Winter (Base) ball

Winter baseball amuses us. The winners and losers are outnumbered by the suckers. Everyone is an all-star. Hustle begets illusion. Here in the land of "the Bean and the Cod" we know all about that stuff. What you see is not often what you get. But it is all highly entertaining and a wonderful distraction from the European debt crisis.

The game's annual Winter Meetings rightfully belong in Oz. This year they chose Dallas, which is close enough. While there, two teams from opposite ends of the Sunbelt spent more than a half billion bucks on a shortstop, a first baseman, and three pitchers. That rumble you just heard off in the distance is Charlie Finley rolling around in his grave.

The highlight of the winter meetings is the conferring of the much-prized, "One Dumb Owner of the Year" award, which goes to the mogul who makes the biggest fool of himself begging players of swollen repute to accept at least twice what they are worth.

It was Jerry Reinsdorf, the White Sox' irascible but witty owner, who famously coined the phrase when he bemoaned that all it takes every year is for ''one dumb owner to come along'' and destroy the salary structure thus sending the game spiraling into another uptick of extravagance and waste. It was in 1996 that Reinsdorf uttered his memorable lament after awakening from a pipe dream to realize that a mindless infatuation with the immortal Albert Belle had cost him 55 million bucks for which he would receive in return nothing but grief.

There were co-winners of O-D-O of the Year laurels last year; the new boy in Washington, Ted Lerner, who in his desperate bid for attention hideously overpaid Jayson Werth, and our own sugar daddy at friendly Fenway, John Henry, who got seduced by the dubious charms of Carl Crawford and was rewarded with a flat and dispirited performance featuring a batting average of .255 and an historic flop on the season's very last and most vital play.

Interestingly, Arte Moreno, owner of the Angels, had vied for both Werth and Crawford and was reportedly intensely distressed when he failed to land either, especially Crawford. In recent years, Moreno had also been unsuccessful in his efforts to retain John Lackey and Francisco Rodriguez or acquire the likes of Manny Ramirez, Adrian Beltre, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and even that ultimate bogus trophy of baseball's financial wars, the mighty A-Rod himself, who with six years left on his ridiculous pact is already being spoken of in the past tense and not so tenderly, either.

Every one of these alleged "prizes" is tainted to some degree. It's not surprising because when you sign a free agent plum you're invariably paying for what they've already done, not what they might yet do. Maybe Beltre will prove worthy over the length of his deal, but only "maybe." Sabathia is a true horse but there's legitimate doubt he'll hold up physically. You may still like Teixeira but after only three years in New York no team would take his contract for the next five seasons off the Yankees' hands. Werth is a looming disgrace for the Nationals. In his first year of a $126 million deal he gave them a .232 batting average with 58 ribbies and a sour disposition. He's lucky to be in Washington where he can blend into the woodwork.

It's simply astounding that none of this intelligence, available even to moronic fans in the daily newspapers, ever reaches guys like Moreno. A self-made multi-millionaire who rose up the industrial ranks out of nothing, Moreno presumably possesses deep business acumen. But these guys stash their wisdom in cold storage when Albert Pujols comes to town flexing his muscles. Maybe they just fall in love too easily.

The Angels may get a couple years of lusty production from Pujols but there isn't a pundit in the business that doesn't believe that in the long run the aging Albert's 10-year, quarter of a billion dollar heist will make A-Rod's larceny look petty. Soon enough, Albert will end up a flabby $25 million a year DH. As for the pitcher C.J. Wilson and his lifetime 43-35 mark, whom they also landed for a mere $77 million, the very fact that neither of the game's swingiest spendthrifts -- the Yankees and Red Sox, both of whom make no secret of a yearning to find more pitching this winter -- even bothered to meet Wilson tells you everything you need to know.

With his $331 million binge, Moreno is easily the "Dumb Owner" of this year. Jeffrey Loria, erratic owner of the Florida Marlins, made him work for it. But Loria may actually have gotten more bang for the big bucks ($191 million) he spectacularly lavished on shortstop Jose Reyes, and pitchers Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle. An oddball owner of notorious whims, Loria comes out of his cage every few years to pull off such wild stunts. He'll probably end up trying to peddle his three new pearls as soon as next winter.

But more interesting than the antics of Moreno and Loria is the noteworthy restraint of the Yankees and Red Sox. Both -- though especially the Yankees -- seem utterly disdainful of brash displays of boisterous spending, as if they suddenly find such vulgarity somehow distasteful. "Well, excuse me," says you. But do you not further wonder what accounts for this remarkable shift in the breezes?

In Boston, much of the motivation likely stems from the recent spending blunders of the Theo Epstein regime; not just the Crawford and Lackey pratfalls but relatively minor stumbles like Bobby Jenks, Mike Cameron, and even J.J. Drew. You can bet Epstein's successor as GM, young Ben Cherington, will be kept on a shorter leash. It's possible John Henry's heavily extended personal fortunes may have something to do with this new attitude as well. These are not the giddiest of times for Hedge Fund Titans, you may have noticed.

In New York, GM Brian Cashman has long chaffed under the charge that he's only as good as the balance in his checkbook. How he yearns to put together a champion on a reduced payroll that's safely under the luxury tax level. With Cashman, it's a matter of pride. And it's something he can dream of doing now that the ''Big Boss'' is gone and he gets to answer to the much more prudent, more rational, and decidedly less volatile, "Son of Boss."

This is not some chance whim that Cashman and the Yankees are displaying this winter. After some four decades of total devotion to the wildest possibilities of the open market, they are confessing to doubts. Nor is this sudden TAC by the braintrust in Boston all that chance or random. The epic meltdown last September shook the modus operandi to its core. They would have to be fools to be standing pat.

The old order changeth over at Fenway and in the Bronx. Why, this may even be historic. On the other hand, how much would it take for them to revert to their old ways?

Momentarily, the bidding process for Yu Darvish, the latest other-worldly pitcher to come out of Japan, begins. A fire-balling, six foot five inch righty, with an allegedly astounding range of stuff, Darvish is cast as an almost god-like prospect although you are forgiven if you suspect you've heard this song before. The best that one can suggest is that while Darvish may not be much better than Kei Igawa he may end up costing more than Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Both having been burned in the past, the Sox and Yanks have been vague about Darvish, clearly implying they have little interest. Should we believe them? Or are they playing games within the game? He's the last blue chip on the table and there are those who say he's the real deal. If one makes a move, what will the other do? It is said he will cost at least Matsuzaka money, at a minimum. It could be a huge plunge.

Watch this caper closely. It might be most amusing.