Hot stove hijinks

The machinations of the baseball “off-season” -- worthy of the attentions of a Metternich or Talleyrand -- grind on. The “Hot Stove” boileth over.

If all the seeds planted at the winter meetings in Indianapolis sprout, it will rage until pitchers and catchers report two months hence. It’s a rich bazaar that lacks only the presence of a Trader Lane working the lobby or a Branch Rickey on the phones.

Trades are the essence of the scene; that which creates the greatest buzz. But they don’t make the epic, nine-man deals like they used to, there being too many impediments nowadays. And there also being too many general managers who don’t have the creative impulses of your neighborhood lamppost.

Consider the off-season of 1947, and the frenzy that seized the game during that holiday season. On consecutive days in November, the Red Sox, backboned by Tom Yawkey’s bottomless pit of a fortune which allowed GM Joe Cronin to wheel and deal merrily, virtually rebuilt themselves overnight.

On the 17th they sent Clem Dreisewerd, Sam Dente and prospects to the St. Louis Browns for Ellis Kinder and Billy Hitchcock. On the 18th they sent Eddie Pellagrini, Roy Partee, Pete Layden and three reasonably promising pitching hopefuls (Messrs Wilson, Widmar, and Ostrowski) to the very same woebegotten Brownies for Junior Stephens, the slugging shortstop who would hammer Fenway’s tin leftfield wall the next five seasons, and Jack Kramer, an esteemed pitcher who promptly gave them 18 wins in ’48.

Two deals in two days involving 15 players. But for St. Louis, the players were incidental. It was all about cash. For in addition to the 10 bodies shipped to them, “Daddy Warbucks” Yawkey shoveled their way an astounding (for the times) $365,000. If you factor the inflation of the American dollar over the last six decades plus the inflation of the American baseball team payroll that’s the equivalent of 36.5 million large in terms of today’s baseball bucks. It was enough to meet the payroll of the moribund Browns’ entire 40 man roster the next season. Not surprisingly, on the field the Browns remained moribund.

The winter of ’47-’48 had to be the high water mark in the age of blockbuster deals. The very same day of the Junior Stephens’ heist, the Braves of treasured memory -- ever driven to keep stride for stride with the downtown rich guys -- sent Johnny Hopp and Danny Murtaugh to the Pirates for Bill Salkeld and Jimmy Russell. Within a scant few weeks of said capers the Yankees shipped Aaron Robinson and a couple of spear-carriers to the White Sox for Eddie Lopat. The Braves bought Jeff Heath for $60,000, then sent an even larger swag -- $100,000 plus bit-player Bama Rowell -- to the Dodgers for Eddie Stanky.

Rickey, who got a percentage of the take, loved to sell ballplayers. With the Cardinals he amassed a personal fortune developing a fantastic farm system mass-producing fine prospects, many of whom he sold benefiting both the Cards and, especially, himself and he was able to do this, mind you, at the height of the Depression. Rickey loved money and he loved even more to take suckers for a ride. In high gear that winter, the wily Mahatma ingeniously swindled Preacher Roe and Billy Cox away from the Pirates for the tattered remains of Dixie Walker and a couple of pitchers who couldn’t pitch plus a dash of a few more bucks.

There was more. In separate deals, the Browns peddled three characters who would be useful to the Indians 1948 pennant drive -- Bob Muncrief, Walt Judnich and the aspiring actor, Johnny Beradino -- for three prospects plus, of course, another 90 grand. The Browns were shameless. Continuing their own shopping rampage the Red Sox landed Stan Spence from the Senators for the usual bush-leaguers and the inevitable pinch of dough. It’s also noteworthy that in ’47 they bought the immortal Denny Galehouse from the sad-sack Browns for yet another $50 grand in a move that would prove portentous.

Face it. They don’t make Hot Stove seasons like that anymore. And you should further notice that the wild-card in all of this wild and crazy stuff was “Money.” In 1947, the framework may have been different, as were the rules of the game. But King Cash was still the governing concern and the deciding factor and the driving force and the difference maker. Fat-cat owners, chief of whom back then was Yawkey, bulldozed the impoverished weaklings, numbering at the time the A’s, White Sox, Senators and Browns. The rich got richer and the weaklings got weaker. Teams come and go and the faces change but never the message. It was also like that in 1909 and 1931 and 1989 and it is like that today in 2009. It has always been like that and it always will be.

Precisely how almighty money is playing in this year’s convoluted off-season scene is unclear, but it’s early. The signs coming from the recently concluded winter meetings which generally set trends and establish moods seem confusing, even contradictory. The Market may be up and the various other economic barometers improving but the owners don’t seem convinced the good times are ready to roll again. The recession’s impact last season was less harsh than had been widely predicted. Yet most owners remain wary although that may be more a matter of convenience than necessity; a sly way of justifying inaction or even rollbacks.

Such ambivalence invariably plays smartly into the hands of the high-rollers. It surely helped the Yankees land center-fielder Curtis Granderson in the off-season’s first big deal universally proclaimed a master-stroke by the Yankees, bordering on brilliance, which is just what ‘the Nation’ loves to hear. Whether that’s the case largely depends on whether the Yankees correctly judged the promise of Austin Jackson, the key player sent to the Tigers. Obviously they believe he’s not quite the premium prospect they thought he was only a year ago. But it’s so easy to make a mistake on a kid only 22.

Granderson would never have been available if the lately free-spending Tigers hadn’t suddenly decided to pare payroll. And that’s the only way quality major leaguers become available nowadays other than by the generally insane and benumbing free-agent route. Granderson’s ticket isn’t that large but he was highly tradeable so the Tigers bit the bullet with exceeding reluctance.

The Yankees got lucky. Granderson could fizzle. But it’s not likely. Not only has he a fine set of playing skills but a reputation for being one of the game’s finest people. His ex-manager, Jim Leyland, says of him: “He’s everything that’s good about Baseball.” His ex-teammate, Brandon Inge, says of him: “I can’t remember ever hearing one person say one bad word about him.” Every team wants chaps of noble character, especially in this age of jock felons, cheats and philanderers. But for some reason all of that stuff seems to mean more to the Yankees than most teams. Granderson is very important to them.

The Red Sox response, now unfolding, begins to look utterly furious! It’s with an iron-fisted bellow that they have gone after John Lackey, the gritty pitcher, and Mike Cameron, the stylish outfielder. Both are true pros. Yet it’s nonetheless astounding that they would drop $100 million on a pitcher who has made two extended trips to the disabled list in the last two season and would be only their 3rd or 4th starter, plus a strike-out prone outfielder about to observe his 37th birthday. Is there no end to the money madness?

Further lost in all this is their puzzling determination to dump Mike Lowell even though it will cost them nine million bucks for him to play in Texas and all they’ll get in return is an under-achieving minor-leaguer with a very questionable attitude. It appears to be the key to a masterplan that has Adrian Beltre playing third base after they are forced to also pay him much more than he’s worth in the free agency circus.

In the meantime, what has become of the great reverence they allegedly had for Lowell’s superior character and surpassing stature as one of the game’s true gentlemen? Reducing him to the level of pawn in such low-level machinations is no sign of respect.

Truth to be told, in the end all such sweet sentiments are worth very little in the modern multi-billion dollar baseball market-place. Down in New York, that is something the equally estimable Hideki Matsui is also about to discover.