Deadlines and monkeyshines

It is contrived to be sure like so many other new wrinkles in the grand old game including expanded playoffs, wildcards, and meaningless all-star exhibitions that are allowed to determine the highly meaningful home-field advantage in the World Series.

"Even if it ain't broke you can still tinker with it." That's the new governing mantra of the modern game. Doubtless the relatively casual attitude about baseball's fundamental rules, regs, and norms only aggravates such luddites among us as may still be adrift in baseball's stone-age (present company very much included). Back in the good old days a national referendum might have been required to approve any messing with the trade deadline.

For most of a century June 15 was the hard and fast deadline for all unrestricted non-waiver deals. That essentially set rosters in place and greatly restricted the ability of teams to reinvent themselves in mid-season. It was essentially fairer because greater flexibility and more options within the rules always favor the haves over the have-nots.

Of course, you could still make trades if you could somehow maneuver the bodies to be bartered through waivers. But only one team -- the Yankees, naturally -- was consistently adept at doing that. An annual feature of their stunning post-war epoch (1947-1964) was the infuriating regularity with which they would land some nifty veteran role-player in late Aug., just in time to replenish the roster, plug a hole, and wrap-up yet another preordained pennant.

The other 15 teams could have blocked them by placing their own claims. With invariably the best record the Yankees were usually last in the waiver wire's pecking order. All that was required was a little ingenuity. It wasn't rocket science. But amazingly, year after year, the league's seven other stooges slumbered as the Yankees grabbed such worthies as Johnny Sain, Big John Mize, Ewell Blackwell, Country Slaughter, Johnny Hopp, Jim Konstanty, Virgil Trucks, Ray Scarborough, Dale Long, etc.

How the dithering Red Sox could have allowed the properly revered Sain to pass through their mitts unclaimed in the summer of '51 remains one of the better indictments of Yawkey-era incompetence. Naturally Johnny became a force in the Bronx, hugely contributing to three more pin-striped pennants.

With the contemporary non-waiver deadline of July 31st every team has an equal shot at rebuilding in mid-stream, at least in theory. The big variable is money, as is the case with every nuance of the modern game. If your budget can handle it you can go nuts at the new deadline. A healthy farm system, smart scouts, and a gutsy general manager help too. It's become a crowd-pleasing circus that enlivens the dog days of the baseball summer. The bantering about deadline deals begins in April, while the quibbling about who won or lost in this game within the game lasts until November.

Some found this year's edition to be not as frisky as expected. But with a dozen significant deals in the final hours and three of the game's best pitchers -- Messrs Oswalt, Haren, and Lee -- changing hands en route it was hardly trifling.

The Red Sox didn't do much, other than to finally obtain a catcher from Texas after nine months of cajoling. But Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- once considered a premium prospect -- had dropped to about sixth on the Rangers' depth chart for catchers. Landing him was not a major move. To some, the fact that the Red Sox didn't make one suggests carefully guarded doubts about the team's postseason worthiness are growing in the front office. But, then Theo the sagacious did warn us this could be ''a bridge year''.

Picking the losers in the mid-season wheeling and dealing is easy. The Indians (with four desperate deals), Royals, Orioles, Pirates, Diamondbacks, and Astros -- arguably the game's six worst teams -- were the biggest sellers, paring away useful vets with high salaries for young kids of debatable promise. Money was tight. Buyers drove hard bargains. Few sellers dumped as much payroll as they'd hoped. Only one of the prospects that changed hands was ranked top tier/can't miss, according to those who know about such stuff.

In baseball, it's still the same old story. The rich get richer while the poor wait for the revenue-sharing check to arrive in the mail. 'Tis ever thus, although at least one have-not got lucky. The Nationals may have landed a prize in Wilson Ramos, the highly regarded catching prospect shipped to Washington for Matt Kapps, the reliever the Twins decided they had to have to make the playoffs. They're probably right. The Kapps-Ramos caper was a fine illustration of how this nasty business works best. The deal was equitable and fair. The needs of both teams were served. Unfortunately, it was the exception not the rule.

Other winners certainly include the Dodgers. L.A is a shambles thanks to the epic divorce wars of the owners from Boston, those charming McCourt kids. Yet with little leverage, GM Ned Colletti somehow wangled four useful components -- Messrs. Lilly, Podsednik, Dotel and Theriot -- without swelling his frozen payroll. Quite remarkable! The Angels, in landing Dan Haren from the Diamondbacks, and the Phillies, in conning the Astros out of Roy Oswalt, also scored impressively because the price for both pitchers, the experts insist, was surprisingly light. Clearly some teams -- notably Houston -- panicked.

Biggest winner, though, was clearly the historically inept Texas Rangers. Four very smart transactions landed them infielders Jorge Cantu and Christian Guzman, catcher Benjie Molina, and the much coveted lefty Cliff Lee, who so excelled in last year's World Series. With his team brinking on bankruptcy, Nolan Ryan's brain-trust somehow met vital needs without significantly boosting the payroll or surrendering premium prospects. They could only have done it with mirrors.

In so far as they surrendered little and even got the suckers to pay mightily for the privilege of doing business with them, the pundits were quick to rave about the Yankees' alleged pin-strikes. My hunch is the kudos were premature.

Maybe once upon a time Lance Berkman was top-notch but some who know him best says he's one of those burly chaps who lose it overnight. In Cleveland, Austin Kearns was slogging through his third straight drab season. His power which was never awesome for a big guy has disappeared. And then there is Kerry Wood. That would be the eternally injured Kerry Wood who just happened to be coming off the disabled list when the Yanks landed him. He may prove to be the second coming of Ryne Duren, but I'll believe it when I see it.

The Yankees are still trying to remedy the blunders of last winter when they over-reacted to the sudden urge to get younger, faster, and cheaper. The Curtis Granderson trade, costing them Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Ian Kennedy, now looks disastrous. The decision to dump both Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon looks ridiculous. The effort to replace them with some combination of Thames, Winn, Curtis, Miranda, and now Kearns/Brinkman looks foolish. The jettisoning of quality