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Original Issue

Money Players

Baseball's off-season spending spree reaches historic heights

HOURS BEFORE the biggest art auction in history took place a few blocks away, on Nov. 8, Red Sox owners John Henry and Larry Lucchino delivered their bid to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka to Major League Baseball headquarters in New York City. The shocking bid, $51.1 million, was more suited to the nearly half-billion-dollar splurge that happened at Christie's. Indeed, Gauguin's 1891 work Man with an Ax went for less ($40.3 million) than the Seibu Lions' man with a gyroball.

With pitching, as in art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the price people affix to it says as much about their own wealth as the lot itself. The Red Sox' final cost for Matsuzaka may push $100 million—and they're still eager to drop money on free agents such as outfielder J.D. Drew and shortstop Julio Lugo.

The Matsuzaka bidding kicked off what looks to be a winter of wild spending. Buoyed by labor peace, a new $3 billion television contract, growing Internet and international income and revenue sharing, baseball is swimming in cash. "We're back to the kind of market we saw in 2000--01," one agent said at the general managers' meetings in Naples, Fla., last week, referring to that crazy winter when four players received $100 million deals.

This market, however, doesn't boast certifiable franchise stars. Now that Alfonso Soriano has signed with the Cubs for eight years and $136 million, the best of the bunch is pitcher Barry Zito, 28, who since his '02 Cy Young season has a .544 winning percentage for Oakland teams that played .572 baseball without his decisions.

It's not only big names who will cash in. Drew, 30, walked away from the $33 million he was due from the Dodgers, anticipating he'll better that as a free agent. And pitchers Jason Schmidt, Ted Lilly and Vicente Padilla could get more than $10 million per year.

Whether it's Matsuzaka or a pitcher such as journeyman Jamie Walker, who got a $12 million contract from Baltimore, players are enjoying the game's largesse. No wonder owners and players came to the easiest labor agreement ever last month. Both sides want to keep the good times rolling.





WINDFALL CITY The Cubs took Soriano off the market on Sunday with a $136 million deal.