Already having been gagged (he is forbidden to speak to the media) and grounded (the New York Yankees were the lone major league team not to send an official to the annual winter meetings in New Orleans last week), Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had yet another indignity foisted upon him on Sunday by team owner George Steinbrenner: The Boss announced that he would pick up the option on Cashman's contract for 2005.
Only in the Bronx, where three years without a world championship provokes high anxiety, could another year of work at a salary of about a million bucks be construed as insulting. But just hours after the New York Post hit street corners with a report that a fed-up Cashman couldn't wait to bolt the team after next season, Steinbrenner decided it would be the perfect time to announce that he would guarantee another year on the G.M.'s contract. Season's greetings. Fruitcake shipped separately.
As the American League East became baseball's epicenter of activity last week, those formerly stable Yankees looked more and more like a bizarro Survivor cast, as if getting off the island were the goal. First, disgruntled bench coach Don Zimmer quit the minute the Yankees lost the World Series to the Florida Marlins. Then manager Joe Torre, heading into the last year of his contract, said last month that he didn't want an extension, thank you. Last Thursday lefthander Andy Pettitte, the winningest postseason pitcher among active players, bolted the only organization he's ever known for the Houston Astros, a team that has never won a postseason series. Pettitte's departure prompted buddy Roger Clemens, who told the Yankees he was retiring after the 2003 season, to consider pitching for the Astros. Moreover, according to a Yankees source, closer Mariano Rivera, angry about the Yankees' half-hearted attempt to keep Pettitte, called an organization insider to say he was ready to exit when his contract runs out after next season.
Steinbrenner, meanwhile, boldly moved to refurbish his club with trades for righthanders Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown and deals with free-agent outfielders Gary Sheffield (who agreed to terms on a three-year, $39 million contract on Friday) and Kenny Lofton (two years, $6 million), whose presence unceremoniously boots centerfielder Bernie Williams to DH. When one reporter mentioned to Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox that Lofton could assist Sheffield in rightfield with speed and range, Cox, who managed Lofton in Atlanta, laughed and said drily, "Maybe."
"They'll still be great," one American League G.M. says of the Yankees, "but it's hard to figure out what they're doing. They're taking some risks—I hope they keep it up."
Word of unrest in the Land of George played as soothingly as harp music across the rest of the AL East. There's change in the air for a division that since Thanksgiving has added four of the National League's top 12 ERA leaders: Brown; Curt Schilling, whose trade from Arizona to Boston was the starter's pistol to the off-season; Vazquez; and Miguel Batista, who signed with Toronto last Friday (three years, $13.1 million). The Blue Jays, after an 86-win season, already had added Ted Lilly and Pat Hentgen to complement Cy Young winner Roy Halladay in their rotation.
"The Yankees and Red Sox are like Russia and the U.S. going at it," Toronto G.M. J.P Ricciardi says. "We're England. We just have to worry about ourselves. We may win 90 games and still get third place. We'll see."
In addition to Schilling, Boston last Saturday signed AL saves leader Keith Foulke, a made-to-order closer for a stats-minded organization that doesn't believe in treating its best reliever like a Ming vase. The durable Foulke, for instance, may be deployed in the eighth inning of tie games. "He's a weapon," Red Sox G.M. Theo Epstein says. "There's nobody else who would be a better fit for us." Boston has also been negotiating a trade that would send outfielder Manny Ramirez to Texas for shortstop Alex Rodriguez.
Baltimore, after a franchise-worst five straight losing seasons, officially announced on Sunday that it intends to be a factor in the division, rather than fodder. Not only did the Orioles sign former AL MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada (six years, $72 million), but they also professed to have enough cash to sign free-agent outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and one of the two elite free-agent catchers, Ivan Rodriguez or Javy Lopez. "Let the Yankees and the Red Sox knock each other out," says new Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli, who, yep, left the Yankees' coaching staff last month. "We'll be waiting in the wings."
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, retains the look of a poor rube who mistakenly sat down at a baccarat table with the big boys. The Devils Rays' signings of outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. (two years, $6 million) and second baseman Rey Sanchez (one year, $1 million) were mere footnotes in the divisional gamesmanship.