only nasty boys this winter. Atlanta proposed a meager $1.1 million for one year to Hammond; MLB, by refusing to increase the Expos’ budget to a modest $50 million, has forced a fire sale of their top players. The Royals and Reds, despite promising to spend their luxury-tax/revenue-sharing windfall on improving their rosters, are just pocketing it. So the small-minded small-market owners got exactly what they wanted from the new labor agreement: virtual (hence legal, unlike their lawbreaking tactics of the ’80s) collusion to hold salaries down. It may be the 21st century, but it’s back to the future for the Boss Tweeds of baseball. —J.Y. Yeh


Now that the resin-bag dust is settling on the Tom Glavine signing, we’re curious to find out exactly who the Mets think is going to field the baseball on the left side of the diamond when their new ace is on the mound, as well as who’s going to pitch the seventh and eighth innings of the games that said new ace will start but rarely finish. Our curiosity stems from the questionable roster moves made—or rather, not made—by the Mets last week. Fearing that some of their players would get more in arbitration than on the supposedly belt-tightened open market (a market they just helped drive up, of course, by giving the aging Glavine a guaranteed three-year deal worth nearly $12 million a season), the Mets jettisoned not only third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, but setup relievers Mark Guthrie and Steve Reed as well—all of whom, even if they went to arbitration and won, would probably not total the $15 million salary that Mo Vaughn will put in the bank (or the drive-through window at Wendy’s) in 2003. This leaves the Mets with no third baseman, a shortstop (Rey Ordoñez) who doesn’t want to be here and makes too much ($6.25 mil) to be traded anyway, and a bullpen that has no real lefty except 42-year-old, surgically amended John Franco, who missed all of last year (and who will make $3.75 mil whether he pitches again or not). Rather than saving money by developing young players, sole owner Fred Wilpon just keeps throwing his bankroll at veterans who are mainly after contracts, not championships. —Billy Altman


It’s drawn little notice from the androcentric daily press, but lately WNBA franchises have begun dropping like—well, like ABA franchises. First to close up shop were the Orlando Miracle, in October; they were joined Thanksgiving weekend by the Miami Sol. Rumors that one of the two would land in San Antonio—previously promised a WNBA team for 2003—abruptly halted last Thursday, when the Utah Starzz announced they’d be the ones Texas-bound (the Spurzz?), leaving the WNBA with just 14 chairs for 16 franchises.

For fans wondering what’s changed since the league welcomed four expansion teams in 2000, blame the usual culprit: the economy. “The league got off to an unbelievable start because the NBA was able to persuade a lot of sponsors to sign on,” notes David Carter of L.A.’s Sports Business Group. But with the WNBA requiring teams to find their own sponsors (and pay their own players) from here on out, explains Carter, many owners may decide it’s no longer worth the hassle, especially as the sponsorship market dries up. “They certainly expanded too rapidly,” he says. “I think they were intoxicated with the growth opportunity and didn’t understand the reasons for it.”

Could there be more high-tops yet to drop? While high-drawing clubs like the Liberty and the Washington Mystics are probably on safe ground, less certain are the bottom three teams in attendance last year—the Detroit Shock, Charlotte Sting, and Seattle Storm—plus the Portland Fire and Minnesota Lynx, neither of whom have moved to fill coaching vacancies this winter. And while the league is for the first time considering placing clubs in non-NBA cities, the only likely candidate at the moment is Hartford, where the New England Blizzard led the ABL in attendance each of that league’s three seasons (and where Nykesha Sales of the now-homeless Miracle is one of many gods in the local Husky-grad pantheon). Miami, meanwhile, looks headed for a dispersal draft, raising the burning question: Debbie Black and Teresa Weatherspoon in the same backcourt? —Neil deMause

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