The big story from the world of sports this week is not that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest race and the one where Earnhardt’s father died when he went into the wall on the last lap in 1998. Nor was it John Daly’s first win on the PGA tour since he took the British Open in 1995, after which Daly’s life became a long, woeful ordeal of self-inflicted misfortunes involving alcohol, gambling, and divorce. The University of Colorado’s problems–a recruiting scandal and a woman place kicker, formerly with the team, who claims she was raped by another player–made headlines, of course. But that story was not the big one. Neither was the Duke basketball team losing back-to-back games, something that comes along about often as a solar eclipse.
#ad#No, the story of the week, the one that made it from the sports section to the front page, was the New York Yankees’s acquisition of shortstop Alex Rodriguez, formerly of the Texas Rangers.
No doubt the story deserves this prominence. The Yankees, after all, play in the media capital of the world. Also, Rodriguez is routinely described as “the best player in baseball.” And then, there is the money. Rodriguez is the game’s most lavishly paid player. His long-term contract with the Rangers was worth more than a quarter billion dollars. So while there was no sex or scandal, the story still had a lot going for it.
But there was also a kind of weary inevitability about it. After the Rangers finished last in their division with Rodriguez, for three straight seasons, the talk of a trade started. The Rangers needed to shake loose some money to buy a little pitching and A-Rod, as he is known, wanted to play for a winner. Not many teams could afford to pick up the remaining years on A-Rod’s contract and part with players good enough to make trade bait. Two came immediately to mind: the Boston Red Sox and the Yankees.
Hard to believe, now, that there was ever any question how it would turn out, but, for a while, it looked like the Red Sox might make the deal. A-Rod, Boston fans fervently believed, would lead them at last to the promised land. They would lose Nomar Garciaparra, their own gifted shortstop, and Manny Ramirez, a big hitter who sometimes forgets to hustle; but the presence of A-Rod and the acquisition of Arizona pitcher Curt Schilling would make up for it.
So, of course, the Red Sox couldn’t get the deal done. Manny and Nomar will still be Boston this season, possibly feeling insufficiently loved. Meanwhile, the Yankees went after A-Rod like Microsoft stalking some upstart software outfit. You knew, once the rumors started, that it was in the bag.
The trade has been wonderful for those baseball fans who suffer from the near-clinical condition called “Yankee Hating.” Once again, they moan in a kind of perverse rapture, the boys in pinstripes have gone out and bought themselves a championship. The rich get richer. Boss Steinbrenner keeps beating up on the little guys. You can almost hear John Edwards talking about the two Americas, “One where teams have small payrolls and average players and the other where teams have tons of money and fill their rosters with superstars.”
To which the answer is: “What’s your point.” Or: “Yeah, but they still have to play the games.”
The Yankees were beaten in the World Series last year by a team whose payroll probably couldn’t fund the New York’s groundskeeping staff. And the Yankees only got that far because the Red Sox–especially their manager–blew it. The Yankees have been good but certainly not invincible. And, in truth, their front-office problems have been daunting and of the kind that can’t simply be solved by writing another, bigger check.
Winning baseball teams still need good pitching–a point A-Rod’s old team made emphatically clear–and the Yankees lost three big-time starters from last year’s team: Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and David Wells. The Yankees went out and bought some new arms but they don’t have a solid, left-handed starter and one of the acquisitions–Kevin Brown of the Dodgers–is old and fragile. The Yankees may need every bit of the offensive production that A-Rod brings to town. And, should he not produce, the fans and General George will be on his case, big-time. Hard to imagine the pressure of playing in New York getting to a player of A-Rod’s caliber, but it is baseball and nothing is for certain.
There is, then, still sufficient reason to go out and play the games. It will be interesting, at the very least, to see if the Yankees’s rebuilding pays off. And one has to anticipate, almost lasciviously, the prospect of their first three-game series against Red Sox starters Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and Derek Lowe.
With pitchers and catchers reporting to camp and A-Rod a done deal, the waiting seems almost unendurable.