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Baseball preview: The prodigal son returns

It has been said that rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for General Motors. Last season, it was like rooting for the GM of 2008. One of America’s grandest and most enduring institutions had tumbled into decline and was in desperate need of repair.

The answer, naturally, was money. But the Yanks didn’t require a federal bailout. They didn’t need to supplicate before the nation’s political and financial bosses. Hank Steinbrenner, the owner, merely needed to channel his inner Boss.

For two seasons, Steinbrenner had adhered to an uncommon, responsible fiscal line. He had decided to ditch the team’s old profligate spending ways. The Yanks would limit their payroll to $189 million, avoiding a luxury tax. He assured skeptics that you didn’t need to spend more than that to compete in Major League Baseball.

Then the Yankees missed the playoffs for only the second time in 19 seasons. Ticket revenues at Yankee Stadium plunged by roughly $58 million. The ratings for the YES Network dropped. Worse yet, their despised AL East rivals, the Red Sox, won the World Series for the third time in 10 years.

So much for fiscal restraint. This was a legitimate crisis, one that would have inspired Hank’s father, the late George Streinbrenner, to reveal the franchise’s true character. Hank said the so-called “Plan 189” had been a goal, not a rigid organizational mandate.

It was time to spend and spend big. The Yankees launched into full spending mode, overpaying for free agents and blowing the lid off baseball’s salary structure – which had been old George’s signature move during his glory days in the Bronx. When it ended, they had invested half a billion in new players.

Early in December, Steinbrenner and General Manager Brian Cashman signed Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million deal, the most ever for a free-agent catcher. Never mind that McCann’s offensive numbers had declined in the last two seasons.

Then they took a chunk out of the Red Sox, signing Jacoby Ellsbury for seven years, $153 million, the third-highest contract for an outfielder. Finally, they tapped the resources of the Series runner-up, inking outfielder Carlos Beltran for three years, $45 million.

All of that happened in the space of a week. But it wasn’t enough. When was it ever enough for the old Boss? The Yankees outbid several big-league teams to acquire Japanese pitching star Masahiro Tanaka, signing him to a seven-year, $155 million contract, the most lucrative ever given to a free-agent pitcher.

That sound you hear is the price of top-flight starting pitchers soaring into the stratosphere. Suddenly, Yu Darvish seems like a bargain at $10 million a year. Tanaka got almost exactly what the Mariners are paying Felix Hernandez, who is a tad more proven at the big-league level. Tanaka has never pitched every fifth day or faced major league hitters on a regular basis.

There was a whiff of desperation to it all, reminiscent of the Yankees opening the vault for CC Sabathia, Mark Teixiera, A.J. Burnett and Nick Swisher to the tune of $400 million in 2008. That shopping spree got them a championship in 2009, while their minor-league resources were compromised.

Five years later, they’re back at it. As one executive said over the winter, “I feel like the baseball universe makes sense again.”

Despite unburdening themselves of Alex Rodriguez’s $25 million salary when A-Rod’s suspension was upheld, the Yankees have a payroll estimated at $203 million, second in baseball to the Dodgers at $235 million.

This is the first time in 15 years that the Yankees aren’t atop the sport’s spending structure. But they’re no longer the cuddly pinstripers of a year ago, when most of their high-priced hitters were injured and Mariano Rivera’s prolonged farewell tour gave them a soft, unthreatening edge.

I like it better this way. Baseball is always more fun when the Bronx Bombers are spending like sailors and rattling the cages of the other owners. The sparks are flying between New York and Boston, just like they did a decade or so ago, when their rivalry was at its zenith.

Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox president, ripped the Yankees for their free-agent spree (as if the Red Sox are some penny-pinching Mom & Pop operation). It was Lucchino who dubbed the Yanks the “Evil Empire” in 2002, after losing the bid for Jose Contreras.

Yankee President Randy Levine fired this zinger back at Lucchino: “I feel sorry for Larry,” Levine told the New York Daily News. “He constantly sees ghosts and is spooked by the Yankees.”

Boston’s Jonny Gomes, emboldened by his heroic performance in the World Series, fanned the flames: “People can go out and sign whoever they want right now,” Gomes said. “Boxing rules; we still have the belt.”

That’s more like it. A boxing metaphor stirs fond memories of Jason Varitek shoving his catcher’s mitt in A-Rod’s face; Pedro Martinez pushing old Don Zimmer onto his rear end; I can even go back to Graig Nettles separating Bill “Spaceman” Lee’s shoulder back in a 1976 dustup.

The whole thing might blow up in their faces, but the Yankees are scary again. Like the Glenn Close character in “Fatal Attraction,” they will not be ignored. They’re a team of frightening and uncertain possibility, a patchwork all-star team that could win 100 games or go to pieces by June.

They have a lot of talent, particularly in the outfield. There’s also a familiar geriatric quality to the roster: Ichiro Suzuki is 40; Derek Jeter (on his own farewell tour) and Hiroki Kuroda are 39; Alfonso Soriano 38; Carlos Beltran and Matt Thornton are 37; Brian Roberts is 36; Sabathia and Teixeira are 33.

Of course, it generally gets back to starting pitching, and the Yankees’ hopes rest in the right arms of a couple of talented 25-year-olds: Tanaka, who was 24-0 in Japan last season, and 6-foot-7 Michael Pineda, who hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2011 but won the fifth starter’s job in the spring.

Maybe it’ll all work out. If not, it’ll be fun to watch the Yankees chase the Tampa Bay Rays, who operate with barely a quarter of the payroll ($57 million) and have a better team. The Rays have done it the right way, by drafting and developing the best young pitching staff in baseball.

Yankee fans can take comfort in knowing that if salaries keep rising, the Rays can’t possibly afford to keep them all.