If, upon entering the lobby of the Anatole Hotel in Dallas over the next couple of days, certain baseball executives are overcome with horrifying flashbacks, severe heart palpitations or general anxiety attacks, it would be perfectly understandable, given that venue's place in the game's annals.
It is likely that few in attendance at baseball's annual winter meetings, which begin tomorrow, will have set foot in the Anatole since that memorable weekend five years ago, when the perfect storm of salary escalation -- a shrewd agent, a gullible owner and a once-in-a-generation player -- formed in the clouds above Dallas and exploded the game's economic structure.
"Beyond alarming," Sandy Alderson, then-MLB executive vice president and now president of the San Diego Padres, said at the time. "We have a crisis."
The reverberations from Alex Rodriguez's record-breaking 10-year, $252 million contract are still being felt today -- most significantly by owner Tom Hicks and the Texas Rangers, who are still paying Rodriguez, essentially, to play for the New York Yankees following a trade two years ago.
Still reverberating, too, is the deal the Boston Red Sox signed that same week with slugger Manny Ramirez -- Exhibit 1B in the 2000 case against fiscal insanity -- an eight-year, $160 million monster that, five years, one World Series title and countless Manny-being-Manny incidents later, the team will be seeking to unload this week.
However, while baseball owners have preached moderation in the years since the shocking spending spree of December 2000 -- with certain disincentive measures, such as the luxury tax and debt-service rule, written into the sport's Basic Agreement -- this winter finds baseball once again flush with cash and in search of ways to spend it.
A windfall of revenue from the game's new deal with XM Radio, its successful Internet ventures and the expected sale of the league-owned Washington Nationals -- combined with a free agent market lacking in elite talent -- has pushed spending to record levels again this offseason.
Already, this offseason has seen the biggest contract ever given to a relief pitcher (B.J. Ryan's five-year, $47 million deal with Toronto) and the highest average annual value for a reliever (Billy Wagner's four-year deal with the New York Mets at an average of $10.75 million per season). At roughly $134,000 per inning (figuring 80 innings per season), Wagner will make nearly eight times what Rodriguez does, on a per-inning basis.
"You look at what he's done," Mets General Manager Omar Minaya said, responding to claims he overpaid for Wagner, who will be 38 when his contract is finished. "He's definitely worth that contract."
To his credit, Minaya has merely spent what ownership has given him, and in the process has transformed the Mets over the past two winters, in anticipation of the debut of the franchise's cable network in 2006 -- making them, on paper, the team to beat in the hotly contested NL East division.
Last year, Minaya nabbed both the best starting pitcher (Pedro Martinez) and the best position player (Carlos Beltran) on the market. And this winter, he has filled his holes at first base and closer with the two best available players at those positions, Carlos Delgado, whom the Mets acquired in a trade with Florida, and Wagner.
As everyone picks through Minaya's leftovers, here are some of the other questions that might get answered this week -- provided the entire baseball contingent doesn't succumb to shellshock at its first sight of the Anatole:
* Will the Red Sox heed the pleas of the petitioners at KeepManny.com, or trade their slugger to the Angels?
The well-intentioned Ramirez fans should have called their site StayManny.com, because it is Ramirez himself, and not the Red Sox, who is fueling the team's efforts to trade him.
Because Ramirez has full no-trade protection, essentially allowing him to choose where he goes, the Red Sox -- who have yet to find a replacement for departing GM Theo Epstein -- are operating with a substantial lack of leverage. Still, it is likely the Red Sox will work something out with either the Angels or the Mets -- two places where Ramirez has signaled he would probably approve deals -- if not this week, then soon.
* Do the Nationals really stand a chance of signing A.J. Burnett?
No, but that probably won't stop GM Jim Bowden from trying.
Fact is, without an owner, the Nats don't have the financial wherewithal to compete in this inflated market -- certainly not for someone like Burnett, the top starting pitcher on the market, whose price is likely to top $50 million.
The Nationals are more likely to find a front-line starting pitcher on the trade market, where someone like Arizona's Javier Vazquez, a longtime member of the Nationals organization when it was in Montreal, could be had at a better price.
* Will Oakland GM Billy Beane trade Barry Zito?
The circumstances are all in place for a blockbuster trade involving the Athletics' ace left-hander. With the signing of Esteban Loaiza, albeit to a bloated, three-year contract, the Athletics are overloaded with starting pitchers, while the inflated free agent market for pitching has raised the value for Zito -- who is more accomplished than Burnett, not to mention (at $8.5 million in 2006) cheaper.
And where might Zito wind up? Where else? The Mets.
* Will the Yankees get in on center fielder Johnny Damon?
No one really believes the Yankees will open next season with Bubba Crosby as their starting center fielder -- which is how crazy stories such as the one about Derek Jeter moving from shortstop to center field get started.
But Damon, 32, is not what the Yankees need, and they know it -- certainly not at the terms Scott Boras, his agent, is said to be demanding (seven years at $10 million per). The Yankees just got out from under the contract of a once-great center fielder, Bernie Williams, who became a burden in the later years of the deal, and they don't need to repeat history.
Instead, the Yankees may explore the trade route, where their targets presumably would include Minnesota's Torii Hunter and Florida's Juan Pierre.
"Right now, our center fielder is Bubba Crosby," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "If something better than that comes along that makes sense, we'll pursue it."