NEW YORK -- Hey, baseball: They're back.
The New York Yankees who went 114-48 during the regular season, the ones some were calling the greatest team ever, will all be together again next year.
All it's taken to do that is an extra $114.25 million.
"There is a very rare opportunity here, to have the exact same ballclub come back and defend our title. That's rare in any sport," general manager Brian Cashman said Wednesday night after Bernie Williams surprisingly returned, agreeing to an $87.5 million, five-year contract.
Barring injury, that means Yankees fans can again look forward to an opening day lineup with Chuck Knoblauch at second, Derek Jeter at shortstop, Paul O'Neill in right field, Williams in center and Tino Martinez at first base.
Chili Davis, recovered from injuries that sidelined him for most of the '98 season, figures to be the designated hitter. Jorge Posada and Joe Girardi will split the catching again. World Series MVP Scott Brosius will be back at third. Ricky Ledee, Chad Curtis and Shane Spencer are available for left.
And the rotation will have David Wells, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and Hideki Irabu, with Mariano Rivera to close out games.
And, oh, just maybe, there's a chance Roger Clemens will push for a trade from Toronto to the Yankees, too.
No wonder Joe Torre smiles so much these days.
"At 125-50 in 1998, we're ecstatic to be able to give Joe the tools of essentially the same team, and hopefully New York is excited, too," Cashman said.
New York really didn't want to add surly Albert Belle to the mix, but Yankees officials thought there was little likelihood of re-signing Williams and were convinced signing Belle to bat fourth and play left was the best alternative.
Cashman and owner George Steinbrenner said all along they wanted to keep Williams. But the outfielder was set to leave until Steinbrenner, who offered a $37.5 million, five-year deal last winter and a $60 million, five-year contract earlier this month, dramatically increased his proposal Wednesday to keep Williams from defecting to the archrival Boston Red Sox.
"This was the most comfortable chair we wanted to sit in and the one that worked," Cashman said. "This was the one that gave us all the answers correctly. This is the one chair that fit with everything else. We were 125 and 50 with Bernie. He fits in New York, he can play in New York. He answers all those questions that aren't answered when you bring somebody else in."
In the hours after the Yankees finished off their World Series sweep of San Diego on Oct. 21, it looked like next year's team would be very different.
But 10 days later, Torre convinced Steinbrenner to reverse his decision and exercise Girardi's $3.4 million option, keeping a clubhouse leader whose playing time has diminished as Posada has developed. Steinbrenner had been set to pay a $400,000 buyout.
Six days later, the Yankees agreed to a $15.75 million, three-year contract with Brosius, who hit .300 with 19 homers and 98 RBIs in a comeback season, then batted .383 in the postseason, leading New York in hits (18), home runs (4) and RBIs (15).
Five days later, New York gave Cone an $8 million, one-year deal rather than allow the 20-game winner to go on the free-agent market. And the Yankees and Darryl Strawberry, recovering from colon cancer surgery, essentially have agreed to a $2.5 million, minor-league deal rather than exercise his $2.5 million option. They must wait until after Dec. 20 to formalize it because of complicated rules involving the collective bargaining agreement and the luxury tax.
There's even a chance the Yankees could get stronger in this era when the high-revenue teams spend the small markets into oblivion. With no place for Mike Lowell, a top-rated third baseman who was at Triple-A last season, they could package him and other minor leagues and spare parts for another top outfielder, such as Montreal's Rondell White.
Clemens will push to get out of Toronto unless the Blue Jays' owner, the Belgian company Interbrew, sets a budget high enough to build a contender. If he's traded, the Yankees are at the top of his list, perhaps along with Texas and Houston.
With the departure of Mo Vaughn decimating Boston's offense, Baltimore struggling to rebuild and Toronto unsure if it is retrenching, the Yankees appear to be guaranteed a playoff spot for the fifth consecutive season.
But there's a cost -- which will be passed along to fans, who will pay $50 for a top ticket next year, up from $45 this year, $35 in 1997 and $25 in 1996, when the Yankees won their first World Series title in 18 years.
New York needed Williams, who would have made Boston a contender. That's why Steinbrenner, who turned down Williams' $70 million, seven-year request last winter, paid even more money now.
"It was a risk Mr. Steinbrenner was willing to take for the fans of New York to have an opportunity to witness one of the best teams ever to come back and try to do it again," Cashman said.
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