Snakebitten

(Schilling photo by The AP; Johnson photo by Harry How/Allsport; IPK photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty; Haren photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty)

In the aftermath of the Arizona Diamondbacks non-tendering Joe Saunders — the mediocre left-handed pitcher who was the only Major Leaguer in the package sent by the Angels to the Snakes for Dan Haren in July 2010 — last month, it occurred to me that despite the fact that the franchise has only been in existence for 14 seasons, there’s a strong possibility that the Diamondbacks have been the greatest off-the-field thorn in the Yankees’ side of any team in Major League Baseball in recent history*.

* Though it’s not as if they’ve been pleasant to deal with between the lines either, given that they were responsible for perhaps the most heartbreaking loss an entire generation of Yankee fans have ever experienced in the form of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.

Anecdotally, we’ve heard stories detailing a mutual dislike on the part of former Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo and George Steinbrenner, both known for their hard-nosed ownership styles, and as best I can tell the problem initially stemmed from a now-famous meal shared by Steinbrenner and David Wells in January 2002, in which the Boss re-signed Wells four days after the burly lefty reached a handshake agreement with the D-Backs.

This incident no doubt left Colangelo steaming, and it would come back to bite the Yankees in the 2003-2004 offseason, as the team desperately needed to upgrade a rotation that was losing three-fifths of its members. The Yankees were very interested in Curt Schilling, but the talks didn’t go anywhere as Arizona’s asking price — which appeared to include both Nick Johnson (coming off a 2.1 fWAR season) and Alfonso Soriano (5.0 fWAR), at the very least — was rightly deemed excessive. It’s unclear who Cash may have been willing to part with, and whether talks ever progressed between the two teams, but before they even had a chance to Theo Epstein and Boston swooped in, joined the Schillings at their Thanksgiving table, and somehow convinced the Diamondbacks to trade Schilling, coming off thee seasons in which he racked up 7.6, 9.7 and 5.9 fWAR, respectively, for a package headlined by Casey Fossum and rounded out by Brandon Lyon and minor leaguers Jorge De La Rosa and Michael Goss.

In a vacuum I suppose that’s a fair amount of talent for Boston to have surrendered, but in hindsight it turned out to be an absolute steal for the Red Sox, as Fossum was basically never an effective pitcher again following the deal; Lyon’s carved out a career as a pretty good middle reliever, the most fungible asset in all of baseball; De La Rosa’s been a #3-ish starter at best in the National League and Goss never made it to the Majors; while Schilling accumulated 17.8 fWAR in four seasons with the Sox while helping lead the franchise to its first World Championship in 86 years and another three seasons later.

While you could drive yourself crazy playing the what-if game, it’s probably fairly safe to say things would’ve unfolded quite a bit differently had the Yankees acquired Schilling that offseason instead of the Red Sox.

Of course, the Yankees finally did get a Diamondback ace of their own the following offseason, in Steinbrenner’s long-coveted Randy Johnson. The Big Unit had a strong debut season in pinstripes in 2005, but was pretty mediocre in 2006, and famously flubbed both of his postseason appearances. Fortunately the Yankees likely didn’t regret the cost to acquire Johnson — Javier Vazquez, coming off an execrable first season in pinstripes, along with Brad Halsey and Dioner Navarro — especially considering that prior to the deal being executed Robinson Cano had been a long-rumored chip in a potential Johnson trade, but in hindsight I think this can still be considered another low point in the Yankees’ and Diamondbacks’ mutual history.

Following his disappointing 2006, the Yanks decided they’d had enough of Johnson — who, as it so happens, expressed a desire to return to Phoenix — and shipped him back to the Diamondbacks for nothing special in Alberto Gonzalez, Steven Jackson, Ross Ohlendorf and Luis Vizcaino. I suppose receiving four warm bodies for a pitcher who appeared to be well past his glory days is somewhat commendable, though Johnson still went on to put up two more decent (if injury-plagued) years out in the desert, while the 2007 and 2008 Yankee pitching staffs weren’t exactly anything to write home about.

The Yankees and Diamondbacks hooked up again in December of 2009, in the three-way trade that brought Curtis Granderson to New York and shipped Ian Kennedy to Arizona, a deal that also saw Detroit send Edwin Jackson to the D-Backs but also gain Austin Jackson and Phil Coke from the Yankees and heist Max Scherzer from the Snakes. Two years later this would appear to be the rare three-way trade in which all involved parties appeared to benefit. I’d do this deal all day every day, although it somehow figures that Arizona would wind up turning Ian Kennedy — who I maintain would never have become a 5.0 fWAR player in the Bronx — into a frontline starter.

This brings us back to the Saunders-Haren trade of July 2010. Granted, the Angels also sent Tyler Skaggs — currently ranked by Baseball Americas as Arizona’s 3rd-best prospect — Patrick Corbin (10th in the system) and Rafael Rodriguez to the desert in the deal, so it’s not quite as cut-and-dry as just “Saunders-for-Haren,” but given that Saunders wasn’t even retained by the D-Backs a mere year-and-a-half after being acquired, while Dan Haren has been a top 10 pitcher in baseball the last two seasons, it’s difficult not to wonder how things might have played out had the Yankees and Diamondbacks managed to consummate a deal.

It’s difficult to say given that all we really know is that Joba Chamberlain‘s name was the primary one bandied about during the trade talks of July 2010. If we were to try to build a comparable package to the one Arizona received, the Yankees’ #3 prospect at the time (per our own Mike Axisa) was Manny Banuelos, while #10 was Jose Ramirez. At the time, would you have been willing to trade a package of Joba Chamberlain, Manny Banuelos, Jose Ramirez and some low-level filler for a 29-year-old Dan Haren? Pretty sure I’d have been willing to pull the trigger on that one.

Again, we have no idea whether something like that was ever offered and/or whether it would have been an acceptable haul for Arizona, but on paper it seems like a pretty fair swap, especially when you consider that Saunders has been worth 2.7 fWAR in two full seasons of starting while Joba has been worth 1.8 fWAR in a season-and-a-half of relieving during that same time period. You have to figure Arizona almost certainly would’ve given Joba the chance to start that the Yankees never will, and the Yankees would’ve had a right-handed ace to complement CC Sabathia.

Of course, at the end of the day the majority of this is hearsay and conjecture, and there’s no way of really knowing whether Arizona has had it in for the Yankees over the years. However, as I’ve illustrated above, the two teams’ transaction history — and it certain cases, lack thereof — would make me considerably wary of doing business with Arizona in the future.

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A fond send-off from an almost-Yankee

As the celebrity memorials about George Steinbrenner have appeared, we haven’t linked to them simply because they’re too numerous to count. Everyone deserves to have his or her voice heard, and the Boss had a direct impact on thousands of people’s lives. There is one, however, from an unlikely source that I believe warrants some attention.

Over at ESPN Boston, Curt Schilling, almost a Yankee once and always a hated enemy of Yankee fans, penned a moving tribute to George Steinbrenner. The Boss, Curt said, was one of the people in baseball he most respected. George was, writes Schilling, responsible for baseball’s economic strides. He revitalized the game, he revitalized the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry, and he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

A certain passage from the piece leaped out at me:

After we beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, he stopped me outside the media room in the tunnel under the stadium. Here he was, I knew he was crushed, but even so he went to great lengths to talk to me and say things I’d forever remember and cherish.

Mr. Steinbrenner was the No. 1 reason I wanted to initially go to the Yankees when I learned the Diamondbacks wanted to move my contract. I loved playing for Mr. Colangelo and I saw Mr. Steinbrenner as an older, more passionate version of him. As a player, what more could you ask from the owner of your team? He did everything in his power, and sometimes things outside his control, to take care of his players and his fans, and made no qualms about who he had to bull over to do it.

So many people looked to him and the Yankees organization as being a big contributor to the unbalanced financial playing field in baseball. I say baloney. If every owner poured the percentage of his resources into their teams as Mr. Steinbrenner did, there would be far more happy fans in many more cities.

As Schilling readily admits, he and George had personality traits in common. They were both loud, brash and overbearing, and they both had a very strong desire to win. In fact, it was George’s ability to grate on people that had the Diamondbacks asking for Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson from the Yanks while they settled for much less from the Red Sox.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece on the almost-trade of Schilling and posited that he was almost a Yankee and almost a Yankee fan. I still get the sense reading his words about the Boss that Curt cheers on the Bronx Bombers even as he embraces Red Sox Nation. He respects the team; he respects the pinstripes; and he admired the Boss just as so many others did.

Almost a Yankee, almost a Yankee fan

These days, Curt Schilling is not quiet about his baseball fandom. Shunning Mystique and Aura, he spits in the faces of the Yankees — and most notably Alex Rodriguez — whenever he can, and he worships the insufferable altar of Theo Epstein. Don’t make the mistake of today confusing him for a Yankee fan or else the public reaction will be swift and merciless. Just ask Martha Coakley.

But Schilling, many in Massachusetts seem to forget, wasn’t always a Boston supporter. A product of Anchorage, Alaska, Schilling was drafted by the Red Sox and traded to Baltimore before making his Major League debut. Along the way, he picked up an appreciation for baseball history and grew to idolize Lou Gehrig so much that he named his son Gehrig. Love the history, hate the team? I don’t know about that.

These days, of course, Curt Schilling hates the Yankees. At his introductory press conference in 2003, he set the stage by proclaiming to a room full of Red Sox reporters, “I guess I hate the Yankees now.” I’ve heard of bandwagon fans, but Schilling must be one of the most prominent bandwagons haters. I guess.

For some illuminating material, let’s revisit the Schilling trade to the Red Sox. He was, after all, nearly a Yankee. I covered the tortured history of the Schilling deal last March when Curt announced his retirement from baseball. At the time, I wrote:

[In mid-November, Jack] Curry uncovers an early price tag: The Diamondbacks would swap Schilling and Junior Spivey for Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson. Today, that doesn’t seem like quite a high price, but five and a half years ago, it did to the Yankees. (Of note: Curry also reports for the first time that the Rangers would be open to trading Alex Rodriguez. It’s an early sign of things to come.)

By Friday, the Yankees had moved on to Javier Vazquez. The Yankees would not, according to Curry, “trade their two best young players for Schilling because they feel the monetary relief they would be giving Arizona eliminates the need for them to trade equal talent.” At that point, Schilling also expressed his desire to go to only the Yankees or the Phillies. Brian Cashman left the GM meetings with the team feeling insulted by the Diamondbacks’ offers.

That would, of course, be the end of it. The Yanks refused to budget; the Diamondbacks refused to budge. Despite Schilling’s public desire to play in New York, the two sides could not work out a deal, and when Theo Epstein turned on the Thanksgiving charm, the Boston/New York rivalry would never be the same.

There’s more to it than that. Jayson Stark spoke with Schilling about the trade rumors as they swirled, and Curt pushed for an East Coast return. “I can stay here and pitch the last year of my contract in Arizona, and then walk. Or I can talk about possibly getting a three-year extension to go to New York and have a chance to win a world championship. If those are my choices, why wouldn’t I at least agree to listen?” Schilling said.

Schilling added, “There are two teams the Diamondbacks know I’ll talk with if they try to make a trade with them. That’s the Yankees and Phillies. Other than that, there are no hidden factors, no hidden agendas.”

For two weeks, until Theo Epstein landed in Arizona for a Thanksgiving dinner, Curt Schilling lobbied hard to join the Yanks. As Stark wrote, Curt wanted to be Roger Clemens, and landing in the Bronx to replace the then-retired Rocket would have been his dream.

Up in Massachusetts, Martha Coakley lost an election a few days after calling Curt Schilling a Yankee fan. In 2010, we know she’s as wrong as wrong could be. Curt’s socks are a deep, dark shade of red. But she indirectly reminded us — Yankee fans and Red Sox fans both who are in denial over Curt’s backstory — that Schilling wasn’t always a Boston Booster. For three weeks in November and for years before that, he admired the Yankees and their storied history. Had he landed in the Bronx, he would have been as big a Yankee fan as anyone reading RAB today.

Just a friendly reminder: Please do your best to leave the political discussion, debate and flame wars to other sites. While Martha Coakley gets a mention here, it is in the context of baseball history. We’re not endorsing an outcome or a candidate in the now-completed Massachusetts Senate race. We’re just highlighting Curt Schilling’s tortured legacy of hoping on the right bandwagon at what, for him, was the right time.

Almost a Yankee but never loved in the Bronx

Around these parts, we don’t harbor much love for Curt Schilling. When he announced his retirement via blog post yesterday, the jokes out of New York — from the Mystique and Aura references to a belief that now he’ll have time to really tell us what he thinks — were quick and obvious.

While Curt was and probably always will be, in the words of Ken Davidoff, a big jerk, he told it like it is. That’s something every New Yorker can appreciate. Schilling, on the other hand, is someone no one who roots for the Yanks wants to appreciate.

Ah, but what might have been. From 2004-2007, Schilling taunted the Yanks from up the road. Outside of October, Schilling didn’t really taunt them on the mound. Since arriving in Boston, Curt threw 101 innings over 15 games against the Yanks, and he went 6-6 with a 4.72 ERA. For a pitcher likely destined to Cooperstown and with a career 3.46 ERA, the Yanks fairly had his number over the last few years.

But, oh, the October torture. In 2001, Schilling helped drive a stake through the Yankee Dynasty while insulting the beloved Yankee mystique and aura. In 2004, he cemented his legacy by leading the Red Sox on a stunning and heartbreaking comeback while pitching on a bum ankle. Those are days Yankee fans long to forget.

What makes it worse though is the reality that those glory days for Boston could have been ours. So as Schilling gets set for a career as an outspoken baseball/political pundit, it’s time to rev up that ever-popular Wayback Machine.

The destination is November 7, 2003, and the Yankees are one week removed from a World Series loss at the hands of the Marlins. George wants Curt reports Tyler Kepner. “A lot of clubs are targeting him, but there’s no way we’re going to be out shopping Curt Schilling,” Sandy Johnson, Arizona’s assistant GM says. Famous last words.

Five days later, Jack Curry, in a rumor-laden article that makes for a fun experiment in “What If? The Yankees Years,” confirms the Yanks’ interest in Schilling. This time, though, the Diamondbacks are looking to cut payroll, and Curt will probably be moved.

The next day, Curry uncovers an early price tag: The Diamondbacks would swap Schilling and Junior Spivey for Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson. Today, that doesn’t seem like quite a high price, but five and a half years ago, it did to the Yankees. (Of note: Curry also reports for the first time that the Rangers would be open to trading Alex Rodriguez. It’s an early sign of things to come.)

By Friday, the Yankees had moved on to Javier Vazquez. The Yankees would not, according to Curry, “trade their two best young players for Schilling because they feel the monetary relief they would be giving Arizona eliminates the need for them to trade equal talent.” At that point, Schilling also expressed his desire to go to only the Yankees or the Phillies. Brian Cashman left the GM meetings with the team feeling insulted by the Diamondbacks’ offers.

That would, of course, be the end of it. The Yanks refused to budget; the Diamondbacks refused to budge. Despite Schilling’s public desire to play in New York, the two sides could not work out a deal, and when Theo Epstein turned on the Thanksgiving charm, the Boston/New York rivalry would never be the same.

As Curt goes off to the great beyond of retirement, I can’t decide if I want to tip my cap to him or give him a different kind of salute. I’ll always wonder though how we would feel today if Schilling wound up in New York. Would we still despise him if Schilling hand landed in New York? Would we still smile gleefully at his retirement? How different would the last five years have been had the Yanks shipped Soriano to Arizona for Curt Schilling? We’ll never know.