Owners spending like money grows on trees

Days after seeing the rival Boston Red Sox pony up more than $50 million for the mere right to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, the New York Yankees came storming back this week and bid $26 million for the right to try to reach a deal with pitcher Kei Igawa.

You know what this means, don't you?

Exactly! It means that baseball's ownership, once again, is pants-around-the-ankles drunk and on the reel in Times Square.

This is a historical sort of reaction, pants around the ankles. Generations of fans have come and some have gone, but the one constant of the modern game, besides the final score and an immediate OPS update, is the just-can't-help-it spending sprees of owners who suddenly find themselves -- almost in spite of their own Gatsby-esque baseball existences -- up to their monocles in cash.

What to do? Why, give Alfonso Soriano $136 million over eight years (if you're the Cubs), or fling $70 million per season at none-time All-Star J.D. Drew (if you're the BoSox), or load down Carlos Lee with $100 million (if you're the Astros). If you're the Angels, you tape $50 million to Gary Matthews Jr.'s locker. The Cubs? Another $75 million, this for Aramis Ramirez. Hey, look, he's pretty good. And it's only money.

It is only money, and if you're an owner you can't get from the great room to the dining hall these days without tripping over a pile of it. Of course, it was only a couple of seasons ago that the Red Sox put Manny Ramirez on waivers, yet still couldn't get a team to take Ramirez and the balance of his $160 million contract off their bloodied hands. As recently as this past summer, in fact, industry experts figured Ramirez's bloated deal made him impossible to move. Now the line to trade for Man-Ram goes down the block, with the Padres -- the Padres! -- making one of the strongest moves for a player still owed upward of $40 million, plus two mega-options that could almost double that total.

Still waiting for their obscene offers: Barry Zito. Barry Bonds. Jason Schmidt. Roger Clemens (sure, let's assume). Tom Glavine. Mike Piazza. Greg Maddux. Oh, the sheer Gordon Gekko market force of it all.

What we are witnessing is an absolute cycle, a closed loop: Owners come into sudden money; owners spend all their money; owners say they have no money. This time the temporary surplus is fueled by a fat TV contract, some international growth, a labor deal and luxury-tax payola, but no matter the particulars. As a collective, baseball's ruling class treats found money like the beaming third-grader being gifted his first serious allowance. By sundown, ain't nothin' left.

After that, the cycle will predictably end as did the spending binges that preceded it, with many of these same amiable, competitive goofs moaning about the need for greater cost certainty -- give it about a year, here -- and telling the players' union in stentorian tones that things simply have got to change. What a chuckle old Donald Fehr will be having then.

Fehr is the head of that players' union, and every couple of years or so he is hauled before baseball's court of public opinion and very specifically blamed for the sport being in its current festering state, whichever festering state that may be. Spiraling salaries? Fehr's fault. Steroid use? A union problem. I don't remember hearing his name during "An Inconvenient Truth," but perhaps I wasn't listening closely enough.

And Fehr will do what he always does, which is smile to himself -- inwardly, inwardly -- and then refer the owners directly to their own, ongoing, ludicrous behavior. He will tell them the same thing he has told them for years: We don't tell you how much to spend. We only tell you the least you can spend.

That's the act in a nutshell. We are back to watching Part I of baseball's recurring two-part baseball miniseries, the one where the owners start throwing idiot money out into the great winds of trade and blaming each other in turn for "setting the market," as though such a concept even exists in pro sports anymore. (Then again, maybe it does: It only cost Seattle $13 million to gain the rights to talk turkey with Ichiro back in 2000. Today, $13 million barely gets you Ted Lilly for a year, and only halfway to saying howdy to Kei Igawa.)

Like all great benders, too, this one will end in sour pain. Part II is always where the dark plots kick in, after all. It's the part where the owners begin asking -- no, pleading -- for baseball's players to protect the owners from themselves. There's never an intervention around when you need it.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days To Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland" will be published by HarperCollins on Jan. 23, 2007, and may be pre-ordered on amazon.com. A writer for the Sacramento Bee, Kreidler can be reached at mkreidler@sacbee.com.