TANNED, FOCUSED AND LOADED/AL EAST
Life as the highest of high-revenue clubs is very good, except
for the rare mornings when the fresh bagels are a bit tardy.
"Where are those bagels today? I'm starved," Yankees
rightfielder Paul O'Neill wondered out loud one day at the
team's spring training headquarters in Tampa. As if on cue, a
door near O'Neill opened and a cart loaded with bagels and fresh
fruit was wheeled toward the gleaming clubhouse commissary.
While much of the rest of baseball makes do with crusty
doughnuts and cold cereal, George Steinbrenner applies the same
philosophy to keeping his team sated as he does to his payroll:
No expense is spared. "The hot tub, the masseuse...it's
unbelievable here," says third baseman Dale Sveum, who enjoyed a
productive but decidedly coach-class season with the Pirates
last year. "Everything here is first-class, right down to the
batting-practice pitchers. I've never seen so many quality arms
throwing batting practice."
Likewise, Scott Brosius, another third base addition, marvels at
the luxuries he never knew with the low-budget Athletics. "Here
they drag the infield while you're taking ground balls so that
the dirt is always smooth," he says. "I was amazed. And no, we
didn't have a masseuse in Oakland."
The Yankees are an embarrassment of riches. Before the first
baseball was unpacked or the first bagel sliced, New York's
25-man roster was essentially set. The only competition was
conditional--jockeying for playing time in the event of an
injury. How loaded are the Yankees? So loaded that the 10th
pitcher on their 11-man staff, Darren Holmes, has a three-year
contract. So loaded that they have a backup at every position
with at least one year of major league experience. So loaded
that the three players competing for the leftfield job--Chad
Curtis, Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry--have 40 combined years
of major league service.
In the past 11 months Steinbrenner has shelled out $9.6 million
just to complete four trades (jettisoning lefthander Kenny
Rogers and third baseman Charlie Hayes, acquiring Chuck
Knoblauch and righthander Hideki Irabu). That's more than the
Expos will pay their entire roster to actually play for them
this year. The trade for Knoblauch, in which the Yankees sent
four prospects and $3 million to acquire a $6-million-per-year
player, shows that Steinbrenner pays as much attention to the
luxury tax as a New Yorker does to crosswalks. Even after that
deal, Steinbrenner courted and signed free-agent pitchers
Orlando Hernandez of Cuba and Ricardo Aramboles of the Dominican
Republic, swelling the Yankees' payroll to more than $70
million. "At some point, the Boss has got to shut it down," says
Mark Newman, Steinbrenner's top adviser.
Steinbrenner's largesse is largely bankrolled by his
broadcasting contracts--most notably a $486 million, 12-year
local TV deal signed in 1989 with MSG. The team ranked only 10th
in home attendance last season, seemingly appreciated more on
the road, where it was the biggest draw in baseball. With a new
or refurbished stadium probable after his Yankee Stadium lease
expires in 2002, Steinbrenner and his checkbook will be more
dangerous than ever.
The reason other clubs lament Steinbrenner's lavish spending
habits is not that he can sign free agents, but that he can't be
hurt by free agents who go bust. For instance, Steinbrenner is
paying the Athletics half of the $10 million remaining on
Rogers's contract just to take the pitcher off Steinbrenner's
hands. "The rest of us," says one American League general
manager, "have to live with our mistakes."
Says New York righthander David Cone, whose surgically repaired
throwing shoulder will be closely monitored, "The biggest
difference between high-revenue clubs like us and others is
depth. This is the deepest team I've been around here."
Spring training for the Yankees is nothing but a six-week sound
check. "The only thing I'd like," manager Joe Torre said early
in camp, "is for my starting pitchers to be healthy. That's
about it." Absent were the typical spring urgencies such as
breaking in a young starter or trying to fill a need with a
trade. Need? The toughest decisions in Tampa involve sesame or