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As the Hot Stove warms up, we have to ask: Who’s closer to disaster, Boston or New York?

The morning after the Yankees’ season ended so rudely in Detroit, I bumped into a chap of my acquaintance in the local supermarket.  A retired civil servant from Queens, the fellow now bags groceries if only to fend off boredom, and on this occasion he was all atwitter.

“I woke up this morning howling,” he exclaimed to me. “If only George were still around. What a treat it would have been!”

And I could only laugh. For I’d had the very same thoughts while watching the alleged Bronx Bombers expire so supinely in a four- game meltdown against the Tigers that King George would have most certainly branded something like “putrid.” Under such circumstances, Prometheus unbound could not have summoned more fury.

If George were still with us, Joe Girardi might have been canned and Brian Cashman, too, by now. Robinson Cano could be re-thinking his fabled laid-back manner on a slow train to Kansas City. As for the failed A-Rod, he’d have been lucky to escape being placed in the stocks and used as target practice by the derisive multitudes. Such would have been George’s wrath and it would have inspired great theater.

But The Boss is long gone, alas, and in his place we have his smart, thoughtful, and well-mannered No. 2 son, who is also out of Williams College where presumably they no longer teach, as they apparently did in his dad’s day, that you should go bonkers whenever things don’t go your way. Accordingly, Hal Steinbrenner’s reaction to this deep stain on his family’s honor has been amazingly tame and polite, emphasizing prudence over bombast. It is all so very boring!

Meanwhile up in Boston, where the Red Sox are in a five-year skid and reeling from back-to-back disgraces, including their worst season in the last forty six, they continue to revel smugly in the largest salary dump in their history while showing no signs of a willingness to plunge the resulting hefty savings back into the market with renewed abandon. Somewhere out there in the great baseball beyond, Tom Yawkey is moaning in disbelief.

Where has the celebrated feisty Fenway spirit gone? How come the fuzzy-cheeked GM, the cheerful Master Cherington, didn’t bust up a hotel room after the sneaky Blue Jays stole Melky Cabrera right from under his nose, and for relative chump change?

Why was there no angry outburst from the erstwhile Vesuvian CEO when the Jays further swooped in to gobble up the prizes of the Florida Marlins’ mammoth fire sale. As if his team could not use a shortstop, a fire-baller, more foot-speed, and another lefty. Or does not the once so voluble Larry Lucchino recognize the new Evil Empire when it rises from the dust?

Floored by the collapse of the Epstein-Francona era, further stung by the shallowness of players they’d grossly mis-judged, and humiliated by the disastrous Bobby Valentine dalliance, your Red Sox seem to be cowering these days, if not in abject fear then surely in considerable doubt about what to do next.

The contrast to the early years of the John Henry ownership, when they swaggered stride for stride with the big-footers from the Bronx, is striking. Might all this have something to do with the owner’s own reduced circumstances? Loyalists sneer at that suggestion but others continue to wonder.

More shocking, however, is what’s happening in New York where the Yankees’ happy and reckless free-spending, which they’ve so long borne with such a fine blend of pride and disdain, is being utterly renounced.
The post-season has only just begun and the effects are already piling up. They have parted with Rafael Soriano and Nick Swisher, and it was entirely about money. They lost Torii Hunter, whom they most coveted, to the Tigers and it was entirely because they didn’t want to pay the price for more than one year. They are praying that Hiroki Kuroda, whom they desperately need to keep, will re-sign but for no more than a year and for less money than the Dodgers would gladly pay. Fat chance! They passed on the offer to do business with the contract-dumping Marlins. They want no part of the big-bucks Josh Hamilton sweepstakes, although he’s precisely the slugging outfielder they most need and the sort of headline character – his well advertised personal flaws not withstanding – that good-old Daddy George would have fallen for, head over heels.

These are the New York Yankees? I don’t think so.

It is Hal Steinbrenner’s determination to get under the forthcoming new and more onerous salary cap that accounts for this bizarre (by their standards) behavior. The Yankees, who have pretty much funded the luxury-tax slush fund all by themselves over the last decade, are about to make another painful payment – roughly $13 million – for last season’s payroll excesses. Next year, under the new contract, the penalties take a huge leap and it’s become young Prince Hal’s near obsession to avoid paying that hefty price.

Oddly, given how casually he squandered Big Daddy George’s dough all those years, GM Cashman seems almost as obsessed. Methinks Cashman welcomes the chance to prove he’s capable of winning something without having the luxury of an unlimited budget blithely granted by a gonzo spendthrift of an owner. The bad news for the Yankees is that Cashman is probably not capable of that, for it takes real front-office talent to do so. Brian Cashman is no Brian Sabean.

It’s all about the Red Sox and Yankees. It always is. The rest of the characters in the AL East – all of the American League, for that matter – are dutiful foils in the much larger drama of the grudge forever bonding the Athens and Sparta of the Great Northeast. Or at least that’s what we in our considerable vanity like to presume.

So it amounts to veritable culture shock to have them trimming their sails and frantically tacking in new directions. Four years ago at this time, the Yankees were about to lay out $423.5 million for Messrs. Sabathia, Texeira, and Burnett. Two years ago at this time, the Red Sox were about to lavish $308 million on Messrs. Gonzalez, Crawford, and Jenks.

So far this year we have the Red Sox making a big deal out of signing an obscure back-up catcher for $3 million per and reluctantly extending the venerable David Ortiz two more years mainly because they figured they had no choice but also because not doing it could prove a public relations disaster.

As for the Yankees, we find them with no plans for venturing into the marketplace while tenderly hoping to somehow re-sign Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Russell Martin, perhaps Ichiro Suzuki, and the estimable Kuroda to no more than one-year deals at discounted prices, although it’s unlikely they’ll get any bargain from either Kuroda or the catcher, Martin. Meanwhile, they agonize over whether to re-sign Cano let alone Curtis Granderson as both enter their “walk year.” Are these the Yankees you’ve so long known and loved? I don’t think so.
Of course, it’s still very early. The Hot Stove is just warming up and the winter meetings are yet to be held. On the other hand, the market is skimpy and the choices slim.

The notion of the long- dormant Toronto Blue Jays as the new Evil Empire may look a trifle silly at this point, but is it any more far-fetched than the Baltimore Orioles coming out of nowhere to hang stride for stride with the almighty Yankees down to the season’s very last gasp? The Yanks and Sox should most be thankful that the pitching-rich Tampa Rays otherwise remain paupers.

People ask: Which of them, the Red Sox and the Yankees, will find it tougher to re-tool? Which is closer to disaster?  The best answer may be “both”!

Or, as a wise fellow once proclaimed, “The old order changeth”! To which many might gleefully respond, “It’s about bloody time!”