Within his first hour in uniform as a New York Yankee last
Saturday, pitcher Jeff Weaver shared the clubhouse at Yankee
Stadium with some of the greatest living players--not to mention
retired Yankees such as Whitey Ford and Phil Rizzuto, who were
there, too, for Old-Timers' Day--held a news conference down the
hall in the same room where Old-Timer honoree Reggie Jackson had
just wrapped up one of his own and then, upon exiting the
interview room into the narrow corridor, bumped into Yogi Berra.
Talk about your hall of fame.
Owner George Steinbrenner proudly announced to Berra, "Yogi,
this is our new pitcher." Berra looked up at the 6'5"
righthander, paused and mumbled, "Looks like a basketball player."
It was one of those only-in-New York moments, and not merely
because of the huge turnout of baseball celebs. Only the Yankees
could add one of the most-sought-after young arms in baseball
just five days after acquiring slugging rightfielder Raul
Mondesi and pass it all off as business as usual. When they
obtained Mondesi from the Toronto Blue Jays, the Yankees led the
American League in runs and home runs. When they acquired
Weaver, they led the league in strikeouts and tied with the
Seattle Mariners for victories. Imagine Bill Gates hitting a
scratch-off lottery ticket, and you understand how the
transactions sat with the rest of the AL East.
"The rich get richer," said Toronto first baseman Carlos Delgado
as he watched the Yankees Old-Timers being introduced. Since the
end of last season the Blue Jays have been surrendering to New
York, breaking apart a veteran team after years of spending
liberally in a futile effort to keep up with their division rival.
"Now we need name tags to know each other," Delgado said. "The
Yankees, I think, have a bottomless pit of money. They get
whatever they need. They take the Number 1 pitcher off another
team and make him their Number 5. I think Mondy's going to do
real well for them. He doesn't have to be the main guy. They've
got Bernie [Williams] and [Derek] Jeter and [Jason] Giambi for
that. He was a big part of our team, and now he goes over there,
and he's just another piece to the puzzle."
With the addition of Mondesi, 31, the Yankees boast nine players
who have hit 20 or more home runs in a season. With Weaver, 25,
they flaunt seven starters who have won at least 13 games in a
season. (The Yankees are on the hook for $189.1 million for
those seven pitchers, covering a combined 20 years.) Manager Joe
Torre said the wealth of arms reminded him of when the Atlanta
Braves added Greg Maddux after the 1992 season, prompting Torre,
then managing the St. Louis Cardinals, to crack to Atlanta
manager Bobby Cox, "Why don't you just stay at the hotel and
call in the games?"
At least those Braves had an opening in their rotation, having
traded 15-game winner Charlie Leibrandt to make room for Maddux.
The Yankees are so flush with pitching and money that free-agent
signee Sterling Hitchcock (currently on the disabled list) and
his two-year, $12 million deal are as forgotten as loose change
under the sofa cushions. They are so flush that Orlando
Hernandez, who has won more postseason games for the franchise
than any pitcher except Ford and Andy Pettitte, may be
jettisoned in a deal. They are so flush that Torre was stumped
last Saturday when asked to name his rotation. "We need a plan,"
he said. "I don't have one."
Weaver, who started on Sunday for the injured Roger Clemens
(sore groin), immediately benefited from the Yankees' prolific
offense. Except for yielding a pair of three-run homers that put
New York in a 6-3 hole in the fifth inning, Weaver pitched well
(six hits, one walk, five strikeouts in seven innings) in
getting the 10-6 win over Toronto.
The two trades demonstrated why the Yankees have become a
monolith that only Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson could
dismantle. Their $135 million payroll is the highest in
baseball, $27 million more than the Boston Red Sox'. According
to a Toronto source, no other team showed interest in Mondesi,
not with $18 million due through next season for a career
underachiever with a questionable attitude. (The Blue Jays will
pick up $6 million of that tab and received a lightly regarded
26-year-old Double A pitcher, Scott Wiggins.) Yankees general
manager Brian Cashman said Mondesi gives his club better
defense, better baserunning and better power than the platoon of
Shane Spencer and John Vander Wal. Yet Mondesi has never driven
in or scored 100 runs in a season, has a pedestrian .333 career
on-base percentage and was hitting .224 this season when he
switched teams. Before the game last Friday one Blue Jays
onlooker gasped at a sight he said he'd never seen before:
Mondesi's taking part in team stretching.
In acquiring Weaver, who is in the first year of a four-year,
$22 million deal, the Yankees proved once again they don't just
outspend teams, they also outmaneuver them with the help of a
savvy front office and a deep farm system. New York gave up
lefthander Ted Lilly, 26--whom they had heisted from the
Montreal Expos in 2000 for righthander Hideki Irabu--and their
top two draft picks last year, outfielder John-Ford Griffin and
pitcher Jason Arnold. Even Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez, whose
club trailed New York by two games at the All-Star break,
defended the trades. "They think they might run away from us, so
I don't blame them for trying," he says. "I actually respect
Weaver offers New York protection against a staff that's logged
a lot of miles: Roger Clemens is 39; David Wells, 39; Hernandez,
37; Mike Mussina, 33; and Pettitte, 30. Weaver was only 39-51 in
Detroit, but the opponents' batting average against him has
dropped every season (.278, .267, .266 to .243 this year). At
the time of the trade he led the league in shutouts (three), was
tied for fifth in innings (121 2/3) and ranked ninth in ERA
(3.18). "He can be a Number 1 or Number 2 starter for us for the
next eight years," Steinbrenner gushed.
The Yankees' talks with the Tigers about Weaver began in
April--New York regarded him as too good to pass up, even
without a pressing need for a starting pitcher--but fizzled a
month later after the pitching prospect Detroit coveted, Brandon
Claussen, underwent elbow surgery. On July 3, however, Oakland
A's general manager Billy Beane called Cashman to propose a
three-way trade that hinged on Beane's getting Weaver and moving
him to the Yankees. The deal was done in two days. Oakland
traded first baseman Carlos Pena, minor league closer Franklyn
German and another prospect to be named by Sept. 15 to the
Tigers for Weaver. The A's then unloaded Weaver for Lilly and
the Yankees' prospects.
"I like what Oakland got out of it, and I like what the Yankees
got out of it," one AL general manager said. "I can't figure out
what the Tigers were thinking. You can always find first
basemen, but good, young starting pitchers? Put it this way:
They gave up the most valuable piece and got the least."
The trade was not entirely unrelated to the perilously shifting
financial tectonics of baseball. While Oakland will pay the
balance of Lilly's $237,150 salary, Beane called Weaver's
contract "totally not financially doable." Steinbrenner had no
such worries. After his club lost Game 7 of the World Series last
November, he promised to change the club and has added 10 players
"I want to win," he said before an 8-3 loss to Toronto last
Saturday. "Have you seen the crowds [here] the last month? The
fans have been tremendous. We want to give them the best possible
Steinbrenner smiled, Cheshire-like. He was standing in that same
hallway in which, on this day, he could survey Yankees old and
new. Above him the venerable stadium rumbled with the noise of
another near-capacity crowd. The paying customers had just
enjoyed a ceremony dedicating a plaque to Jackson, signed by the
Boss in 1976. Only in New York.
COLOR PHOTO: KATHY WILLENS/AP FEELING FLUSH Steinbrenner's bankroll gave Torre (center) a lot to think about and Berra (left) some new faces to meet.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO ARM ROBBERY After being swiped from Detroit, the 25-year-old Weaver won his debut in pinstripes.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO QUICK PAYOFF Mondesi hit .316 in his first six games for the Yankees, the only team willing to take on his hefty salary.
"The rich get richer," says Delgado. "The Yankees, I think, have
a bottomless pit of money. They get whatever they need."