Theo didn't kick Cash's butt after all

NEW YORK -- From behind his desk, wearing a blue New York Yankees pullover on his first full day as an unlikely American League East champ, Brian Cashman was willing to confess a venial springtime sin.

Those public proclamations that the 2011 Boston Red Sox would be mightier than the 1927 Yanks? Yeah, Cashman was hoping to weigh down his rival with the burden of great expectations.

"I thought it was fact," the Yankees' general manager said in his office Thursday night. "But at the same time I also thought that with the way this world is, let them deal with some extra stuff if it creates any extra stuff."

With his team a $200 million underdog for the first time, Cashman wanted the Red Sox to deal with extra stuff while they were spending extra money. In fact, his first attempt to derail Boston's burgeoning juggernaut unfolded in December, when he met with Carl Crawford's agent, Brian Peters, while the outfielder was negotiating what would be a $142 million deal with Red Sox GM Theo Epstein.

This was Cashman's way of gift-wrapping Epstein an exploding cigar.

"I actually had dinner with the agent to pretend that we were actually involved and drive the price up," Cashman said. "The outfield wasn't an area of need, but everybody kept writing Crawford, Crawford, Crawford, Crawford. And I was like, 'I feel like we've got Carl Crawford in Brett Gardner, except he costs more than $100 million less, with less experience.'"

Against the odds, Cashman's Gardners proved to be better than Epstein's Crawfords. The Yankees won the AL East after whiffing badly on Cliff Lee, and after watching the Red Sox make the kind of dramatic moves (Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez) that their blood rivals made before the championship season of 2009.

So while he tuned in to the high-def image of Bartolo Colon imploding in the first hour of an irrelevant (for the home team) blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, Cashman was asked about a quote he delivered in March, a concession to Epstein that sounded an awful lot like a surrender.

"Theo kicked my a-- in the offseason," Cashman said then.

I wanted to know if, in retrospect, Cashman believed he actually ended up on the better end of that front office brawl.

"No," he said, "Theo still kicked my a--. I went fishing for Cliff Lee, had him on the line, and I didn't get him. Theo solved his problems with significant names, All-Star-type players, and he went into spring training with a finished product. I went into spring training with a lot of uncertainty and areas of need I didn't solve.

"What I said was accurate: The Red Sox had a great winter, and I had a bad winter. But as it turned out, I had a better winter than anybody would've expected, including myself."

Cashman didn't sign Lee, a free agent starter who might cost him a World Series title next month. He didn't land any of the CC Sabathias or Mark Teixeiras he landed after his team missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1994 players strike.

But he did sign longshots Colon and Freddy Garcia, not-so-golden oldies who saved the Yankees after Lee returned to Philly, Andy Pettitte retired, and A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes fell apart. Cashman did bring back Derek Jeter at the team's price, not Jeter's, and he did hire Russell Martin to be the steadying rock behind the plate he's been.

Cashman also watched the kids he didn't trade for Lee in the summer of 2010 flower into contributors and potential stars. After one proposed deal built around Jesus Montero came undone, Seattle asked the Yankees to add either Ivan Nova or Eduardo Nunez to the pot, and Cashman refused.

Now Nova is likely the Yanks' No. 2 starter in the postseason, Nunez is an athletic backup to the fraying Alex Rodriguez and Jeter, and Montero is an emerging offensive threat his bosses liken to a young Manny Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera.

"I have no regrets in not making that trade for Lee then," Cashman said, "and I have no regrets now. I wanted Lee badly enough to move Montero. You take all the players traded when Lee went from Cleveland to Philly, Philly to Seattle, and Seattle to Texas, and Montero would've been by far the best player moved in any of those deals.

"But now I'm just happy fans have had a chance to get a better feel of why I was hesitant to make that deal. I'm not saying I was right in not doing that deal for Lee; that's to be debated. But the young players we held onto have at least proven they were worthy of the angst as far as including them in a big trade."

As he approached the summer trade deadline, Cashman rejected opportunities to move Nova to Colorado for Ubaldo Jimenez, or to the White Sox for Edwin Jackson. Right now the GM would rather open a Division Series game with his 16-4 rookie than with either veteran.

In the bad old days, maybe George Steinbrenner would've forced Cashman to ship out Nova for a more experienced hand. The GM has gained more and more power over time, but Steinbrenner's sons still occasionally remind him who is boss, if not Boss.

Rafael Soriano was signed against Cashman's wishes, as the GM argued that investing $35 million in a non-closer compromised his payroll-cutting mandate. The disagreement over Soriano pumped fresh air into the notion Cashman wouldn't re-sign as a free agent this fall.

Inside his Stadium office Thursday night, the GM pointed to walls that were conspicuously lacking in testimonials to a charmed Yankee life. Cashman doesn't believe in pictures or pennants.

"I don't believe you should get comfortable," he said. "If you start feeling entitled ... you've lost your usefulness and your time has expired."

Cashman was asked if he believed his time in the Bronx might soon expire.

"My preference would be to stay here if I can," he said. "I like what I do, and you couldn't find a better place to do it, with the best fan base, tremendous facilities and an ownership with a full commitment.

"But at the same time, it comes at a price of time, effort, expectations, pressure, stress levels, all that different stuff. Like everything else, there are positives and negatives. There's stuff in this job that can bury you if you let it."

After Boston made its big moves, Cashman didn't let the prospect of a nuclear winter bury him or his team. He allows that the Red Sox have been betrayed by injuries more than anything else, and that they can re-emerge as a highly dangerous American League Championship Series opponent.

"So all the bouquets being thrown our way," he said, "we've got to make sure they're not meaningless."

In other words, a loss to the Red Sox in the ALCS would force Brian Cashman to concede that Theo Epstein kicked his a--.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." Sunday Morning with Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.