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Stars hit New York -- with huge billing

NEW YORK -- Late Saturday night, Scott Boras picked up the phone and dialed the Yankees. The super-agent said something like this: For $99.6 million, Carlos Beltran would be willing to play center field in the Bronx for the next six summers.

The Yankees' response: Thanks, but at the moment, we can't afford him.

The actual exchange was likely a bit different, but that was the essence of the conversation.

"This is the reality of the new Basic Agreement," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said yesterday afternoon. "When you're talking about another $100 million, you have to be careful. For us, $100 million is really $140 million."

Given the Yankees' repeated crossings of the luxury tax threshold, they will pay an extra 40 cents on each dollar spent above $128 million this season. Thus, paying Beltran $16.6 million would mean an actual cost of $23.1 million.

So with the Yankees and his former team, the Astros, no longer pursuing him, Beltran reached agreement Sunday on a seven-year deal with the Mets for $119 million.

That positioned the Mets and Yankees for a landmark day in New York yesterday. At Shea Stadium in Queens, the Mets rolled out Beltran before an estimated 250 media members at 11 a.m.; then, at 2 p.m. in the Bronx, the Yankees unveiled Randy Johnson. For the voracious New York media, this was the equivalent of all-you-can-eat steak for lunch, then limitless lobster for dinner.

Boras, during an interview at Shea, would not confirm that he'd offered Beltran to the Yankees for a set figure. Cashman, however, did, later in the day at the Stadium. "Yeah," said Cashman, "$16.6 million times six."

Boras instead focused on the reasons Beltran chose the Mets: a no-trade clause, a high comfort level with Latino general manager Omar Minaya, and the Mets' commitment to improving their roster through player acquisitions.

Beltran, who is Puerto Rican, joins Dominican pitcher Pedro Martinez as free agents snatched by Minaya.

"I know I will be protected by [special assistant] Tony [Bernazard] and Omar," Beltran said. "They're Latino. They make me feel comfortable."

Had Martinez not signed with the Mets, Beltran said, he most likely wouldn't have, either.

"I was waiting for them to make some move, and they did it," Beltran said. "I really believe more people are looking at the Mets with more respect."

The Mets still face gaping holes in their bullpen and need a first baseman. They talked with the Red Sox about first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, as well as reliever Byung Hyun Kim, at the winter meetings. Minaya said yesterday that he has not called the Sox back about Mientkiewicz or Kevin Millar. That could change if the Mets do not land Carlos Delgado, whom Beltran is lobbying.

Across town, Johnson's arrival from Arizona effectively completed the Yankees' offseason moves targeted at rebuilding the rotation following the ALCS meltdown against the Sox. Cashman seemed to be mentally reliving Games 4-7 yesterday when he said, "[We] had them on the ropes. Three outs away. Up three games."

That is why the Yankee GM went out and got Johnson, the indomitable 6-foot-10-inch lefthander who is to pitchers what the blue whale is to mammals; that is, the biggest there is. Johnson managed 245 innings (second-most in the majors) last season despite turning 41 in September. In Johnson, the Yankees land someone who Cashman "personally feels cost this organization two championships, in 1995 and 2001."

Johnson came out of the bullpen to beat the Yankees in clinching games of postseason series both seasons.

He's older now -- he'll turn 44 before his deal expires -- and has had health issues. Last season he needed occasional shots of lubricant that served as makeshift cartilage in his knee. Historically, his back has ailed him as well.

But the doctor who examined him at his Monday physical "was amazed at his elbow and shoulder," Cashman said. "He said they were as good as anyone in our rotation."

Said Johnson, "If I felt I could only play one more year beyond this year, that is the deal I would have signed."

His deal calls for $16.5 million this season and another $16 million each of the two ensuing seasons. But that is not his actual cost to the Yankees. Consider the following arithmetic. Johnson will make $16.5 million this season. The Yankees included $9 million cash in the deal with Arizona. His addition will boost the Yankees' estimated luxury tax payout this year by $6.6 million. That computes to $32.1 million this season alone, or just shy of $900,000 per start. That's not baseball money; that's Jerry Seinfeld money ($1 million per episode).

If the Yankees can find a way to spend $10 million more this offseason, the 2005 New York payroll would be equivalent to the combined 2004 payrolls of Tampa Bay, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Cleveland, and Kansas City.

In the coming months, it will be interesting to see Johnson's adjustment from the retirement community of Phoenix to the media capital of the world. His altercation with a New York cameraman and reporter Monday made headlines nationwide. Locally, the New York Post, spinning Johnson's nickname, proclaimed: "Big Jerk." The Daily News offered: "1 Walk, 1 Hit, 1 Error."

Johnson opened his press conference yesterday with an apology.

"To reiterate," Johnson began, "it was unprofessional. I feel very foolish that at such a great moment in my career I would have to stand here and apologize to you."

Yankees manager Joe Torre was not on hand to say whether Johnson would start opening night against the Red Sox and Curt Schilling. It is assumed he will.

"If it's not Opening Day, it's somewhere along the line," Johnson said of opposing his co-MVP of the 2001 Series. "We'll meet up."

Johnson refused to fuel the Red Sox rivalry. While Schilling, upon joining the Sox, said, "I guess I hate the Yankees now," Johnson wouldn't bite.

"I don't hate anybody except the days I cross the white lines," he said. "Any other day I'm all about peace." 

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