The rest of baseball has enjoyed a satisfying belly-laugh the past few weeks at the expense of the New York Yankees, whose in-feuding, fueled by the insatiable Big Apple media machine, has turned the team into the game's best ongoing soap opera.

In some markets, an owner's pointed barbs at his star shortstop and coaching staff would have been viewed as shrewd motivational ploys. In New York, the George Steinbrenner-Derek Jeter exchange is hyped into a war of words, a clash of egos, a slice of tabloid heaven.

But here is what will happen: The Yankees will start winning and the story will start to fade, except for the obligatory follow-up after the World Series detailing how Steinbrenner's comments motivated Jeter (even though Jeter insists now he needs no extra motivation).

Soon enough, the Yankees will stop being a soap opera and go back to terrorizing the rest of baseball with their riches.

Whatever happened to the payroll parity that the new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to bring? What happened to the Yankees' vows back in December to pare payroll?

Depending on which method one uses to calculate payroll, the Yankees' estimated salary expenditures this season will be anywhere from $140 million to $176 million, well above the $117 million luxury-tax threshold.

On Monday, the first day of camp for Yankees position players, the team's clubhouse felt more like being backstage at the Grammys, with one superstar after another -- Jeter, Jason Giambi, newcomer Hideki Matsui -- holding court while surrounded by handlers and members of the media.

As usual, the Yankees got every significant free agent they targeted this winter -- in this case, Matsui, the Japanese slugger known as "Godzilla," and Cuban right-hander Jose Contreras.

The Yankees' front office "does its homework," said right-hander Mike Mussina, himself a prized Yankees free agent signee after the 2000 season.

"It's not very often an emotional, spur-of-the-moment decision. They have their target set on somebody, and they do their best to get him. And usually, we end up with them."

Here's a question: Who was the last significant free agent the Yankees wanted but failed to get?

The answer: Albert Belle after the 1998 season -- and they actually did get him briefly.

Belle at first agreed to sign with the Yankees, then changed his mind and instead went to Baltimore.

And even that ended up working out beautifully for the Yankees. They re-upped with Bernie Williams instead, and Belle had one solid season with the Orioles before being forced to retire because of a degenerative hip condition.

The Orioles will pay Belle $13 million (70 percent of which is covered by insurance) through the end of this season to play golf.

Expos' Glass Half Full

Better-than-expected ticket sales for the Montreal Expos' 22 games this season in Puerto Rico, plus the team's victory over ace Javier Vazquez in salary arbitration, likely means General Manager Omar Minaya will not have to pare anymore payroll before Opening Day.

However, don't be surprised if superstar right fielder Vladimir Guerrero is the subject of widespread trade talks before the July 31 trade deadline.

The Expos attempted to negotiate a long-term contract extension this winter with Guerrero, who is eligible for free agency after this season, but Minaya said those talks have been halted. Guerrero had been seeking close to $18 million per year.

Guerrero and his agent "felt it would be better to wait -- because of the uncertainty [surrounding the team]," Minaya said. "They'd rather play out the year and see what happens."

No matter who owns the team next season, it is doubtful the Expos would be able to come up with enough money to re-sign Guerrero once he hits free agency, which is why there is a reasonably good chance Minaya will trade him to a contender this summer, provided the Expos themselves are not in contention.

Rickey Wants to Play

At 44, Rickey Henderson is still looking for a job. He had planned to attend an open tryout put on by the Colorado Rockies, but was informed that the camp was for minor league players only.

Henderson's agent has said Henderson would sign with an independent-league team if he is not given a major league job. . . .

Angels center fielder Darin Erstad has a limited no-trade clause in which he can block trades to four teams: Montreal, Tampa Bay, Florida and Los Angeles. Why the Dodgers?

"I don't hate them," Erstad said. "It's just a little something from when I was a kid. My best friend in North Dakota was a die-hard Dodger fan, and I was a die-hard Giant fan. . . . It would be like I was giving in to my friend." . . .

New Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Jim Thome took batting practice off Manager Larry Bowa on his first day in camp, and crushed a home run that a reporter with a tape measure later measured at 538 feet.

Yankees' Derek Jeter, criticized by owner George Steinbrenner for statistically subpar 2002, says he needs no extra motivation in 2003. Whatever his intent, Steinbrenner will continue to say, do, spend as he likes -- Yankees' record payroll is approaching $176 million this season.