Feb
06

The Day The Evil Empire Was Born

By

It’s easy to forget just how big Jose Contreras was in Cuba. He was the country’s undisputed ace in international play for nearly a decade, helping Cuba to the silver medal in the 2000 Olympics and gold is numerous other events. Contreras first popped up on the big league radar in March of 1999, when he struck out ten Orioles in eight shutout innings during an exhibition game in Havana. Later in the year he struck out 13 in eight innings on one day’s rest against Team USA in the Pan Am Games, the first time Team USA was allowed to use professional players.

Contreras defected from Cuba in October of 2002 while in Mexico for a tournament, leaving his wife and young daughters behind. Contreras made his way to San Diego and eventually gained asylum in the United States, where he and agent Jaime Torres started fielding offers from Major League teams even though he wasn’t yet a free agent.

“Most of the organizations I thought were going to contact us have contacted us, and that includes the Yankees,” said Torres a little more than two weeks after the defection.

The Yankees needed to clear money to pursue their top two targets that offseason, Contreras and Hideki Matsui. They also wanted to re-sign Roger Clemens. Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza were allowed to walk as free agents, and rumors circulated that they may trade Andy Pettitte and his $11.5M salary to free up more payroll room. Doubts about Contreras’ age persisted (he was listed at 31 at the time), but nonetheless the Red Sox and Mariners got heavily involved in the bidding. Contreras had been working out with Torres in Nicaragua that winter, and Boston went so far as to buy out every room of the hotel where he was staying.

“The Boss, that was something that was a one up on us when they did that, it was a shrewd move,” said Brian Cashman recently, “and [George Steinbrenner] was not going to be denied.”

“We were smoking cigars with Contreras and drinking rum until about 4 o’clock in the morning,” said then-Red Sox GM Theo Epstein recently. “He told us he always wanted to be a Red Sox, and then the next morning the Yankees offered him about $10 million more.”

The Yankees signed Contreras on Christmas Eve, giving him four years and $32M. Coincidentally, the contract became official on this date in 2003. Orlando Hernandez, who had spoken to Contreras by phone a few times after his defection, was traded to the Expos in January to further free up some money. Matsui had agreed to a deal a few weeks earlier, and Clemens would re-sign a few days later. The Yankees got all their men.

”The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America,” said Red Sox president Larry Lucchino after news of the signing broke.

The Yankees and their fans have since embraced the Evil Empire moniker. The Imperial March — Darth Vader’s theme music in Star Wars — is a pregame staple at Yankee Stadium, and you can buy unlicensed Evil Empire merchandise right outside the Stadium on River Ave. Everyone knows the Yankees spend more money than every other team, and Lucchino gave us all something to rally around. No one tries to hide from the bloated payroll, which is something Lucchino’s Red Sox can certainly be accused of in recent years. We’ve embraced it.

Contreras’ contract drew the comment from Lucchino, but the Yankees have been operating this way for decades. They’ve always been in the hunt for big money free agents, always been at or near the top in payroll. It’s become the Yankee way, and they’ve been really successful going it. The Evil Empire crack did a fine job of relaying Lucchino’s frustration, but it’s also an acknowledgement of the team’s success and continues to be to this day.

Categories : Days of Yore
  • STONE COLD Austin Romine

    Evil Empire >>>>>> Yankees Universe.

  • jjyank

    Always hated that argument from Red Sox fans. I would certainly rather my team put its financial resources back into its team instead of the owner pocketing it. The Yankees have the huge market, but the Steinbrenners are not the richest owner in baseball. Not even top 3 I believe.

    • I Live In My Mom’s Basement

      There are richer owners, but those folks made their big money OUTSIDE of baseball. The Yankees are the highest-grossing baseball organization, and I doubt it is close. That means the Yankees can outspend anyone else and still make a profit for the ownership.

      • RetroRob

        It’s a bit more complicated than either statements above. In essence, both are true.

        Team owners will reguarly invest their own money for the sake of winning. Teams are at times businesses, many times toys, with owners treating their on-field teams as some people treat their fantasy teams. Mike Ilitch just showed that last week with the Prince Field signing. Tom Lerner and his family, through Lerner Enterprises, will overspend and operate the Nats at a loss in effort to build them into a winning franchise. George Steinbrenner operated the Yankees at a loss for large stretches under the belief that winning would generate greater revenues, allowing for reinvestment, which would more than pay off his loss. He ultimately became one of the 400 richest Americans based on his ownership of the Yankees, but most of that was in franchise value, not in cash flow.

        Heading off on a tagent here, the Yankees value (estimated at $1.7 billion by Forbes recently, the highest in the game) is about to go through the roof thanks to Frank McCourt at the Dodgers. The public auction is about to skyrocket the value of all MLB teams. If the Dodgers, as expected, sell for $1.5-2.0 billion, the Yankees will be valued at over $3 billion, thank you Mr. McCourt.

        The question then is will the new generation of Steinbrenners decide to sell.

  • Ed

    I didn’t know about the reducing payroll aspects of that offseason. I just had the vibe for a while that the Yankees just didn’t like Hernandez anymore and were anxious to get rid of him, so I assumed that’s all there was to the trade. I’m not surprised about the Pettitte trade rumors though. George really seemed to want to trade Pettitte for years. It felt like every time Pettitte hit a rough patch, there was talk in the papers about George demanding they trade Pettitte.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      They did trade El Duque and he ended up blowing out his shoulder a few weeks later, so if they were scared about his arm, they were right.

      Pettitte always seemed to be on the block.

  • CMP

    Gotta love Steinbrenner’s attitude that he just would not be denied.

    On the other hand, sometimes you should be careful what you wish for as the Yankees learned with Contreras and the Red Sox with Dice K.

  • Vegetable Lasagna

    Evil Empire is a good name to have. It means you’re spending money and winning. The problem now is George is gone. If George was alive we wouldn’t have sat back and let our competitors grab Pujols, Fielder, and Darvish. Cash made some good pick ups in Kuroda and Pineda but failed to improve an aging lineup.

    • Steve (different one)

      I get the argument for Darvish. The other two are simply insane.

      • jsbrendog

        let him be, you’ll probably only hurt yourself or give yourself an ulcer

    • Steve (different one)

      Also, if this were true, why did George allow the Sox to sign Manny?

  • Kiko Jones

    People don’t own teams to lose money. If you ask any owner whether they would rather make $20 million and come in last place or lose $20 million and win a World Series, there’s only one guy who honestly would take that championship: George Steinbrenner. Nobody else.

    – Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo in 2009.

    • jsbrendog

      good old brandon arroyo

    • RetroRob

      Well if Arroyo is right, that’s a massive flaw in the revenue-sharing system.

    • Sweet Dick Willie

      Bronson doesn’t seem to understand the correlation between winning and making money.

      Sure, not every 1st place team makes money and not every last place team loses money, but that’s the way to bet.

  • Foghorn Leghorn

    I dislike the Red Sox for many reasons, but one of the biggest is their fans complete ignorance when it comes to the payroll levels.

    • RetroRob

      How ’bout just their fans complete ignorance.

      • I Live In My Mom’s Basement

        How ’bout just their fans.

        • RetroRob

          Good. I think we edited it down to the most true statement!

  • CJ

    Not evil enough these days. They were pretty bad ass winter of 2008, and a World Championship in 2009, coincidence?

  • Mike Myers

    whos face did they cover for that picture? Looks like a slim righty. Jeter?

  • RetroRob

    I always thought it was funny that Lucchino branded the Yankees the Evil Empire out of pure frustration, when the Red Sox under him have tried to copy, mimic and become the Yankees. Here he is buying up every hotel room to prevent the Yankees (and other teams) from negotiating with Contreras, and he still lost. In some ways the Red Sox are the Evil Empire, minus the empire. Just evil.

    • viridiana

      “In some ways the Red Sox are the Evil Empire, minus the empire. Just evil.”

      Seems like an extreme statement. But I think it’s at least close to the truth. The current Red Sox ownership was brought in by Selig (despite a lower bid) because it promised its support for revenue sharing. Since then, this group has repeatedly carried opportunism to the very edge. They signed Kevin Millar, violating a tacit agreement with Japanese baseball. They backed out of a trade with Colorado because they later found a better deal (Jack Z musth have studied their playbook)They swiped JD Drew (not the smartest move, of course) under circumstances that led the Dodgers to at least consider legal action They consistently got in on every player the Yankees wanted to drive up the price (Cash has since learned to play that game). And buying up all the rooms in downtown Managua was IMO pretty sleazy — though I guess Ayn Rand would approve. And all the while the Red Sox poor-mouthed, whining over Yankee payroll, while they outspent 28 other teams.
      Opportunistic? Sleazebags? Evil? Not quite sure.

      • RetroRob

        It was meant in humor. Well, not entirely in humor. As a Yankees fan, I’m not above taking shots at the Red Sox. It’s in the blood!

      • JohnnyC

        They’re opportunistic evil sleazebags. There, fixed it for you.

        • Kiko Jones

          +27

    • http://jukeofurl.wordpress.com Juke Early

      RetroRob — thanks for sparing me the typing. The Yankees are an empire.
      AND after the Super Bowl, Boston/New England area fans proved once again, they are evil drunks. That town owns the most graceless winners of the last or any decade.