Without looking at the calendar, it must be January, and that’s not because the thermometer outside my kitchen window reads less than zero and has more than a few icicles dangling from the dial. I just have to glance in the direction of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner who, as he has about this time every off-season, has extracted his big, fat, obnoxious wallet from the back of his trousers to dole out another $32 million for a player who, when his new extension kicks in, will be 42 years old. After all, it’s been over four years since he’s had a chance to parade a World Series championship trophy through the Canyon of Heroes and he’s getting restless. Never mind that, after last season, he was slapped with a $25 million competitive-balance tax (whom are we kidding?) from Major League Baseball after paying out $183 million to watch his team execute, arguably, the biggest choke ever in sports history.
Yet, even with the signing of Randy Johnson, no one seems to have broken into a sweat; it’s as if a tree fell in the woods and no one was around to hear the branches snap as it smacked the ground. The situation is almost in stark contract to last year when, after Boston failed in its efforts, New York snatched Alex Rodriguez and his big, fat, obnoxious contract from Texas and declared themselves the only ticket in town. How about in 2003, when they again out-muscled the Red Sox for the rights to Jose Contreras? Let’s not forget what happened following the last championship season in 2000, when the Yankees pulled out all the stops to land Mike Mussina, staying one step ahead of Boston’s attempt to sign the free-agent pitcher.
Even a diehard Red Sox fan like me, who loathes the success of the Yankees over the years while my team wallowed in despair, readily admits that the pinstriped clubs that won four out of five World Series titles in the latter part of the preceding decade were unbelievably dominant. 1998 was probably the height of success for that dynasty, as New York won 114 games and finished 22 games ahead of second-place Boston before blowing through Texas, Cleveland, and finally San Diego for title number twenty-four.
So why hasn’t that dominance continued? The biggest reason is that the teams from 1996 through 2001 were legitimate baseball teams, not fantasy-league wet dreams. Sure, they had All-Stars on every one of those teams – in fact, what Yankees team has not sent multiple players to the mid-summer classic? – but they were fluid on the field, as if every piece fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Now the philosophy is to go out and buy up all the All-Stars, but the chemistry just isn’t there. Yes, they are still winning in the regular season, with seven straight first-place finishes over Boston, but what have all these million-dollar babies done? How many championships have Mussina, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, and Rodriguez brought to New York? The answer: one less than the Red Sox won in that same time.
Still, Steinbrenner has learned nothing from this and continues to wear the cast from the Visa commercial to write check after check (that’s Johnson with no R’s). He’s banking on Curt Schilling’s teammate from the 2001 team that beat his Yankees in a seven-game classic to be the answer. He’s banking on Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright to add to the answer. He’s banking on the idea that all those overpriced, lengthy contracts that he gave to three of the four infielders that will start on Opening Day will provide answers.
It’s not to say that the $200-million-plus that Steinbrenner will owe this season to his players will not reward him with a the title at the end of the season; the Yankees are still a force with whom to be reckoned and you can almost never, ever count them out of the equation. The parade route between the Battery and City Hall in New York may once again be filled with throngs of Yankee fans and ticker tape when all is said and done this season. At the moment, however, no one in the baseball world, least of all from the Red Sox organization, seems to be complaining too loudly that he is trying to buy a championship once again; instead, everyone just sits back and watches in amusement as his impatient and frustration swells, much like his payroll.