Tuesday, November 16, 2004
By Buster Olney
ESPN The Magazine
Sometimes George Steinbrenner does his own negotiating, and on Tuesday, ESPN has learned, he met face-to-face with the most prominent free agent pitcher on the market -- Pedro Martinez, who, to date, has not accepted a two-year, $27.5 million offer from the Boston Red Sox.
Steinbrenner loves stars, has always been enamored with the idea of taking stars away from the rival Red Sox, and it seems unlikely that he would meet with Martinez without having some intention of making at least a competitive offer.
It's a situation that probably concerns some Yankees' officials: At a time when the club needs to get younger and is locked up in long-term contracts with older players, Steinbrenner is wooing a 33-year-old right-hander who has shown signs of wear-and-tear in recent years.
Since the Yankees lost the 2001 World Series to Arizona, Steinbrenner has increasingly worked independently of his highest-ranked baseball executives, including General Manager Brian Cashman and longtime official Gene Michael, with mixed results.
Steinbrenner arranged a two-year deal with David Wells in January of 2002, despite the fact that many within the organization felt Wells was unreliable and unprofessional, and Wells pitched well in the regular season -- but was unable to go past the first inning of Game 5 of the 2003 World Series because of back trouble.
Steinbrenner ordered a trade for right fielder Raul Mondesi in the midst of the 2002 season, and Mondesi was a disaster. Last fall, Steinbrenner met with free agent outfielder Gary Sheffield and reached a handshake agreement on a contract; when Sheffield tried to back out of that deal, the Yankees' baseball executives worked to near-completion on a deal with slugger Vladimir Guerrero -- a player they preferred because he is eight years younger than Sheffield.
But Sheffield capitulated in the negotiations, and Steinbrenner ordered the signing of Sheffield -- who finished second in the AL MVP voting that was announced Tuesday. Guerrero finished first.
Now Steinbrenner has moved on Martinez, a longtime arch-enemy of the Yankees. He had once dominated them, setting a single-game strikeout record for an opposing pitcher when he whiffed 17 Yankees in September of 1999, beating them in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series that fall.
But Martinez mostly has struggled to beat the Yankees since then, frustrations that prompted him to say once that he would drill the Bambino in the rear if somebody woke up the deceased slugger, and then, late this year, say that perhaps he would have to call the Yankees his daddies. Martinez has probably been the opposing player most despised in the Yankees' clubhouse, after he's hit some of the Yankees repeatedly and after the on-field brawl in the 2003 playoffs, which concluded with Martinez throwing then-coach Don Zimmer to the ground. Recently, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said that if Martinez signed with the Yankees, all would be forgotten.
It may be that Steinbrenner and Martinez are using each other in this dalliance - Steinbrenner, to drive up the price that Boston eventually pays to the All-Star pitcher, and Martinez, in invoking the Yankees to get more money out of the Red Sox.
But it's also possible that Steinbrenner wants Martinez, who has a career record of 182-76 with an ERA of 2.71; based on his record of dominance, he is virtually a lock to be voted into Hall of Fame one day. Martinez went 16-9 for Boston last season, with a 3.90 ERA, and he struck out 227 batters in 217 innings. Increasingly, there has been concern that Martinez has trouble getting loose in cold weather, a problem that could reflect shoulder trouble.
Steinbrenner may look past that, however. Maybe he's ready to give Martinez a four-year deal, some deal written out on a napkin. The possibility might worry Yankees' executives more than those of the Red Sox.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.