As proposed trades for Johan Santana morph and melt like snowmen, conjure this once-improbable image: Backroom Bill Smith, king of the Twins' budget cut, staring down Hank Steinbrenner, scion of the family legacy of crazed spending, while the Boston Red Sox's brain trust waits in the lounge, wearing World Series rings on ring and pinky fingers.
The Twins find themselves at the center of the baseball universe today, and Smith, who once jokingly nicknamed himself "Mr. No," is at the epicenter, dangling the best pitcher in baseball between the teams forming the greatest rivalry in sports history.
The Yankees have reportedly dropped out, but until a Santana trade is official, Mr. No will be attempting to play Evil Empires I and II against each other in Nashville, trying to use the aggressiveness of the Red Sox and Yankees against them in a form of general manager jujitsu. If nothing else, it is making for great theater.
In the old days -- before the advent of comprehensive coverage on ESPN, round-the-clock blogging and Peter Gammons being honored with his face on the $20 bill -- baseball's winter meetings were quaint and often overblown. Sportswriters would convene to search for scoops and drink with scouts, two traditional journalistic pursuits that often occurred simultaneously.
Everyone talked baseball but rarely were blockbuster deals consummated, and everyone went home with a hangover and a notebook full of gossip.
Compare that with what's happening this week at The Opryland Hotel, where news breaks -- or is at least reported -- every five seconds. You've got endless lobbies and corridors filled with baseball people, media from all over the country, teams of reporters from Boston and New York, agents and ESPN, everyone trying to find out if the Red Sox will add Santana to a world-beating rotation or the Yankees will reconsider adding Santana to their world-record payroll.
Until Tuesday night, Smith was alternating negotiations between the Red Sox -- the smartest guys in the room -- and Hank Steinbrenner. Hank has grabbed his father's bully pulpit, from whence he issues and retracts deadlines, tampers with other team's players, and generally behaves as if he wants to be played in the movie of his life by post-motorcycle crash Nick Nolte.
You would think Smith and Steinbrenner wouldn't be able to communicate without a translator. Smith is trying to please the penurious Pohlads; Steinbrenner is trying to sign yet another player to a record contract, having recently worked out the fine print of what could end up being more than a $300 million contract for Alex Rodriguez.
If he gets this done, next year A-Rod, Santana and Jeter will combine to match the Twins' entire player payroll. This is where it becomes incumbent on a Minnesota sportswriter to whine about the inequities in baseball, to invoke the term "competitive balance,'' and to rip either Bud Selig, Steinbrenner or the players' association.
Instead, let's live in the real world. Limited revenue sharing has helped a few low-revenue teams make budget, but teams such as the Red Sox and Yankees always will have the ability to dominate baseball. They make the most in local media revenues, because there is a great demand for their product. They sell tickets at the highest prices, because there is a great demand for their product. They drive the biggest ratings nationally, sell the most jerseys, drive the popularity of the sport more than the Twins or Royals ever could.
When the Red Sox and Yankees are competitive, the sport is healthy, and every month of the year provides compelling baseball drama. Even December.
If the Pohlads aren't going to greatly expand the payroll -- and the hunch here is they aren't about to adopt new life habits -- the Twins are doing the right thing in trading the best pitcher in the game, and in making Backroom Billy Smith the epicenter of the baseball universe.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. email@example.com