Sunday, February 15, 2004

A-Rod to Yankees makes perfect $ense

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Turn a deaf ear to the Pittsburghs and Kansas Citys screaming bloody murder over this union of embarrassing contract and embarrassing payroll. Alex Rodriguez-to-the-Yankees, ladies and gentlemen, is good for baseball. You can't have the Michael Jordan of your sport playing for the Los Angeles Clippers forever.

One way or another, Rodriguez had to escape to New York. Baseball couldn't afford to keep him locked up in the Texas wastelands, where high school football under the Friday night lights will always be bigger than the ALDS.

A-Rod flirted with the Mets, and he went to the altar with the Red Sox, but George Steinbrenner's team isn't called the Evil Empire for nuttin'. Steinbrenner gets what he wants, when he wants it. Rodriguez, a shortstop, will play Graig Nettles' position, and off toward the $300 million payroll barrier King George trots.

Rodriguez lugs along a chunk of his $252 million contract bigger than the courthouse behind Yankee Stadium's right-center wall, and you can already hear the ranting and raving in baseball's cheap seats, where A-Rod's monthly wage equals half a team's operating budget.

But now that he's finally divesting himself from the business of small-market dreams, Bud Selig should understand just how good this trade is for his cherished game. The feds are fixing to bring down some of Selig's superstars, names that are Martha Stewart big. The commissioner didn't just need A-Rod to knock steroids and grand juries off the front and back pages.

He needed A-Rod to play for a franchise that held a permanent place in America's consciousness.

"The commissioner's dream one day is to get a lot closer to equal footing, so that every team has a chance to compete," said one baseball official. "But he absolutely appreciates what a trade like this means. When A-Rod almost went to Boston, Bud thought it was good to get him to a baseball hotbed and put him in the middle of an intense rivalry. Now A-Rod's going to New York. Bud knows it certainly doesn't hurt to have your best player in the top market."

A-Rod was so desperate to get out of Texas that he approached Selig at Sammy Sosa's November birthday party in the Dominican Republic to let the commissioner know he was extremely unhappy with the Rangers. Selig listened closely as Rodriguez explained why he wanted out. When news broke about the possible Manny Ramirez trade, Selig figured Boston represented an ideal landing place.

It didn't happen, thanks to union leaders who exist to rain on parades. But neither Donald Fehr nor Gene Orza stood in Steinbrenner's way. The Yankees didn't want to devalue A-Rod's landmark contract; they only wanted the Rangers to pay their fair share of it, and to accept Alfonso Soriano as a reward for being so kind.

Truth is, this trade became inevitable the first day Rodriguez realized he'd let Scott Boras talk him into a Faustian deal. A-Rod had sold his soul to a devil too comfortable in the hell that is last place in the American League West, and Tom Hicks and Buck Showalter weren't about to convince him otherwise.

Like Roger Clemens before him, Rodriguez got better than he deserved in this trade to first place. After making such a big deal out of naming A-Rod their captain at the New York baseball writers' dinner, the Rangers should've just left him behind with the soiled napkins. Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, old flames who've had more breakups and makeups than Ben and J-Lo, will remain in each other's arms until someone reminds Jeter about those nasty things A-Rod said about him before they started making commercials together.

For the time being, nobody's asking why A-Rod is going to third when Jeter is the second-best shortstop of the two. That question will come after the honeymoon.

All in all, the left side of the Yankees' infield initially signed for a combined $441 million. If A-Rod and Jeter aren't another Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, they're another Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Steinbrenner is the only owner who would even entertain the notion of absorbing the two biggest individual contracts in sports history, precisely why Rodriguez isn't playing in Arlington, Queens or Fenway Park.

The Mets had their chance after losing the 2000 World Series to the Yankees. Rodriguez was born a Mets fan and raised on Kiner's Korner, and he wanted to go head-to-head with Jeter for prince-of-the-city rights. Instead of making him an offer, Fred Wilpon proved he doesn't have the stomach for the big-market fight. He told A-Rod where to stuff his hometown dreams, and that sure looks like a brilliant move now.

The Red Sox at least gave it the ol' college try. In the end, they did beat the Yanks to Curt Schilling. If baseball's pitching-is-everything principles hold up in another ALCS, Schilling will be more important to the Red Sox than A-Rod will be to the Yanks.

But there's six months of Arena Baseball to play before anyone finds out. A-Rod, Jeter, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield. The Yankees will score, score, score, and hope they can get to Mariano Rivera without the help of Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells.

It should be a wildly entertaining ride. And to think, Aaron Boone started all this by jumping into the middle of a pickup basketball game.

His wrecked knee gave baseball a chance to get its Jordan in the right place. They'll never believe it in Pittsburgh or Kansas City, but the sport couldn't let Alex Rodriguez rot away in Texas. Eventually, his embarrassing contract had to land in the one place where embarrassing contracts are collected like lint.

AP-NY-02-14-04 2308EST

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