For almost five months now, the Yankees have practically stalked Randy Johnson. But on Wednesday, they did something nobody saw coming:
They informed the Diamondbacks they were no longer interested in trading for him.
The question is: Do they mean it? Or was this just their cagy, Yankee-esque way of telling Arizona it's time to get serious -- or else?
We'll find out one of these days, obviously. But Yankees officials were telling other baseball men last night this was as serious as a 97-mile-an-hour Big Unit smokeball.
It's been no secret that the Yankees and Diamondbacks have spent the last two weeks discussing a potentially monstrous trade involving the Big Unit. But even as reports circulated that they might be within days of completing that deal, the Yankees were grousing about demands by Arizona they considered to be absurd and unrealistic.
So on Wednesday, Yankees president Randy Levine called Arizona's incoming CEO, Jeff Moorad, and said the Yankees couldn't meet Arizona's price so they were moving on to fill other needs, according to a baseball official who was aware of the conversation.
The teams essentially had agreed that Javier Vazquez would be the centerpiece of any deal, and that the Yankees would send Arizona a large portion of the $19.5-million difference between what was left on Johnson's contract and the three years remaining on Vazquez's deal.
Beyond that, though, at least in the Yankees' view, they were about as far apart as the Empire State Building and the Arizona Biltmore.
At one point, according to a baseball man familiar with the discussions, Arizona asked for Vazquez, Tom Gordon, pitcher Brad Halsey, several prospects and the cash to pay the salaries of both Vazquez and Gordon. The Yankees said: No thanks.
At another point, the Diamondbacks asked the Yankees to find a third team to spice up the deal. In addition to asking for Vazquez, money and prospects, they gave New York a list of 10 pitchers they would accept. It's believed that list included Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, A.J. Burnett, Ted Lilly, Jason Jennings, Kenny Rogers and Shawn Chacon.
The Yankees eventually countered by offering Vazquez, Halsey, pitcher Alex Graman, another prospect and enough money to pay a significant chunk of Vazquez's salary. But the Diamondbacks turned that down.
So the Yankees' response was to inform Arizona that if that offer wasn't enough, it was time to turn their attention toward the other pitchers on their list.
Levine refused to comment when reached Wednesday night. And Arizona GM Joe Garagiola Jr. did not return a call from ESPN.com seeking comment.
However, Ken Kendrick, one of the Diamondbacks' controlling investors, told the East Valley (Ariz.) Tribune that if the Yankees were telling people they'd totally backed out, "I would not say that's accurate." Kendrick declined to elaborate.
Johnson, who was at the Phoenix Suns' game, said only: "How about this game?" when asked by The Associated Press about the latest in trade talks.
The Yankees also are actively talking with Jon Lieber, Eric Milton and Jaret Wright. But they still haven't done much more than monitor the Pedro Martinez negotiations. Which is a clear indication they're not particularly interested -- considering that George Steinbrenner normally is obsessed with outdueling the other teams in the Pedro Hunt, the Mets and Red Sox.
But as attractive as all those names may be, it's been obvious for weeks that Johnson was the No. 1 commodity on the Yankees' winter shopping list. So it's far from out of the question that this was just their way of putting the pressure on the Diamondbacks, instead of the other way around.
"This is a ploy, pure and simple," theorized one baseball man who has had frequent contact with both teams. "If the Yankees come out and show the world they're the ones being reasonable, Arizona looks like the bad guys."
What the Yankees also seem to have figured out is that if Arizona is going to trade Johnson, it has nowhere else to trade him.
For one thing, it's believed Johnson has indicated that he would accept a deal only to the Yankees, Cardinals and Angels. But St. Louis and Anaheim would have just as much trouble meeting the asking price as the Yankees.
One NL executive says it's his understanding the Diamondbacks have told St. Louis that pitcher Dan Haren wouldn't be acceptable as the lead prospect in a trade. So it appears the Cardinals -- who would have had trouble affording Johnson anyway -- have turned their attention elsewhere.
And the Angels look to be gearing up for a run at Carlos Beltran -- which wouldn't seem to leave them the financial resources to afford a big-buck extension for Johnson.
Arizona is high on a number of players in the Anaheim farm system. But the Angels are telling teams they don't want to trade their best position-player prospects -- third baseman Dallas McPherson, catcher Jeff Mathis and first baseman Casey Kotchman. So unless that philosophy changes, that's another huge obstacle to reeling in the Unit.
But if the Yankees, Cardinals and Angels are all out, that leaves well whom?
The Providence Journal reported Wednesday that the Red Sox have talked to Arizona about Johnson. But one baseball official with knowledge of those discussions said Tuesday: "They've talked to the Red Sox -- but not about Johnson."
The White Sox are extremely interested. But several people close to Johnson say he isn't interested in them.
And the Dodgers have been there and tried that. And if their refusal to trade Edwin Jackson was the main obstacle to finishing off a deal for the Unit in July, rest assured it would be just as large a roadblock now.
Which is why an executive of one NL team speculated Wednesday: "The Yankees might say they're moving on, but this is Randy Johnson. You're telling me they're not going to wait? He's the guy they want. So they'll wait."
Nevertheless, one AL executive who has spoken with the Yankees disagreed. If the Diamondbacks think they can wait a month to figure this out, then go back and find the Yankees ready to deal, they're miscalculating, he said.
In a month, the Yankees might still have interest and still have Vazquez to trade. But if they've already signed two other starting pitchers -- not to mention Carlos Beltran -- what they won't have is the money to send to Arizona with Vazquez, plus enough bucks left over to afford Johnson's extension.
"Even the Yankees have their limits," the executive said, "whether anyone wants to believe that or not."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.