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Sox spend up a storm

Unprecedented deals put Boston in the Yankees’ big-money league

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By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / December 10, 2010

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Take that, Evil Empire.

Seven years after the Yankees upstaged the Red Sox in securing Alex Rodriguez, and two years after a treasured free agent, Mark Teixeira, inflicted further indignity by snubbing the Sox for pinstripes, the brain trust on Yawkey Way yesterday shocked the baseball world by completing the priciest offseason shopping spree involving two premium players in Boston’s franchise history.

With prized all-stars Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford newly committed to long futures in Sox uniforms, the sun rose on a new baseball market no longer ruled by the monied interests of New York’s Steinbrenner clan.

Or, put another way, the Sox have engaged in the same big-spending strategy that Red Sox fans have long criticized the Yankees for.

“To me, it’s not very tasteful,’’ said Eric Christensen, founder of the Sons of Sam Horn message board, which produced a book about Boston’s historic world championship in 2004. “I always thought we were better than that.’’

But many more fans applauded the deal.

“It’s exciting,’’ said Stephen Badolato of the North End. The two signings are a welcome improvement from the last offseason, he said. ‘Just when you think our guys aren’t going to do something, they make a splash,’’ he said.

The Sox stepped up their spending ways after a lost season in which the owners for the first time in their nine-year tenure seemed helpless to halt drops in fan interest, television and radio ratings — and their stature as major league difference makers. The franchise regained its swagger by guaranteeing to lavish nearly $300 million on two of the game’s most coveted stars through 2017.

“Perfect timing,’’ the team’s chief operating officer, Sam Kennedy, texted general manager Theo Epstein after the latest bulletin from baseball’s hot stove. Tickets for next season go on sale tomorrow.

“In many ways, we feel we need to keep up with the Yankees because of their winning tradition and ability to raise enormous amounts of revenue,’’ Kennedy said in an interview. “We’ve done the best we can to keep up with them and build an organization that can compete with anybody in baseball.’’

Take that, Yankees. Three days after committing a reported $154 million over seven years to Gonzalez, a slugging first baseman, the Sox signed Crawford, a free agent left fielder, for $142 million over the same period. Crawford becomes the second-highest-paid outfielder in baseball history behind Manny Ramírez, who earned $22.5 million each of the last two seasons with the Dodgers.

The moves provided a measure of vindication to John W. Henry and Tom Werner, the team’s principal owners, who were accused by some fans of diverting their attention and financial commitment from the Sox when they recently added the Liverpool Football Club to their holding company, Fenway Sports Group.

“People don’t have a clear understanding of Fenway Sports Group, so it’s understandable that they may believe that buying [Liverpool] deprives [the Red Sox] of capital,’’ Henry said by e-mail. “But it just doesn’t work that way.’’

History has rarely been kind to the Sox in their offseason struggles with the Yankees. Boston waged a respectable effort last winter by acquiring Adrian Beltre, John Lackey, Marco Scutaro, and Mike Cameron, and running up their highest payroll ever (about $161 million).

Yet they trailed the Yankees ($207 million) as baseball’s biggest spenders and finished third in the American League East, largely because of injuries to Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Jacoby Ellsbury.

The Sox began the offseason by parting ways with Beltre and Victor Martinez before swinging for the fences with Gonzalez and Crawford.

“Our needs aren’t always aligned with what a player can get elsewhere,’’ Henry said. “Free agency is a blind auction . . . Other clubs often outbid us, [but] this year we had opportunities to improve the club for the long-term with players just entering their prime.’’

There was glee at NESN, where ratings for Sox games last season plunged 36 percent from the previous year, to 6.0 from 9.4, costing the network millions of dollars in advertising revenues. Each rating point is worth more than $1 million in ad dollars to NESN, according to analysts.

Ratings are likely to rise thanks to renewed enthusiasm generated by the new acquisitions, which could help the Sox defray the cost of Crawford and Gonzalez. The team owns 80 percent of NESN. The New York Times Company, owner of The Boston Globe, holds an interest in Fenway Sports Group, the holding company for the Red Sox and NESN.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better holiday present,’’ said Joel Feld, NESN’s executive vice president for programming and executive producer. “We’re as excited as the fans.’’

The new deals already have paid dividends for NESN. The network last night aired a previously unscheduled “Red Sox Hot Stove Live’’ show, just five days after broadcasting a special edition geared to the Gonzalez deal.

NESN was far from alone among Sox-related businesses celebrating.

“It’s a good day for everybody, and me,’’ said Jim Holtzman, president and owner of Ace Tickets, whose Sox business dropped about 18 percent last season.

Holtzman said his phone lines began buzzing early yesterday with clients inquiring about 2011 Sox tickets.

“A day ago, nobody was thinking about Opening Day,’’ Holtzman said. “Today, people are counting the days.’’

Among fans elated by the news were Ken Burns and Bobby Farrelly, two wildly successful filmmakers who may have little else in common but their love of the Sox. Burns learned of the Crawford signing, first reported by the Globe’s Peter Abraham, shortly after midnight in his Manhattan apartment.

“I jumped out of my chair and fist-bumped the air,’’ he said.

Farrelly said he nearly choked on his coffee when he read about the deal at his Duxbury home.

“Oh, my God,’’ Farrelly recalled saying to himself. “Getting the kid from San Diego was great, but this is icing on the cake.’’

Johnny Pesky, the 91-year-old Sox icon, was stunned by terms of Crawford’s deal.

“What kind of money is that?’’ he said. “I hope I live long enough to see him play for the Sox.’’

Crawford’s money, in fact, struck a number of fans as outlandish. While Gonzalez has established himself as a bona fide slugger, Crawford’s strengths spring more from his speed than power.

The Sox signed Crawford, 29, less than a month after Werner said in an interview on WEEI that the Sox felt “internal pressure’’ to make a big splash this offseason.

Christensen was among those not impressed by the result.

“I don’t think you pay a speed guy $20 million a year when he’s going to be in his late 30s at the end of his contract,’’ Christensen said. “Something tells me this isn’t entirely Theo’s doing.’’

Epstein, speaking to reporters at baseball’s winter meetings in Orlando, Fla., cast the move as the culmination of an intensive study.

“Nothing we did at these meetings or will do shortly was a product of a last-minute idea,’’ Epstein said. “It was all well thought out over a long period of time.’’

Fans visiting Fenway Park seemed generally thrilled by the acquisitions, though some expressed reservations about the cost.

“That’s a bit too much,’’ Rick Concha, 30, a lifelong fan from El Paso, said after touring the park. “It better be worth it.’’

Peter Abraham and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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