It's an escalating arms race ... and a bat race and a glove race. It's the hot stove league heating up, and the best of enemies, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, are going toe-to-toe with their checkbooks.
One day it's the Red Sox signing Curt Schilling, the next it's the Yankees going after Gary Sheffield. There are still plenty of shopping days left before Christmas.
Alex Rodriguez, the jewel of all players available for the right price, would join either of them if a deal could be worked out with the Texas Rangers.
Yankee fans drool over the prospect of A-Rod taking over at shortstop, Derek Jeter moving to third, and the rest of the baseball world howling about the unfairness of it all.
A lot of Red Sox fans, ever hopeful, might be willing to yield on their love of Nomar Garciaparra if it meant getting Rodriguez in the lineup.
A deal like either of those won't happen quickly. Both teams have to see how their other signings go first, then tote up their salaries to see if they can afford the players and the money it would take to grab Rodriguez. He comes with a sparkling MVP trophy and seven years left on a 10-year, $252 million contract tops in the majors.
''Every team wants him,'' Rodriguez' agent, Scott Boras, said. ''It's a question of, 'Does he fit?'''
At least the Red Sox and Yankees are busy building. The season ended bitterly for them Boston most horribly again in Yankee Stadium, New York most surprisingly in the World Series against Florida. To Yankees boss George Steinbrenner, losing at any level is anathema. To the Red Sox braintrust, it's critical to bury the curse that lingers on.
So far, winter is coming on for fans in both cities with less depression than they might have imagined.
That's not true all over baseball. Fans in some cities Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Colorado, among others are worried about their teams cutting back on talent and slashing payrolls.
Players, too, are rankled by the early evidence that teams that reaped luxury tax benefits from the rich, like the Yankees, are pocketing the cash instead of re-signing players or going after free agents.
That wasn't the intent of the luxury tax hikes and revenue sharing the players agreed to in contract negotiations with the owners last year.
''That was a concern from the start,'' said Boras, who represents some 70 major league players. ''The reason the players agreed to substantial revenue sharing of nearly $250 million was to increase parity. But the owners seem to be putting that money in their pockets and not signing their players.''
Parity has been the genius of the NFL and the missing ingredient in baseball.
Clubs that were expected to be in the range of a $60-million payroll still about one-third of the Yankees and one-half the Red Sox are looking as if they're going to trim down to a chintzier $20 million to $35 million.
''The rich aren't getting richer,'' Boras said. ''The teams below are just not delivering the product on the field that they promised the fans they would spend to do.''
Baseball has been crying poor for a long time but it recently signed a record licensing deal for more the $500 million and a television deal with Japan for $275 million. Franchises keep getting sold for more money and ticket prices go only one direction up.
''Baseball has never made more money,'' Boras said. ''The game was at $1 billion in revenue in 1990, $1.6 billion in '95, over $3 billion in 2000 or 2001, and now we're stepping up to nearly $4 billion.''
Commissioner Bud Selig and a cadre of small-market owners pushed through the revenue-sharing plan last year, and so far it looks like a failure. The luxury tax didn't stop Steinbrenner from a shopping spree last year that brought in Hideki Matsui from Japan and Jose Contreras from Cuba. It's not stopping the Boss from personally spearheading the negotiations with Sheffield.
It probably won't stop him from spending whatever it takes to keep starter Andy Pettitte and replenish a pitching staff that lost Roger Clemens.
Schilling brings an arm and a brain to Boston. He completes a starting rotation for the Red Sox that is arguably the best in baseball, with Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield and, perhaps, Byung-Hyun Kim.
Not content with that, the Red Sox are aggressively courting free agent Keith Foulke, whose AL-high 43 saves last year with Oakland were more than the entire Boston bullpen.
That would complement an offense that boasted the AL batting champion in Bill Mueller and a major league record .491 slugging percentage.
The Yankees and Red Sox are doing what they're supposed to do using their resources and their cunning to build teams. Some of their small-market rivals seem to prefer to pocket their cash and keep crying that they can't compete.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com
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