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"What it gets down to is jealousy," he says of the criticisms. "I guess in baseball the egos are bigger than they are in basketball. The first thing some of these guys should do is look in a mirror.
"I have a 32-year track record of being responsible," adds Colangelo, who has run the NBA's Phoenix Suns since 1968. (The Suns have never won a league title, falling to the Celtics in 1976 and the Bulls in 1993 in their only NBA Finals appearances.) "Nothing has changed. If anything, the stakes are even higher. Our goal is to separate ourselves from how baseball teams have operated for a long time. That's not to say we ignore tradition, but we're going to do things we believe are right."
The Diamondbacks, who open with a $32 million payroll, have spooked even George Steinbrenner, whose Yankees are the richest team in baseball. Worried about losing centerfielder Bernie Williams to the desert, Steinbrenner has asked acting commissioner Bud Selig to investigate whether Arizona tampered with Williams, who is eligible for free agency after this season.
Colangelo's spending spree began with the $10 million he gave first baseman Travis Lee, a first-round pick by Minnesota in 1996 who became a free agent because he wasn't offered a contract soon enough by the Twins. Then he made veteran free-agent shortstop Jay Bell the highest-paid middle infielder in baseball, at $6.8 million per year over five years. Next up was third baseman Matt Williams, who got a five-year deal at $9.5 million a yearafter Williams said he wanted to play only in Arizona so he could be near his children. Then he corralled pitcher Andy Benes with $18 million over three years. Most recently, after catcher Jorge Fabregas "lost" his arbitration and was awarded an $875,000 contract, Colangelo gave him a two-year, $2.9 million deal anyway. Colangelo said he felt uneasy about the arbitration figure because Arizona had offered Fabregas $1.05 million before the hearing.
"We won the arbitration, and I didn't feel good about that," Colangelo says. "We made him an offer based on what we thought his value was, so why should he be penalized? That's the difference between me and how other people do business. I want to do what's right."
Said Fabregas, who previously played for the White Sox and the Angels, "I was very shocked. Things like that just don't happen in baseball. This is the best-run organization I've known. From [manager] Buck Showalter to his coaches to everybody else, they really care about you."
Arizona has one of the highest season-ticket bases in baseball: 34,000. It has a state-of-the-art, $354 million ballpark, $238 million of which came from local taxes. When it will put a state-of-the-art team on the field, however, is less certain, though the club's revenue and spending pattern suggest it could be soon.
"The Rockies made the playoffs in their third year, but that was a strike season," Showalter says. "When we get there, we don't want it to be a one-year deal. We want to be consistent and have a farm system that makes us a self-replenishing organization. What a good farm system does is help keep your payroll down."
Clearly, though, the Diamondbacks can speed their maturation through free agency. Colangelo has all but hung a shingle on Bank One Ballpark, his convertible-roofed stadium: FREE AGENTS WELCOME. "This is about recruiting," he says. "Having the right facilities, treating people right and being located in an attractive place to play."
In the meantime Colangelo knows the rest of the baseball world will keep a sharp eye on him. Last month for instance, he attended a charity function in which people wearing Yankees pinstripes served drinks. "I didn't ask for one, though," Colangelo says, "because I thought I might be accused of tampering."
by Tom Verducci
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