13 years ago, the Yankees signed Jose Contreras, and the 'Evil Empire' was born
Unless you've spent the past year or so living under a rock that is itself under an even larger rock, you're aware of and have probably already seen the new "Star Wars" movie. It's inspired endless speculation and some truly shameless wordplay. But it got us thinking -- for all that talk about Darth Vader and the dark side, it seemed only appropriate that we pay some attention to the real-life version. Because on this date in 2002, the Yankees managed to earn the nickname that's stuck with them ever since: the Evil Empire.
New York had just been bounced in the ALDS by the Angels, the first time they'd missed the World Series since 1997. The team's response? First, they signed Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui. The real prize, though, was Jose Contreras -- a 31-year-old righty regarded by just about everybody as one of the best pitchers to ever come out of Cuba -- and George Steinbrenner wasn't about to take no for an answer. "He told his people, 'Lose Contreras and you're done,'" a source told the New York Times.
Sure enough, The Boss got his man -- to the tune of four years and $32 million. Contreras' deal took New York's already massive payroll into the stratosphere -- $158 million to be exact, easily the highest in baseball and far above the luxury tax threshold of $117 million.
As for the team New York outbid for Contreras' services? None other than the Boston Red Sox, who had finished second to the Yankees in the AL East for five consecutive seasons. Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, frustrated at watching New York throw a fortune at yet another marquee name, had had enough. When the New York Times reached him for comment on the signing, he initially declined. And then, well, he changed his mind: "No, I'll make a comment," Lucchino said. "The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America." And just like that, a nickname was born.
Contreras spent two seasons in the Bronx, putting up a 3.30 ERA in 2003 while helping the Yankees to yet another American League pennant. Things worked out a little differently in '04, though:
Besides, Boston's been able to land some pretty big free agents themselves recently.