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Jewish World Review July 14, 2000 / 11 Tamuz, 5760

Mile Lupica

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Dealing from strength, bombers laugh last -- EVEN WHEN THE YANKEES start to look weak, even when they actually have a bad month for the first time in years, they manage to deal from strength. They have the players and the money. They don't have to worry about a salary cap. They have somehow managed to turn the rest of baseball into their personal farm system. It is why the rest of baseball seems to be playing against the house. In this case, The House That Ruth Built.

The Yankees also have some luck, because why not? A month ago, they would have traded for Sammy Sosa except that the Cubs got too greedy. Maybe George Steinbrenner would have satisfied Sosa's demands for a contract extension, maybe not. The negotiations never got that far because the Cubs wanted one more prospect and the Yankees walked away.

Jim Bowden, the Reds general manager, watched that one the way all baseball did. Maybe he was afraid if he didn't grab the prospects the Yankees were offering for Denny Neagle, the Yankees would eventually walk away from him, too. So Bowden didn't just blink first, he nearly broke down and cried. He got Drew Henson, who will end up a quarterback in the NFL someday, and three other kids who may or may not turn out to be something in the big leagues.

The Yankees? They get the starter they need in Neagle, who is 8-2 and the ace of the Reds staff this season. He becomes a free agent at the end of the season. If he goes 8-2 for the Yankees down the stretch, they will probably spend whatever it takes to keep him. Neagle is only 31. You put him up against Roger Clemens and David Cone and even El Duque and he looks 22 in comparison. All the Yankees probably did in the deal is win another World Series.

They needed a hitter and first they looked at Juan Gonzalez and Sosa. Then they went for David Justice. He is making $7 million this year and $14 million more over the next two. The Yankees needed a second baseman who could successfully throw the ball to Tino Martinez and went for Jose Vizcaino of the Dodgers, whose salary for this season is $2.5 million. Now they go for Neagle, who is making $4.75 million.

The San Francisco 49ers won all those Super Bowls until the salary cap caught up with them. Same with the Dallas Cowboys. The Knicks right now are trying to figure out a way to bring in a rebounder like Brian Grant; if they really want Grant, they will have to give up a high-priced star in return to make the whole thing fit under the salary cap. The Yankees have no such concerns. There are other teams with money in baseball. They don't spend it as often or as well as the Yankees have lately. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, George Steinbrenner spent like an old fool, the kind of old fool he sounded like defending Clemens the other day. No more.

Everybody assumes the Mets are going to have the inside track on Alex Rodriguez when he looks to get out of Seattle after next season. Maybe the Yankees will throw the most money at Rodriguez and ask him how he'd like to play third base at the Stadium, alongside his buddy Derek Jeter. Or second base. Or the outfield. What the Yankees did yesterday with Neagle was what they used to do with a team like the Kansas City Athletics in the old days, when they thought they needed one more piece to win the World Series again.

Now the Yankees do it with everyone. The Dodgers one week, the Indians the next. Now the Reds. Maybe another team would have worried about the $2 million signing bonus for a kid like Henson. Not the Yankees. Two million is tipping money to Steinbrenner. It is why smart people have always laughed when he cries about needing a new stadium. Why, because he needs better revenue streams than he has already? Because he can't compete with the rest of baseball? He's all set to pay Clemens, the company headhunter, around $30 million for the next two years. The truth is that under the current economic system hardly anybody can compete with him.

Of course Steinbrenner had to go out and spend players and money for people like Justice and Neagle. The Yankees had that bad month. Really, it was nearly two months. You can see what a great strain that put on everyone. But Yankee fans can rest assured. There won't be another bad month anytime soon.

Again: The Yankees are just playing by the rules here. Bowden said yesterday there were seven teams in the bidding for Neagle, who turned down $18 million over the next three years from the Reds, saying he wants to see what's out there when he becomes a free agent. So maybe the other six teams didn't want to risk four kids on a pitcher they might have for only three months. The Yankees have no such concerns. They are going for three World Series in a row and four in five years. Steinbrenner isn't going to go on the cheap with a pot like that on the table.

He is getting nearly $50 million a year from the Madison Square Garden network now, and by next year he might have his own network for the Yankees and Nets and Devils. There is a sweetheart deal with adidas and a sweetheart stadium deal that has been in place a long time and 3 million in attendance. This is New York, after all. When the hit show gets a little tired, they bring in a new star. One week it is Justice, this week it is Neagle. When the rest of baseball cries about this, the Yankees laugh.

JWR contributor Mike Lupica is author, most recently, of Summer of '98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America. To comment, click here.


07/12/00 Under Rocket fire: Too high & tight for Bombers
06/29/00 Deal with it, Bombers will
06/19/00: Sosa whine is not fine
06/16/00: Even for Sammy, can't afford to throw this one away
06/15/00: Go for gold, George. How does Sosa help Yanks? Let us count the ways
06/12/00: Thirty-three is the loneliest number
06/12/00: For starters, Yanks up in arms & age

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