FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The most bitter rivalry in professional sports entered a hostile new frontier yesterday as the principal owners of the Red Sox and Yankees fired off such incendiary broadsides over the blockbuster trade of Alex Rodriguez that commissioner Bud Selig promptly ordered the billionaire combatants to stand down.
Sox boss John W. Henry, in his first public reaction to the Rodriguez shocker, unleashed the opening volley when he issued an e-mail response to reporters at 6:04 a.m. in which he said a salary cap may be the only "fair way to deal with a team that has gone so insanely far beyond the resources of all the other teams."
A former limited partner of the Yankees, Henry suggested his purported friend, George Steinbrenner, had so upset baseball's competitive balance by pushing his record-high payroll to about $185 million that the game may be in peril. The Sox are poised to start the season with baseball's second-highest payroll, estimated at $125 million.
"We have a spending limit and the Yankees apparently don't," Henry said. "Baseball doesn't have an answer for the Yankees. Revenue sharing can only accomplish so much. At some point it becomes confiscation. It has not and it will not solve what is a very obvious problem."
Steinbrenner wasted little time firing back, assailing Henry as a jealous underachiever. The Sox abandoned a monumental effort to trade Manny Ramirez for Rodriguez in December when they ultimately opted against assuming the $81.5 million difference in the contracts of the two superstars. The Yankees, who sent Alfonso Soriano and his $5.4 million contract to the Texas Rangers for Rodriguez, increased their financial obligations by $106.6 million over the seven-year balance of Rodriguez's record $252 million deal.
"We understand John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated, and disappointed by his failure in this transaction," Steinbrenner said in a prepared statement. "Unlike the Yankees, he chose not to go the extra distance for his fans in Boston."
Even though the rivalry dates to the roots of the national pastime, tensions between the Sox and Yankees have escalated since Henry's group bought the Boston franchise for a record $660 million, plus $40 million in assumed debt, in 2002. Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino promptly dubbed the Yankees the Evil Empire, piquing Steinbrenner's anger, and Henry swiftly showed a willingness to make major investments aimed at overtaking Boston's pinstriped rivals from the Bronx.
Since Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees from CBS in 1973 for $10 million (the franchise is now considered worth as much as $1 billion), his team and the Sox have been on a collision course, with the Yankees winning more games than any team in baseball (2,729) and the Sox ranking second (2,628). The archrivals collided last October in the American League Championship Series, which the Yankees won in the 11th inning of Game 7 on Aaron Boone's home run.
Then came the competition for Rodriguez. After the Sox withdrew, leery of lurching too deeply beyond the luxury tax threshold of $120.5 million, the Yankees stepped in when Boone suffered a serious knee injury and created a vacancy. By adding Rodriguez, the Yankees have at least doubled their payroll from the $92 million they spent in 1999, when they won the World Series. By comparison, Boston's payroll in 1999 was $72 million.
"There must be a way to cap what a team can spend without hurting player compensation in toto and without taking away from the players what they have rightfully earned in the past through negotiation and in creating tremendous value," Henry said. "Revenue sharing alone, sufficient to address a problem of this magnitude, would require pure confiscation -- but there is a simple mechanism [a salary cap] that could right a system woefully out of whack."
Henry said a team's success often hinges on how much more than $50 million it can spend on players.
"Most clubs can perhaps afford to spend $10 million to $25 million above that figure trying to compete," he said. "A few can spend as much as $30 million to $60 million above that. But one team can and is spending $150 million incremental dollars and at some point 29 owners and their players say to themselves, `We can't have one team that can spend 10 dollars above the baseline for every incremental dollar spent by an average team.' One thing is certain: the status quo will not be preserved."
Steinbrenner noted that the Yankees stood alone in opposing the last labor agreement with the players, which created the current economic system. The Yankees considered the provisions for revenue sharing and luxury taxes too punitive.
"It is understandable, but wrong, that he would try to deflect the accountability for his mistakes on to others and to a system for which he voted in favor," Steinbrenner said of Henry. "It is time to get on with life and forget the sour grapes."
Selig intervened soon after Steinbrenner's response, defusing a possible counterattack from Henry.
"I've been asked by the commissioner to not respond to the New York Yankees' comments today," Henry said in a statement. "I've agreed and will abide by that request."
In the spirit of Selig's request, Henry tried to adjust the rivalry's focus. The Sox and Yankees next meet March 7 for a spring training game in Fort Myers.
"The anticipation about the 2004 season is at an all-time high," Henry said. "So let's shift our sights to the field. Let the games begin."