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As Sox wait, Yankees worry

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 3, 2008 09:17 AM

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The longer they wait, the longer you cannot help but wonder: Are the once-mighty New York Yankees being used? Have they lost their cachet?

Does anyone really want to play for the Yankees anymore?

Postseason spectators for the first time since 1993 – the first year of Bill Clinton’s first term – the Yankees began this offseason by dropping a six-year, $140 million deal on the lap of free agent pitcher CC Sabathia. Weeks later, like the rest of the baseball world, the Yanks are still waiting. As recently as two days ago, one major league general manager joined the popular chorus and wondered whether Sabathia wants to pitch for the Yankees at all.

Talk about a recipe for embarrassment: take more than a century of unmatched history, add $140 million, and wait.

The result: One very potent CC of humility.

Wow. What a kick in the rosin bag.

Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge there is every possibility that Sabathia will still sign with the Yankees. Maybe he’s just trying to squeeze a few more dollars out of nature’s genetically different sons, Hank and Hal Steinbrenner, the Heat Miser and Snow Miser of their industry. Sabathia already has been offered the richest pitching contract in baseball history, but we all know that professional athletes would rather shoot themselves in the thigh before taking a penny less than the max.

Business, folks.

Just business.

Regardless of the outcome, the Yankees clearly have recognized a need to be overtly aggressive, which means they know they’re in at least some trouble. The entire manner in which the offer to Sabathia was publicized now is being used against them. In the end, the Yankees are either going to pay an absurdly high number for Sabathia or be left with their hats in hand, neither of which speaks well for the trend of the once impenetrable Yankees brand.

Think about it. Eight years ago at this time, Mike Mussina actually took a little less to pitch for the Yankees instead of the Red Sox, who similarly coveted the free agent righthander. At the time, we focused on trivialities like New York’s decision to send flowers to Mussina’s wife as an indication that the Yankees were far more skilled in the art of negotiation. In reality, Mussina chose New York because the Yankees had won three straight World Series and four in five years.

Of course, the Red Sox ended up with Manny Ramirez, all of which proved to be a blessing in disguise. But that’s not the issue. The point is that the Yankees had the swagger then, the credentials that go along with being the best organization in baseball, the ability to walk into any negotiation and immediately take control. When the Yankees talked, everyone listened. And before long, most everyone signed.

Remember: As recently as 2003, even Curt Schilling wanted to go to New York before Theo Epstein visited Schilling over Thanksgiving and made his pitch while asking for the mashed potatoes and stuffing. Kudos to Schilling for buying in, though he already had the one thing Mussina did not: a World Series championship ring.

Now here we are, eight years after Mussina’s fateful decision, and the Moose effectively has filed for social security devoid of that elusive ring. Schilling might be done, too, albeit with two more titles tucked under his keyboard. The Yankees are coming off a season in which they finished third in the division behind the Tampa Bay Rays and the Red Sox, and New York is about to move into a lavish new stadium during a time of international economic turmoil.

Translation: The Yankees are desperate and everyone knows it. The more you look at them, the more the Yankees look like Louis Winthorpe III, the riches-to-rags character played by Dan Aykroyd in "Trading Places."

At a moment like this, here in Boston, isn’t it astonishing to note how much the perception of the Red Sox and Yankees has changed? The Red Sox are now looked upon as being the elite franchise in baseball. The Red Sox are now looked upon as having a brighter future. The Red Sox are now looked upon as having superior ownership and shrewder management, and the Sox have the kind of magnetism that can draw people to play for them for a few million less.

Years ago, when players like Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn departed, the Red Sox were left looking like the bad guys.

Now Ramirez gets shipped off and he is the one with the damaged reputation.

Lest anyone interpret this as some suggestion that New York should now be discounted entirely, the point is once again being lost. The Yankees remain the richest franchise in baseball, regardless of whether baseball’s economic landscape has changed. New York always can extend a little further. The Yankees can buy their way back, just like Winthorpe, and they can once again reclaim their place as the preeminent franchise in professional sports. But at a time when most every franchise in baseball seems to be waiting for the prices to come down, the Yankees are spending wildly out of necessity more than free will, for one reason and one reason only.

In order to sharpen the pinstripes on those fading and tarnished suits, they have to.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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