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Winter meetings


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For sure it must have seemed tacky and vulgar to the so-called “real world” -- however that is defined -- maybe even a trifle obscene under the circumstances. After all, we are getting beaten up daily, even hourly, by the awful truths of a crumbling economy.

But this is baseball we are talking about and it has always been a bit of a never-never land. The very fact that -- oblivious to the fiscal ruin all around them -- the lords of the game are merrily dispensing million dollars contracts like so many bonbons at a beach party probably dramatizes best why we love it most.

You want an escape? You say you’re tired of hearing about busted banks and wayward hedge funds? Boy have I got a distraction for you. And it comes from that veritable Land of Oz, Las Vegas no less, against a backdrop of fleshpots and craps tables where suckers fall like flies.

Once you get around the obvious paradox and past the rather too thin ironies that fascinated too many of the pundits, you had to love the baseball winter meetings. Not even Hollywood could make this stuff up. If it had been a movie, it could only have starred the Marx Brothers.

Lacking Groucho and Harpo, the Brothers Steinbrenner -- Hank and Hal -- had to do and what a debut it was for that new generation of New York Yankee leadership. Months of speculation had fashioned a consensus among the Knights of the Keyboard holding that the kids would never measure up to dad. As is often the case, the “Knights” are the last to get it. Somewhere in that sad twilight where the ex-Boss seems to have lapsed there must have been a bit of a glow when the Vegas capers were played out and you have to believe that the old boy was smiling.

Because the signing of pitchers Sabathia and Burnett and the setting up of other smart moves that are likely to follow was a thunderous coup for the Yankees, brazenly authorized by the brothers and brilliantly executed by their loyal manservant, GM Brian Cashman.

This is not the conventional wisdom. Of the dozens of reactions I’ve searched out, a high percentage dissented with a fair number being downright angry. Most of that is sour grapes coming from apologists for other teams masquerading as baseball writers. But some of it comes from those who can’t or won’t accept the simple fact that money talks in this game and while one sympathizes with their sentimental yearnings, a mindless populist ranting about the evil of the almighty buck in determining the course of things in baseball has become a waste of time bordering on a fool’s errand.

Because in a six and a half billion dollar industry where the average salary for performers is roughly three million dollars a year, money is a huge force and dominant factor. We crossed the Rubicon on this issue 30 years ago. There is no turning back.

Coming off a season in which they had made immense profits and approaching a season in which they are certain to reap even more, despite the harshness of the times, and with 88 million dollars coming off their payroll, it was not reasonable to expect the Yankees to hold the line on spending this winter out of deference to the tighter budgets of their competitors. If you can name me one other company in any other industry that doesn’t abide by this fundamental logic I will be pleased to join with you in condemning the Yankees for big-footing the winter meetings with their checkbook. Otherwise it’s a matter of “case closed”.

Spare me your moral indignation, mates.

The Yankee’s determined signing of C.C Sabathia was no more rapacious than the Mets acquisition of Johan Santana earlier this year and it was a good deal smarter because the Mets had to give the Twins four decent prospects for their prized lefty. If Santana qualifies for the vested seventh year on his Mets contract -- and it will be quite a scandal if he doesn’t -- his total package will be almost precisely the same as Sabathia’s, assuming Sabathia stays with the Yankees for the full length of his pact. I don’t recall anyone calling the Mets greedy for having snared Santana when they had the chance.

The Yankees aggressive out-maneuvering of a fierce field of contenders for A.J. Burnett was no more bloodthirsty than the clever and determined strategies the Red Sox applied in scoring their memorable coup in landing Daisuke Matsuzaka. In the end, Boston will pay roughly $30 million more for Matsuzaka’s five-year deal than New York will pay for Burnett’s. Who gets the better return is the big question. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. But the point here is that I don’t recall anyone calling the Red Sox obnoxious or arrogant or evil for having outwitted the field to land Matsuzaka.

There appears to be another of those wonderful double standards at work here; one for the Yankees and another for all the other teams in baseball. As the richest team from the biggest town with the fattest checkbook it is fashionable to scorn them as the “Old Man Potter” of the “Grand Old Game”. But there is something childish about that thesis and, at times, something unfair.

Moreover, there is no proof that a runaway checkbook is much of a guarantee of anything as the Yankees themselves have exquisitely proven the last eight years. Meanwhile, more and more plucky third world teams continue to prove that smart front office operations featuring youth, athleticism, sharp scouting and shrewd development can outwit the big-spenders time and again. The loveable Tampa Bay Rays, who captured the nation’s heart last summer, are but the latest proof.

Quibbling about whether a team spends wisely is fair game and certainly the Yankees serve as “Exhibit A” when it comes to understanding the perils and fallacies of dumb spending. No team has spent more on players in the modern big-buck era nor has any team wasted more. Although it’s not impossible, it’s not likely Sabathia or Burnett or both will join the roster of Bronx imports that have faltered or even vaguely failed to live up to the inevitably huge expectations.

Sabathia is a splendid choice and faintly worthy of the $161 million pact he commanded if ever a player was. There isn’t a savant in the game who doesn’t believe he has the character and skill to live up to that contract. There is more doubt about Burnett because of his well-documented and much-discussed history of injury. But no one disputes his sheer talent, which is off the charts. As gambles go in this game, he’s worth the roll of the dice, even at $82.5 million large. For just a few million less, the Red Sox reportedly would have taken such a fling. And they were not alone.

Face it. There’s much hypocrisy in this argument. It’s not the way the Yankees fling money around that offends the whiners in the baseball lodge and their media acolytes. They love it when the Yankees spend foolishly as they’ve too often done. It’s when they spend smartly that the whiners really moan. Obviously there’s the fear that this winter they may have much to moan about.

The Yankees are not the bad guys in the money wars. The ‘‘bad guys’’ are teams like the San Diego Padres. While the Yankees buy players to improve their team, the Padres are selling theirs to slash payroll and lower the value of the franchise to satisfy the needs of their owner who is going through a bloody divorce. Now that is criminal. The strip-mining of teams to reap easy profits is a familiar game within the game. The Florida Marlins, owned by John Henry’s friends and former colleagues, do it about every other year. There are other examples.

Yet few complain. And no one climbs up on the soapbox to deplore it. There is a double standard, for sure.

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