NAPLES, Fla. – To neatly summarize baseball's new era: The Boston Red Sox are willing to pay $51.1 million merely for the right to negotiate with Scott Boras.
Such talks have, in the past, made fools of rich men, turned dark hair gray and sent systolic and diastolic pressures to unhealthy levels. And yet here are the Red Sox, coveting Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka enough that they might just be breaking a commandment, and steeling for discussions that, if successful, will end with them shelling out another $12.5 million or so a year to actually get the right-hander in uniform.
If Boston does work out a contract with Matsuzaka over the next 30 days – Boras will push for three years to get Matsuzaka back on the free-agent market before he turns 30, and the Red Sox will pull for four or five years to get the full value of the posting fee they pay the Seibu Lions – he becomes the new Alex Rodriguez, around a $25 million-a-year man.
Only he'll play in one-fifth the games.
As sound a maneuver as signing Matsuzaka seems for the Red Sox – they import a No. 1 pitcher ready to enter the prime of his career and block the New York Yankees from signing him – this is dangerous for baseball. Though the infusion of cash into the game calls for an equitable amount to go to the players, here is what the public, already wary of exorbitant salaries, sees: The Red Sox paying more per year for a player who has never thrown a major-league pitch than Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Randy Johnson or Ken Griffey Jr. ever made in a season.
Now it's salaries on steroids.
With its posting bid, the Red Sox threw into flux a market already primed to go nuts. However much it changes things this winter – Alfonso Soriano will get his $100 million or more – the ramifications of the Matsuzaka deal will sock baseball in the face next winter, when there's a free-agent class worth spending over. Would it surprise anyone if Ichiro Suzuki, Andruw Jones, Vernon Wells, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Guillen and Carlos Zambrano signed contracts worth a combined $650 million?
"And this," one American League personnel man warned, "is just the start."
This was no clarion call. Baseball sees the spending more as a function of its triumphs, like the successful businessman who upgrades from a beater to a Bimmer. For all of its popularity, the sport has become a hugely profitable entity only in the last 10 years. The continued labor peace, which has fostered this kind of spending, is evidence of that. Businessmen – in this case, owners and players – shouldn't mess with something this good.
The Matsuzaka negotiations might do that. Five teams in baseball spent $48 million or less on their entire payroll last season. In 2004, the best player in the U.S.' most popular sport, Peyton Manning, received the NFL's highest signing bonus, $34.5 million, about one-third less than what could be seen as MLB's equivalent of a signing bonus, the posting fee.
Less than a year after the Red Sox shunned Johnny Damon because his contract demands climbed too high, and a few months after they passed on Bobby Abreu because of supposed poverty, they are primed to send Seibu enough cash in one payment to cover its entire payroll this season, plus some.
Yes, the Red Sox did finish 26th with a 4.83 earned-run average last season, and Curt Schilling will be gone after this year, and Jonathan Papelbon's move to the rotation could falter, and Jon Lester is undergoing treatment for cancer, and aces on the free-agent market are as rare and precious as four-leaf clovers. Don't doubt Matsuzaka's credentials, either: He's got the fastball, changeup and slider of a No. 1 and the mettle to match. And maybe, one of these days, he'll have the gyroball, too.
Still, in terms of popularity, Matsuzaka is not yet Hideki Matsui, and he probably will never be Ichiro, who is a national hero. To assume the Red Sox will become the favorite team in the Far East by signing Matsuzaka is a reach at best.
Likewise, to think the number the Red Sox offered wasn't vetted to the last decimal by Boston's bean counters would be foolish. They can afford Matsuzaka at this price; they wouldn't cripple themselves for a splash. Boston, emboldened by its sport's success, went for the gusto.
Just like baseball, emboldened by its financial success, is doing the same. Only its move is far riskier with further-reaching implications. With every huge contract, it is saying: We believe in our product. We believe fans in large markets will not see the Yankees' and Red Sox's and Mets' spending and wonder when their teams turned into have-nots. We believe fans in smaller markets will continue coming to the game when their teams raise ticket prices to keep up with the big spenders. We believe Mark DeRosa, a lifetime utilityman who never had more than 309 at-bats in a season before this year, is worth $13 million over three years. We believe the sport is healthy enough to withstand whatever criticism may come.
They'd better believe. They created this world. And they have to live with it.