Baseball: Yankees face $400m question

Can New York's baseball aristocrats deliver a World Series following a record outlay that leaves even European football's big spenders in the shade?

Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi and Florentino Perez are mega-spenders, who've lavished fortunes on Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid respectively. But for really big bucks nothing of late in all world sports has quite matched the New York Yankees – and the next three weeks will show whether baseball's richest yet hungriest franchise has spent its money wisely.

Tonight, the Yankees open the American League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Angels, in which victory would give them a berth in the World Series and a chance of winning baseball's greatest prize for the first time since 2000.

For a franchise that regards victory as its birthright, that interval has been unconscionable. And in 2008 the unconscionable became the intolerable, when the Yankees failed to reach even the play-offs, their first such absence since 1995. To rectify that sorry state of affairs, the Steinbrenner family which owns the team embarked upon a spending spree for the ages.

The Yankees have been doing such things in style ever since they paid the Boston Red Sox the then unprecedented sum of $100,000 for the contract of a certain Babe Ruth, back in 1919. In recent years, huge local cable TV revenues and now a brand new Yankee Stadium have given the franchise ever more money to shower on the game's finest performers. But the outlays after the dismal 2008 performance had an urgency, bordering on desperation, all of their own.

In the space of a few weeks, the Yankees committed no less than $423m (£267m) to acquire the services of the pitchers C C Sabathia and A J Burnett, and the hitter Mark Teixeira. The Sabathia and Teixeira deals mean the Yankees are responsible for the four most lucrative contracts in team sports anywhere, standing behind only the $189m, 10-year deal for short stop Derek Jeter, and the all-time record $275m the Yankees are committed to paying slugger Alex Rodriguez between 2008 and 2018.

There is, however, a flip side to the Steinbrenners' munificence. This year, more than ever before, only a world championship will do. But Yankee spending is but one story line in a fascinating post-season, in which money alone guarantees nothing.

It could be, for instance, that the Philadelphia Phillies become the first National League team to repeat as champions since the Cincinnati Reds of 1975-76. Equally, we could see an all-Los Angeles "freeway" series, between the NL Dodgers and the Angels.

But best of all, surely, would be a Series match-up between the Yankees and the Dodgers. The bean counters of Major League Baseball would relish the clash of teams from the two largest US media markets, that would give the sport's showcase event its largest television audiences in decades. For the fans of a historical bent (and what baseball fan is not?) the hostilities would bring back memories not just of Los Angeles/Yankees battles past, but of those sepia-coloured encounters of the Fifties, when the Dodgers were still the Brooklyn Dodgers and all baseball seemed a local New York affair.

A Yankees-Dodgers clash would also offer parallel tales of drugs and redemption. At the start of the season, Rodriguez had hit, for him, rock bottom. His marriage had collapsed, amid rumours (later denied) of an affair with Madonna. He was injured, and he had been forced to admit using steroids. But he ended it in style, with two home runs in his final game.

Most important for the Yankees, "A-Rod" is at last performing when it really matters. Long accused of choking in the play-offs, he delivered two game-tying homers in this month's division series against the Minnesota Twins, driving in six runs. Finally, the player regarded as the best of his generation, who is on track to overtake the record of 762 career home runs held by the disgraced Barry Bonds, has overcome his post-season demons.

In Manny Ramirez, the Dodgers too have a sinner in search of redemption. The dreadlocked Ramirez, who has hit more post-season homers than any player in history, has long been one of the game's most charismatic figures. But in May he too was caught up in the steroids scandal, and handed a 50-game suspension by MLB. That transgression will be instantly forgiven in the City of Angels if he brings the Dodgers their first World Series since 1988.

First, though, the Dodgers must do what they failed to do in 2008, and overcome the Phillies in the National League Championship Series, which started last night in Los Angeles. It should be a thriller. The teams are perfectly matched; if Philadelphia have the most formidable hitting line-up in the NL, the Dodgers have marginally the better pitching. The outcome is anyone's guess.

The Angels/Yankees affair too has the ingredients of a classic. On paper, the Yankees have the edge in every department. But reputations count for nothing in a seven-game series when the entire season is on the line. The Angels are nothing if not fighters, they've had the best of recent post-season clashes with New York and, having lost out twice to the Yankees for the signatures of Teixeira and Sabathia in the close season, they have a special point to prove. In short, both championship series may go the full seven games. As for the World Series, even the Steinbrenners may have to wait.

Four aces in pinstripes: New York's biggest earners

Alex Rodriguez: 2008-18 - $275m

Derek Jeter: 2001-10 - $189m

Mark Teixeira: 2009-16 - $180m

CC Sabathia: 2009-15 - $161m

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