TAMPA, Fla. -- As Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona recalls it, he was sitting in the Orlando airport on his way home from the winter meetings in December, having a bite at an Au Bon Pain (his mangled pronunciation can't be duplicated here) when New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman sat down beside him.
"He didn't offer to pay," Francona said, "so I didn't really listen to him."
Cashman confirmed he didn't pick up the tab, but his recollection of their encounter differed in some important respects.
"My plane was delayed, I saw him sitting down, so we talked," Cashman said. "And I was like, 'Holy [expletive], you [expletive] guys just went off with what you did. Congrats.' And he was just beaming from eye to eye and he was saying they were going to win it all. Tito told me they were better than us."
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Now if that were true, that certainly would liven up spring training. But everything after the ear-to-ear smile, Cashman admits, he made up. Francona said no such thing.
Repeat: Francona said no such thing.
But on the occasion of Boston's first head-to-head encounter with the Yankees in 2011, Cashman reiterated Friday that Crawford and Gonzalez make the Red Sox "the hunted, and we are the hunters."
"It's as simple as that," Cashman said, addressing a cluster of reporters before the Red Sox beat the Yankees 5-3. "I don't think there's a person here who disagrees with me, but it plays well."
And, not for the first time this spring, he insisted that Boston apprehensions to the contrary, he never entertained pursuing Crawford.
"Carl Crawford is a tremendous player," he said, "but I got someone I'm excited about in Brett Gardner, who's $142 million less. His development is going to continue. I like our outfield with Curtis Granderson [in center] and Nick Swisher in right.
"I think Crawford's free agency obviously didn't mesh with what we had here and my need for starting pitching. So timing is everything."
The timing was ideal for the Red Sox this winter to make their moves for Gonzalez and Crawford, Cashman said, just as it was for the Yankees two years ago when they added CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. At that time, the Bombers had shed big payroll and needed a first baseman and top-of-the-rotation starters.
He had no interest in Gonzalez this go-round because he already had a first baseman ("Adrian Gonzalez, anybody would love to have"), and he insists he would have passed on Crawford, too.
"These guys are special," he said, "but we've got a lot of special players, too. I have a feeling that had a lot to do with why they got those players."
Cashman said the situation was similar to when both Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran approached him in the past and expressed their desire to play for the Yanks. Great players both, he said, but at the time he had Jason Giambi at first and Bernie Williams at center. So he said "No, thanks."
Passing on Crawford could come back to haunt Cashman if Gardner -- who went .277/.383/.379 with 47 stolen bases in his first full season -- plateaus while Crawford blows up. But Cashman insists he had no designs on the All-Star. We'll never know for certain because the Yankees were still fully engaged in pursuing Cliff Lee, their No. 1 target, which suited the Sox's purposes. They were not unhappy that Crawford wanted to make a decision sooner than later.
"I figured it was Boston or Anaheim," Cashman said when asked where he thought Crawford would wind up. "I thought that was very real. I was rooting for Anaheim, but he's in Boston."
The Sox and Yankees had mutual interest in at least two other players: catcher Russell Martin and pitcher Alfredo Aceves. Martin signed a big league deal with the Yankees after Boston offered him a minor league deal. Aceves was nontendered by the Yankees, turned down a nonguaranteed minor league deal and signed with the Red Sox.
Martin gives the Yankees time to further develop young catchers Jesus Montero and Austin Romine. With the Red Sox, he would have given them an alternate option to Jarrod Saltalamacchia. If Saltalamacchia flames out, the Sox may rue missing out on Martin.
"I remember we started talking, [manager Joe] Girardi and I, about how long it took [Jorge] Posada, who is a bona fide Hall of Famer and one of the premier catchers in Yankees history. It was like a three-year process of breaking him into the big leagues. It's probably the most difficult position, in a big market with a team ready to win, to break in at the major league level with a kid."
Aceves' back problems -- he appeared in just 10 games last season -- kept the Yankees from bringing him back, Cashman said. The Sox think Aceves is healthy and may help them either as a starter or reliever. The Yankees' lack of pitching depth may have them wishing they'd kept him.
"We're not conceding anything," Cashman said, "but when people say 'Hey, you know what, Theo [Epstein] and their ownership got a lot of areas that were question marks answered in the wintertime,' I didn't. I might have the answers right here, but because I can't say we do just yet, I'll be honest: They've got the inside pole. They are the hunted, we are the hunters."
If Cashman's employers, the brothers Steinbrenner, were perturbed by him casting the Sox as favorites, he's not aware.
"They didn't say anything to me," he said.
And how would The Boss have reacted?
"I don't know," he said. "He would have issues with things that would shock you. He might have agreed; he might not have agreed. Like, I could have said something that everybody said that made us look good, he would be mad at that. You never knew what would set him off."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.