Praising Sox a smart move for Cashman

Brian Cashman spent part of his own offseason conditioning program painting the Boston Red Sox as a cross between the '27 Yankees and the '85 Bears, and guess what? It might have been the smartest thing Cashman ever did.

The New York Yankees are playing in Fenway Park on Masters weekend, so let's start explaining their general manager's psychology with a golf lesson from the most prolific winner of them all, Jack Nicklaus, who keeps predicting Tiger Woods will break his record of 18 major titles in one breath before saying things like "he's still got to do it" in the next.

When Nicklaus reminds everyone that the five majors Tiger needs represent "more than a career for anybody else playing," he is well aware that he's reminding Woods of that fact, too.

Back to Cashman. He doesn't want Boston winning the AL East any more than Nicklaus wants Tiger to repair his blown-up bridge to the magic number, 19. So the Yankees' GM applied a little pressure to the Red Sox. No, make that a lot of pressure.

Cashman all but declared Red Sox-Yankees a bigger mismatch than Tyson-Douglas, then quietly started sizing up ways to leave Boston on its knees, dazed and confused and searching for its mouthpiece.

"Theo kicked my a-- in the offseason," Cashman said last month. Theo would be Theo Epstein, the Boston executive who landed Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford while his pinstriped counterpart swung for the fences and missed badly on Cliff Lee.

"Boston had front office areas of weakness to attack," Cashman said the other day, "and they answered them with big, explosive, certainty-type moves. Our issues, I wasn't able to answer in the same way.

"So they entered spring training without any question marks, and we did, simple as that. I just stated what everyone else was saying, that we were the underdog. But just because the Red Sox have the inside track doesn't mean they're going to be better than us over 162 games."

Entering their home opener Friday, this much is clear: The Red Sox haven't been better than the Yankees over six games. Boston opened one of its most highly anticipated seasons with a road trip from hell, losing three in Texas and losing three more in Cleveland while Terry Francona yo-yo'd his new $142 million man, Crawford, dropping him to seventh in the lineup before yanking him back up to second.

If the Red Sox weren't feeling the burdens of great expectations, they had a funny way of showing it. Cashman swore he wasn't consciously trying to make life difficult for Boston by praising up its roster, but he wasn't exactly bemoaning the fact that a team other than his own was feeling the heat.

"What is the saying, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown?" Cashman said. "They've been crowned as the team to beat, and they have a big target on their backs, and we're going to try to take them down. Everybody looks forward to doing that."

As a 43-year-old who has spent his entire adult life in the Yankees' employ, Cashman adores the rivalry with the Red Sox. He appreciates the fervent Boston crowd, respects Epstein to the nth degree, and enjoys the fact he can walk through the grim Fenway corridors and get heckled by a famous Red Sox fan like he did during the 2003 ALCS.

"Hey, Evil Empire," Ben Affleck called out to him before Cashman shouted back at the actor's girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez, telling her to be true to her roots in the Bronx.

"The rivalry is awesome," Cashman said, "and I think Theo is fantastic at what he does. Unfortunately I've got my hands full with him. He's probably the best general manager they're capable of ever having, and I don't like chess matches with him because his every move makes a great deal of sense."

But as much as he acknowledges Epstein's intellect and hustle, Cashman wants to talk about Epstein's ever-expanding budget, too. The Yankees have a payroll at $202 million, with the Red Sox checking in around $162 million. Cashman preferred to look at the $40 million differential as the cost of a beer and a pretzel at Fenway.

"The Red Sox act like they're some sort of mismatched fighter in a championship fight," he said, "but they're really a lot more similar to the big, bad Yankees than they'll say. They act like they're part of the 29 other clubs, but it's really the Yankees and the Red Sox and 28 other clubs."

Or 27, given Philadelphia's $173 million payroll. Whatever. Three's a crowd in this discussion, and the Phillies have no place in the sport's enduring blood feud.

Yankees-Red Sox has gotten a little kinder and gentler, as the matchup hasn't produced a good dustup since Jason Varitek shoved his mitt in Alex Rodriguez's face seven years back. The Red Sox have won a couple of liberating World Series championships since, taking a bit of the edge off the rivalry.

But there remains enough competitive tension, envy, hate and fear to go around.

"I love our team, and we have a chance to be the best," Cashman said. "The Red Sox have already answered all of their questions, I have to answer mine on the run, and I'm not afraid of that. We have a lot of talent with more talent coming. We feel good about ourselves, and I look forward to going head-to-head against everybody."

Especially the Red Sox, a team already buckling under the weight of its formidable talent base. Let the record show that Brian Cashman added more than a few pounds to Boston's load in the offseason, if only to compensate for that swing and miss on Lee.