The silly season

If the rest of the world finds it incongruous, it barely ruffles the denizens of that bubble sport forms in the American culture. The nation brinks on bankruptcy. The CEO’s of its foremost industry crawl before Congress proffering tin cups. Government weighs draconian measures as visions of bread lines hover over the holidays

Meanwhile, Derek Lowe and A. J. Burnett sniff with a vague air of boredom at the lavish entreaties of the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, and Blue Jays even as C.C. Sabathia acts as if an offer of $140 million for his cultivated services were a bit of an insult. Welcome to baseball’s silly season where, any day soon, the dish will run away with the spoon.

But then an epic off-season had been promised and after only three weeks it seems certain to exceed the highest of expectations or gravest of fears, depending on whose ox is being gored. Rational folk may characterize it in even testier terms. “Vulgar” comes to mind. So does “obscene”. While that old standby “madness” applies, more than ever.

Everything is relative. It is the setting of the season and context of the times that define all acts and consequences. For the ballplayers to be bickering over billions of bucks while the nation’s financial system is melting down doesn’t play all that well in the Heartland.

On the other hand, Sabathia can claim ? without fear of being contested ? that he’s lately been performing rather better than the CEO’s of Ford and GM. It’s the same argument Babe Ruth offered in 1931 when he was chastised for demanding more money than the President, Herbert Hoover, was making at the time. “Why, not? I had a better season than him,” snapped the Babe. Hurting though it was, the nation nonetheless found Ruth’s impertinence vastly amusing as well as true. Whether Sabathia has as rich a hold on our imagination as the Babe did is uncertain.

Sabathia, the large left-handed workhorse, and Mark Teixeira, the slick switch-hitting first baseman, remain the major yardsticks of this year’s off-season festival of wretched excess. The conventional wisdom still holds that the Yankees will end up with Sabathia while the Red Sox are landing Teixeira, with both commanding pacts that range roughly from 150 to 200 million large, which only the Red Sox and Yankees can afford, let alone justify. But the CW has been wrong before and it may be way off the mark this time. Sabathia, who hails from the West Coast, may be determined to return there even if it costs him a stray few million. And if the Yankees lose out on Sabathia they may shoot the moon ? as only they can ? and ease their grief by over-bidding madly on Teixeira. In any event, that’s the scenario the revised CW now favors.

Then there’s the developing scenario, much favored wherever the Yankees are loathed, that wonders could every one of the most coveted and high-priced free agents choose to stiff the Bombers who were once fairly omnipotent at this game within the game? Could not Sabathia and Teixeria as well as Burnett and Lowe and even Ben Sheets, Randy Wolf, Jon Garland, Oliver Perez, Andy Pettitte and Carl Pavano tell them to take a hike? It’s not out of the question.

The fear is sharply on the rise in New York with Thanksgiving approaching and not one of the big trophies yet in the bag. That’s, of course, ridiculous given that it’s still very early and no prized free-agent worthy of the distinction would ever roll over before the holiday season even begins. But the growing anxiety in Gotham underscores how much the Yankees need to score big this off-season. They’ve vested a lot in this shaky premise while pronouncing their intentions loud and clear and that’s dangerous even if ? as is the case with them ? mere money is no object.

What if in the end they are spurned by everyone but Manny Ramirez and thus forced to swallow their pride and stomach his preposterous demands. Manny could cut off his dreadlocks, sport a brushcut, sign up for extension courses at Columbia, speak at the UN, become a subscriber to the Metropolitan Opera, and join the Friars Club. Still, the blow to the Yankees’ precious aura of carefully cultivated corporate urbanity would be devastating.

As for the Red Sox, under resident scholar Theo Epstein, they always play the post season as if it were a high stakes game of blackjack with Theo, in the role made fashionable by Bogart, holding his cards closely to the nose on his stern poker face. Reading this lad is quite impossible, which is what he insists upon. There weren’t many tricks of the trade that Theo didn’t learn well in his rollicking under-grad days down in dear old New Haven.

It will be no surprise if the Red Sox bypass the free-agent pool while hanging around the edges of the discussions and feigning interest aimed at driving up the prices for others, notably the Yankees. It could also well be that their principle goal is to sign the 22 year-old Japanese phenom Junichi Tazawa, which ? as this is being penned ? is rumored to be impending.

Now, many consider Tazawa a fine prospect. A few, including obviously the Red Sox, believe he’s a great prospect. But most teams believe signing him would be unethical and improper because Tazawa is an amateur and is neither deemed eligible nor been “posted” by Japan’s professional league as Daisuke Matsuzaka among many others have been

If the Red Sox sign Tazawa it will be very controversial, highly offensive to the Japanese, and bitterly protested by the vast majority of American teams that declined to pursue him on the grounds that it’s a major violation of the “gentleman’s agreement” that forms the bedrock of the fragile relationship between Japanese and American baseball. One of the teams most strongly opposed is the Yankees with their usually diplomatic GM Brian Cashman being outspoken on the issue.

But as a true son of Yale, where they teach that “gentleman’s agreements ain’t worth the paper they aren’t written on”, Theo isn’t likely to be deterred by such technicalities. If he goes ahead with this deal he’ll make still more enemies in Major League Baseball and they are adding up. But that hasn’t bothered him in the past nor is he likely to lose sleep over it this time.

And in the end, if Tazawa is as good as they think, he could turn out to be the biggest prize of this off-season at a cost little more than what middle-inning relievers and utility infielders will command in the ongoing free agent rummage sale. Never play poker with Theo. Still, you must admit it will be interesting if the Yankees end up occupying the moral high ground while the Red Sox are jack-booting as they darn well please. We will see.

In the meantime, the price on the likes of Lowe and Burnett, Fuentes and K-Rod, Garland and Wolf, let alone Sabathia, Teixeira and sweet Manny will continue to rise geometrically even as the Dow Jones sinks softly into the sunset.

When the epic account of the decline and fall of the American civilization is etched will this be a chapter? Or a mere footnote?