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TOPSY-TURVY BASEBALL WORLD ENTICES FANS

The World Series has been over less than 48 hours and already I can't wait for the free-agent signing period to commence, for the Winter Meetings to unfold, for tensions between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees to escalate to unprecedented levels.

Baseball's Hot Stove period is going to sizzle compliments of Yanks boss George Steinbrenner, who suffered the grand indignity of not only losing in humiliating fashion to the Red Sox in the ALCS, but watching the Red Sox win the World Series. Suddenly, the Yanks' four-year championship drought must seem like 86 years to King George.

How long do you think it was Wednesday night before the Boss had General Manager Brian Cashman in his office, demanding he launch baseball's version of a nuclear attack? I'm guessing Sox closer Keith Foulke hadn't even fished that final comebacker from his glove when Steinbrenner summoned Cashman and began calculating ways to undermine his fiercest rival, a rival that now owns the upper hand, which surely has him seething.

There's a school of thought floating around that Boston's world championship is somehow bad for baseball, or at least bad for the Red Sox, since there's no sympathizing with a team that's just won it all. It's as if the Red Sox have no redeeming value unless they're playing the role of the habitual loser, trying to pick up the pieces from another breakdown of colossal proportions.

The opposite is true. Boston's long-awaited championship makes baseball infinitely more compelling. It's the Yankees who are doing the chasing, playing catch-up, trying to climb their way back to even footing. For the first time since 1918, the Red Sox are the team with an aura, the Yankees the franchise shrouded in doubt and insecurity. And this is supposed to be bad for the game?

The Red Sox head into the offseason susceptible to plunder. Pedro Martinez is a free agent. Derek Lowe will be highly coveted after emerging from oblivion and dominating the Series clincher. Catcher Jason Varitek, a chamber in the heart of the franchise, is available. So is shortstop Orlando Cabrera, the replacement for the banished Nomar Garciaparra.

You know Steinbrenner's going to take a run at either Martinez or Lowe. He might make a pitch for both of them, the luxury tax no deterrent when matters of spite are on the agenda. Then, of course, he'll throw half of Manhattan at Willie Mays-clone Carlos Beltran of the Astros, especially since Vladimir Guerrero got away from him last time around. George will end up with the best fantasy team money can buy.

But the Yankees didn't dominate the latter '90s because they had the most glamorous team in baseball. They won four titles in five years because their pitching was solid and their character was strong. They don't need another superstar. They need another Paul O'Neill, another Tino Martinez, more steady and relentless players who detest defeat.

It could turn out that the defining move of the decade, Yanks-Red Sox division, will be the one that Boston GM Theo Epstein couldn't swing. Intervention on the part of the players' association prevented Alex Rodriguez from joining the Red Sox and put the Boss on the immediate prowl. Steinbrenner got his man, but was it the heist it was thought to be? The Mariners were better the year after A-Rod left. The Rangers were better the year after A-Rod left. What we have here are the makings of a trend.

Steinbrenner's deluded if he thinks he can paper over his team's shortcomings with his checkbook. But, thanks to the Red Sox, it'll be more entertaining than ever to watch him try.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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