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Boston doesn't have any payroll limitations

11/17/2006

Some four years ago, when the Red Sox lost out to the Yankees for the services of Cuban émigré Jose Contreras in a Nicaraguan hotel, a miffed Larry Lucchino, the team's CEO and president, bemoaned the fact that "the Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America."

Just three months ago, Theo Epstein stood on the field at Fenway Park, answering criticism that the Red Sox had ceded the AL East title by not dealing for Bobby Abreu -- as the Yankees had done -- and said the Sox were merely acknowledging the Yanks' edge in resources. "That's the reality. It's going to occasionally leave us short … every time there's a player who's available in a bidding war or taking on a contract or getting the best free agent."

But Tuesday night, in submitting the winning post for Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Red Sox also forfeited the right to whine about their rival's economic might ever again.

By bidding $51.1 million merely to negotiate with Matsuzaka -- signing him to a contract might necessitate that much again -- the Sox also abandoned the moral high ground. That sort of "woe-is-us" defense tends to look a bit transparent when a team suddenly finds almost 6 billion yen stuffed under the mattress.

No more suggestions, please, that the Yankees are some financial superpower capable of trampling the rest of baseball with their reckless and boundless spending. No more talk about the Red Sox being the plucky underdogs that somehow must make do with less.

The Sox's insistence that the Yanks were economic bullies always seemed a bit hollow, anyway. Sure, the Yankees have baseball's deepest pockets, as might be expected in a sport in which local revenues are critical to a team's financial footing.

Here, though, is what the Red Sox never acknowledged: Although the Yankees could indeed outspend them, the Red Sox, in turn, could outspend the other 28 teams in baseball.

Do the Gettys complain about the Rockefellers?

It was the Red Sox's misfortune that the one club with more resources just happened to be their longtime rival, with whom they're locked in an annual battle for divisional supremacy.

That's not some cruel inequity; that's merely geographic bad luck.

What's clear now is that the Red Sox have few, if any, payroll limitations. They've been outspent by only the Yankees for the last five years. Even before the Yanks dealt for Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in the history of the game, the Red Sox had the ignominious distinction of signing a player to the second-largest contract in the history of the game.

And now, presuming the Red Sox sign Matsuzaka, their Japanese superstar will earn substantially more than the Yankees paid theirs, Hideki Matsui, in his first MLB contract.

It's a well-established fact that, even with the introduction of revenue sharing and the competitive balance tax, baseball still can't lay claim to a level economic landscape. No amount of income redistribution can put a team in, say, Milwaukee on equal footing with one in Los Angeles.

Once again next season, the Red Sox will charge the highest average ticket prices in the industry. They will reap a fortune from NESN, their own regional TV network, and they will reap the benefits of the first year of the richest radio rights deal in sports, signed this past spring.

To their credit, they will reinvest in the on-field product. Their payroll, pegged at nearly $130 million last season, likely will nip at the luxury tax threshold of $148 million after Matsuzaka is signed and additional holes are filled in right field, shortstop and the bullpen.

No one ever called the Red Sox needlessly thrifty.

But now, as they begin negotiations to land the most expensive international free agent ever, they no longer can label themselves the Yankees' poor cousins. And for that, we should all be thankful.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.