If news of the gaudiest, most stunningly desperate, yet absolutely brilliant trade in baseball history had to reach me anywhere, let it be here, in the native land of Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez.
I was already in paradise. Now I'm in heaven, too. Can we start the season a month early? Come on, everyone can be ready in two weeks, can't they? After the Alex Rodriguez for Alfonso Soriano trade, adrenaline alone ought to be enough to do the trick.
Baseball has had countless themes and story lines in its 136 years. You wouldn't think a new one could be possible. Yet it is. The longest, fiercest, bitterest rivalry in the game has been taken far over the top, over the moon it almost seems. Never before has there been such a sense of soul-deep animosity and identity-at-stake competition between two teams that extended through every level of the organization, from ownership through batboys, with players who will be remembered for generations taking the part of human chess pieces.
Electric as this confrontation is, the nature of baseball itself brings an extra dimension into play. A level of unpredictability, caprice, and psychological drama confounds predictions in baseball more than any other major sport. Or boiled to gamblers terms, take the Red Sox and Yankees, or Yankees and Red Sox as you please, at even odds and I'll take the other 28 teams in the field to win the World Series. We'd have a fair bet.
You can't strong-arm baseball, although the Yankees perpetually attempt it. You can't make it cry "Uncle." Not consistently, anyway. As the last three seasons gloriously demonstrate, there are always bands of Diamondbacks, Angels or Marlins waiting to cohere at the perfect moment, find their ideal style for a few months and, as their magic unfolds, do deeds they never even imagined. If you doubt it, ask Jack McKeon. Every morning over coffee, he must say, "Did we actually do that?"
"The only big news of the day is A-Rod," presumptive presidential candidate John Kerry (D-Mass.) said yesterday. Then he uttered a guttural growl of disgust with an expression on his face that seemed as sincere -- with room to spare -- as any mere political position. "Aww, it's all pitching," he muttered, and, with the pain built of 85 consecutive winters of discontent, refused to elaborate.
Actually, Kerry may have put his finger on the nub of the matter. Pitching, that is. Hitters make the big splashes and always have. Day in and day out, the Ruths, Bonds and A-Rods carry the sport on their wide shoulders. Yet they are not the sport -- the lesson we forget, we seem, at every conceivable opportunity.
The Yankees grabbed the reigning American League MVP -- at the cost of a second baseman who hit 38 home runs, stole 35 bases and may someday reach the Hall of Fame -- for two reasons. The first is obviously Rodriguez, who when he is allowed to play shortstop, is one of the two best players in the game. (Did somebody forget Barry Bonds?) Every three years we need a new Best Player in Baseball -- Ken Griffey Jr., Bonds, and now A-Rod -- whether it's true or not.
However, the second reason is the primary force behind this trade. The Yankees of the Joe Torre era were built on nonpareil pitching, excellent defense, remarkable esprit and an interlocking offense designed to frustrate top-flight pitching. In other words, the Yankees were constructed to defeat the sport's other top teams in the kind of one- and two-run, low-scoring games that decide titles in the fall. Torre had the perfect 2-1, 3-2, 4-3 or 5-4 baseball team of his time.
Now, though you won't hear it through the A-Rod ranting, the Yankees have done what many endangered contenders for them did. They grabbed a big stick, a big name, a new load of psychic thump, to remedy a host of other failings. The Yankees, you see, no longer have four-fifths of last year's pennant-winning rotation. In any confrontation where the Red Sox start Martinez and Curt Schilling, the Yankees are already on the short end of both matchups no matter whom they choose. As for their fourth and fifth starters, the Yankees have names, but little more. In the past, they had proven 15-game winners and sometimes better.
Because the Yankees' defense has gone from special to average, because their lineup has gone from subtle and symbiotic to a magnificent monotony of muscle, and because their gritty clubhouse has become a room full of strangers, they needed a miracle. And to the organization's credit, getting Rodriguez at a sane price in a plummeting salary market constitutes that baseball miracle.
Yet it may not be enough, not enough at any rate to reach the annual goal of George Steinbrenner, who believes you're a world champion or an expendable disappointment.
Where the Yankees once had David Wells as a fourth starter, and analyzed how many pitches Paul O'Neil and Chuck Knoblauch fought off, they've now been reduced, by the off-season defections of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, to the blunt instrument-strategy of grabbing expensive right-handed sluggers (Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield).
In one day, Rodriguez may have gone from a 50-home run Gold Glove shortstop to a 40-home run, on-the-job-training third baseman. Seen that way, is he still the best player in the game or just another wonderful bat at a corner infield position like Jim Thome or Carlos Delgado.
Some will moan that this monumental Yankees coup is bad for baseball. It's just the opposite. By the end of the last World Series, the Yankees were an exhausted and injured team showing age and the strain of years of brutal expectation. The clubhouse and bench were inert. Even Torre couldn't find an ignition switch to turn.
After all this winter's departures, and Aaron Boone's season-ending injury, the Yankees were, just a blink ago, far more in danger of becoming irrelevant than of remaining dominant. Now, with Rodriguez on board and Soriano's erratic defense gone, the Yankees are roughly as good a regular season team as they were last year. That's wonderful for the spot, especially during all the regularly scheduled holy wars with the Red Sox.
But the Yankees, Rodriguez or not, are no longer constructed to be an October juggernaut with special daunting abilities. A great slugging lineup, backed by a pretty good starting rotation, what's that? It sounds like so many Red Sox teams that other Yankee outfits loved to meet.
No matter how this tell-the-grandkids-someday trade evolves, it brings attention to the sport at the subtle and special levels that its fans love as well as the headlines of "Will the Yankees Hit 300 Home Runs This Year?"
Alex Rodriguez deserved a stage worthy of his talent. The Yankees needed one colossal coup to compensate for a previously inept winter. And 29 other teams from Boston to Chicago to Who Knows Where need not ring their hands. Just enjoy this madness and use them to applaud.