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YANKEES AND BELLE COULD BE A MATCH MADE IN BOSS LAND

The Belle of the Brawl hits the free agent market this week.

Albert Belle, Mike Tyson with a bat, is baseball's premier free agent this offseason. The Cleveland Indians' biggest hitter on and off the field is free to sign with any team willing to meet his salary requests and pick up his fines.

There's a good chance the New York Yankees have reserved a spot for him.

Scary, isn't it?

Just days removed from winning a World Series championship that we were told was all aboutteamwork, friendship, loyalty, hard work, caring, the love of a fatherly manager, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, Kate Smith and the American Way, the word out of New York is that the 1996 world champions likely won't even begin to resemble the same team next season.

The reasons are simple.

1. Pace -- New York stands still for no one. The city is like that, and so is the baseball team. In building the current world champions, the Yankees could hardly be called home-grown. Manager Joe Torre may have grown up in Brooklyn, but along the way he's passed through more towns than the Dole-Kemp campaign. David Cone has been around the league a few times; so have Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. These aren't just baseball names, they're baseball's rented guns. It's no surprise they eventually put on pinstripes.

2. Star Power -- Even with Detroit walkover Cecil Fielder in the lineup, the Yankees still never showed the really big stick. Fielder can deliver a timely blow, but he's still not the kind of player you fit for a plaque out in center field. New York is still waiting for the next Reggie Jackson. Belle could be the man. Barry Bonds, no matter what the San Francisco Giants say, will also be on New York's list. Say all you want about teamwork and chemistry, but the Yankees know what sells in New York.

3. Money -- This is where it really gets interesting. The Yankees have more of it than any other team in baseball, but new rules are coming. The soon-to-be announced payroll tax is to be structured so that payrolls in excess of a still unannounced figure (rumored to be just beyond $50 million) will be taxed. The Yankee club that won the World Series came in at $60 million.

That's a problem for Boy George Steinbrenner. Star reliever John Wetteland has a contract that gives him the option to be paid $4.6 million next season or put himself on the free agent market. Steinbrenner also faces a $2 million option if he wants to keep Gooden and likely needs to spend $3 million to keep Jimmy Key.

The Boss also has to fend off the corporate raiders from around the league. Steinbrenner would like to sign young players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte to long-term deals and wait for them to get even better.

All of that doesn't leave much in the till to pay a Belle or a Bonds.

It's scary that one world championship has been bought, yet it's already time to finance another.

Sad too. I'm not so wrapped up in the past as to whine for a return to the old days when teams, especially baseball teams, built from within, but run down the list of World Series champions (or runners-up in recent years) and show me the last time it wasn't peopled with big money companies in big money towns.

New York, with the best cable deal in baseball, is usually in the mix. Atlanta, with the revenue provided by none other than Ted Turner, the inventor of the superstation concept, has been at or near the top every year in the 1990s. Cleveland waited 20 years not for a superstar, but for a new ballpark to generate cash for its big run the past three years. Toronto, with the state-of-the-art Skydome, was both a winner and a contender right up until the value of the Canadian dollar fell to 70 cents U.S.

It isn't just a curse that keeps Boston down or Milwaukee, Seattle, Cincinnati or Montreal out. It's money, the only thing that baseball is really all about.

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