October 31, 2003
Red Sox Offer Bait, but Yanks Don't Bite
By JACK CURRY
You compete with your neighbor, relentlessly. You want a greener lawn, a bigger pool, even a snazzier mailbox. It is how George Steinbrenner treats his contentious relationship with the Boston Red Sox.
So when the Red Sox put Manny Ramirez on irrevocable waivers Wednesday, they were essentially dangling the Bentley that is in their garage and tempting Steinbrenner, letting him know he could have the fancier car, too, for nothing. Well, technically, that is. The Red Sox did not want any players in return. All the Yankees had to do was pick up the payments of $104 million over the next five years.
There has not been a transaction of this magnitude between these fierce rivals since the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. Anyone with a pulse from New York to New Zealand knows how that exchange worked out for both. The Yankees have piled up 26 titles since Babe bolted to the Bronx, while the Red Sox are idling on zero.
The Red Sox are obviously willing to experience life without a pure hitter who can be a pure headache and they must feel that relocating Ramirez might help them finally reverse the curse. But we will probably never know how Ramirez would have looked in baggy pinstripes. A person who spoke to Steinbrenner yesterday said he had told team officials not to put a claim in on Ramirez.
Two baseball executives said the Yankees made a savvy decision by not claiming Ramirez. One executive said the Red Sox undoubtedly put Ramirez on waivers to try to entice the Yankees to take his albatross of a contract, knowing the Yankees are one of the only teams that could afford him and also realizing that in Steinbrenner they have an owner who is impulsive enough to do it. Again, here is a dazzling addition to your already expensive fleet, George. Just grab the payment book as well.
Boston's attempt to goad Steinbrenner into taking one of the most devastating hitters in the major leagues and a player who grew up near Yankee Stadium was fascinating. The Yankees spent a few hours discussing the issue on Wednesday, but had decided by yesterday morning that the positives of adding Ramirez (lots of offense) did not outweigh the negatives (lots of unpredictability from a moody 31-year-old and lots of unexpected money funneling back to a chief competitor).
Theo Epstein, the 29-year-old general manager of the Red Sox, could work for them for three decades and he would never call the Yankees and offer a high-profile player like Ramirez in a trade, because teams that are essentially enemies do not directly deal with each other with so much at stake.
But if Steinbrenner claimed Ramirez, took his bloated contract and suddenly gave the Red Sox increased financial flexibility, Boston officials would have viewed that transaction differently, as a clever maneuver they controlled from the outset, and they would have been exchanging high-fives on Yawkey Way for days.
As much as Ramirez contributed to a record-setting 2003 lineup with a .325 average, 37 homers and 104 runs batted in, the Red Sox feel their offense will be formidable without him and are weary of Ramirez's often selfish behavior. Ramirez was benched for a game this season when he acted petulantly and, like Pedro Martínez and Nomar Garciaparra, he operates on his own island. And remember, Ramirez was signed by the previous ownership group in Boston.
Without Ramirez's contract, the infusion of $21 million a year would allow the Red Sox to aggressively address their pitching concerns. Whether they pursue the free-agent starters Bartolo Colón or Kevin Millwood or try to acquire a closer like Houston's Billy Wagner, lopping off one-fifth of their payroll through waivers was something the Red Sox are ready and willing to do. But the Red Sox need an enabler to finish the deal, and with Steinbrenner just saying no, the strategy appears to have stalled. Look for Boston to continue trying to unload Ramirez in a trade.
The off-season is less than one week old, but already the Red Sox and the Yankees, who gave us a dramatic American League Championship Series, are feverishly competing again. They spent the last off-season squabbling over pitcher José Contreras, who ultimately signed with the Yankees, and skirmishing over Colón, who wound up going to the Chicago White Sox, and they then spent all of the 2003 season fighting each other.
Now the Red Sox have taken the first step toward challenging the Yankees in 2004, although it was an unusual step because it involved some unexpected, and deceptive, generosity. The Red Sox wanted the Yankees to take Ramirez no questions asked. But the sticker shock and the potential ramifications in acquiring this particular player were too much for Steinbrenner. Manny might be a Bentley, but he is definitely not the Babe.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company