Starr: Have Red Sox Gone Crazy?

“A million here and a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

—The late Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen

My mind keeps stumbling over a bad joke. There are these two guys. Let’s call them Bud Selig and Theo Epstein. Selig telephones Epstein and says …

Selig: I have some good news and some bad news.

Epstein: What’s the good news?

Selig: Your Red Sox have won the Daisuke Matsuzaka auction, an absolute steal at $51.1 million.

Epstein: That’s super! So what’s the bad news?

Selig: Well, the kid doesn’t speak English so he’ll need an interpreter.

Epstein: Why is that bad news?

Selig: Because he already has one.

Epstein: So?

Selig: His interpreter is Scott Boras.

Baseball über agent Scott Boras, of course, speaks only one language—the dulcet tones of cash on the barrelhead. And with Boston already halfway there, having proffered $51.1 million to Matsuzaka’s current team, the Seibu Lions, the Red Sox appear destined to make the 26-year-old Japanese star American baseball’s next $100 million man.

It was only a couple years ago that Major League Baseball owners were displaying a new and urgent commitment to tightfistedness that led players and their agents to suggest that collusion had re-entered the negotiation game. Now, with baseball flush after a season of record attendance and the signing of a new union deal that runs through 2011, we appear to have entered a new era of profligacy. Players are reaping the bonanza, and the game’s Chicken Littles are once again warning, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” put the Matsuzaka deal in perfect perspective. It assembled the best 11-man staff from 2006—five starters with the lowest ERAs (Johan Santana, Brandon Webb, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Chris Carpenter), five relievers with the most holds (Scott Shields, Joel Zumaya, Aaron Heilman, Scott Linebrink, Juan Rincon) and MLB’s save leader (Francisco Rodriguez)—that altogether cost $48.8 million, or $2.5 less than the price of a sit-down with the man his agent calls D-Mat.

I confess I am not overly fond of that nickname, which lends itself a bit too easily to headline wordplay with “Doormat.” But I am not convinced that the Red Sox are unhinged, ready for confinement to baseball’s locked ward. (That’s the room where former Mets executives sit around discussing the signings of Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman, Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar and repeating eternally “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”) But if Boston indeed flew over the cuckoo’s nest this time, then what are we to make of the current Mets and the Yankees, whose bids on Matsuzaka reportedly exceeded $30 million. Are they simply a little more than half crazy?

What is clear to anyone who pays the slightest attention to baseball is that starting pitching of the first rank is the rarest and, thus, the most valuable commodity in the game. I have no doubt that if Babe Ruth played today, he would be converted back from an outfielder to a pitcher. Today, the American League is filled with lineups that are variations on the theme of Murderers’ Row. But the two teams that reached the AL Championship Series, the Detroit Tigers and the Oakland Athletics, boasted the league’s deepest starting pitching and ranked first and third in pitching (while only ninth and 13th in the AL in hitting). Three AL preseason favorites were undone by their pitching, with staffs that wound up ranked seventh (Yankees), 10th (White Sox) and 11th (Red Sox) in the league. The aging Mets rotation was so devastated by injuries that in the National League Championship Series, it was forced to rely on two starters who had combined to win seven games all season.

So it’s not hard to understand why teams get excited about premium pitching. Other than Matsuzaka, Barry Zito is the only starter on the open market who is both a potential staff ace and, at 28 years old, still in his prime. Zito’s agent, the same Mr. Boras, is bandying about numbers like $100 million, and he hasn’t earned his fearsome reputation by being too far off the ultimate mark. Note the remarkable similarities between Zito’s record, 102-63 in seven seasons in Oakland with the A’s, and Matsuzaka’s 108-62 in eight seasons in Japan—17-5, 2.13 ERA and 200 strikeouts in 186 innings in 2006.

Matsuzaka may not have put up those numbers against Major League teams. But he won the MVP in the inaugural World Baseball Classic this past spring, going 3-0 and giving up just a single run in 13 innings for Japan’s championship team. Even before that stunning performance, precious little skepticism remained in MLB ranks about how well Japanese baseball stars would fare here. While there is an occasional bust like Kaz Matsui with the Mets (and now in Colorado), Japanese stars like Hideki Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, Kenji Johjima, Akinori Otsuka, Takashi Saito and, above all, Ichiro Suzuki have not only proven that they belong here, but have shown that they can excel.

When Ichiro came to Seattle by route of the same single-bid, blind auction, his price tag—$13 million just to open negotiations—raised eyebrows, too. Today, that looks like a bargain akin to the purchase of Manhattan Island for $24. Ichiro has the third highest career batting average, .331, among active players and has led the majors in hits three times. In 2005, his 262 shattered a Major League record that had stood for 85 years.

Historically, pitching has been a less reliable proposition than hitting. Still, the Red Sox were in the market for a big splash. They are now two years removed from their championship glory, two years which have seen a steady departure of mainstays of that champion team: Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller and, last year to Boston’s archrival Yankees, Johnny Damon. The team insisted it was not concentrating on the past but the future by building its most precious and, hopefully, renewable resource, a minor-league system. While the kids may eventually be all right, the Red Sox in 2006 slipped to a dismal third-place finish, not even shouting distance behind the Yankees. In the juvenile parlance of the team’s fans, the Red Sox sucked.

With 307 consecutive sellouts at Fenway Park, the team may appear to have a captive nation. Still, Red Sox fans should never be confused with Cubs fans, willing to accept empty promises eternally for the pleasure of a ballpark frolic. Bostonians have their soft spots—they can be trained to sing along with Neil Diamond—but are a decidedly edgy bunch that can turn on a team with stunning rapidity. Just tune in to Boston talk radio this week and listen to folks blister coach Bill Belichick, whose New England Patriots have had the temerity to lose two straight games for the first time since 2002.

Those who still can’t fathom the Matsuzaka deal may want to look at some of the comparable numbers around the league. The Yankees, who are every bit as desperate for starting pitching, are about to re-up Mike Mussina, for $22.5 million over two seasons. That’s for a pitcher who is about to turn 38 and who in big games, as the New York Post put it, has always pitched just good enough to lose. (At the same time, credit the Yankees for its new, even if belated, commitment to youth, leading to heists of talented, young pitching from Detroit and Baltimore.) The Mets, with Pedro Martinez’s future iffy and Tom Glavine not a lock to return to Shea, reportedly ponied up $12 million to keep Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez for two more seasons. That’s $6 million per for a man who claims to be 37, but who may actually have pitched to Fidel Castro in his prime, $6 million per for a man who hasn’t lasted a full season since 2000. Then there are journeyman free agents, like Adam Eaton (career 54-45) and Vincent Padilla (66-61), who are said to be worth somewhere between $7 million and $10 million on the open market.

Spending $51.1 million for entrée to Matsuzaka has the virtue of being $51.1 million the Red Sox can’t spend on pitchers like Eaton and Padilla. The money also has the virtue of not counting against the luxury-tax threshold, while the subsequent signing of Matsuzaka would not cost the Red Sox any compensatory draft picks, building blocks they have been loathe to part with in recent years. (The baseball bible, Baseball America, ranked the club’s 2006 draft number one in the MLB). In the eternal quest for pitching, the acquisition of Matsuzaka would be the most significant off-season victory over the Yankees since the Red Sox acquired Curt Schilling three years ago. And we all know how that turned out. Moreover, it would provide the team with a foothold in the lucrative Japanese market. How soon before we start hearing “Red Sox Universe”?

If the Red Sox seal the deal, the team can now project a rotation with three strong-armed 26-year-olds in Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon. Each has shown No. 1 starter potential, though each carries a major question mark. Beckett’s spotty performance last season has experts wondering whether he will ever regain the form that made him a World Series star at age 23. Papelbon is rebounding from shoulder woes while trying to make the transition from bullpen ace to starter. And Matsuzaka will have to pitch in one of baseball’s toughest markets with virtual dollar signs on his uniform, a problem that has clearly afflicted a superstar talent like Alex Rodriguez in New York.

But all those are tomorrow’s problems. For Boston fans, today is the season of hope. And at the very least, they can be heartened that Red Sox management doesn’t plan to sit around admiring its 2004 trophy, just waiting for lightning to strike again.