It was a line uttered by a wisecracking former player for the Cleveland Indians. Its genealogy dates back to the mid-1980s.

“The first thing they do when they find out you have talent in Cleveland,” the player said, “is trade you for three guys who don’t.”

That observation was made because of curious personnel decisions that the Indians front office had been making, none of which involved money. Just plain baseball.

I’d like to update that missive.

The first thing teams NOT named the Yankees and Red Sox do when they find out you have talent, is trade you for three guys who don’t make any money.

The Winter Meetings—and this isn’t all that long ago—used to be a gathering of big kids in suits with bubblegum cards rubber-banded together.

“Give me your Freddy Lynn and I’ll give you my Frank Tanana.”

If players were on the “trading block,” it was because of performance or age or maybe an oil-and-water relationship with the manager. The December meetings were thrilling, because you never knew what kinds of mega deals might be spawned from them.

It’s December 1979 and the Tigers make a trade that is classified under “addition by subtraction.” They have a new manager, Sparky Anderson, and after only four months on the job, Sparky already knows who he’d like to cast off.

So base thief—and just plain thief—Ron LeFlore gets shipped to Montreal for a lefthander named Dan Schatzeder. No one with a straight face can argue that it’s a fair deal. LeFlore was a bona fide .300 hitter with some power who could steal 50+ bases while hardly trying.

But it was the hardly trying part that got Sparky’s goat. Never having warmed to LeFlore’s off-the-field behavior, Sparky had GM Jim Campbell send him away, forthwith. Didn’t matter who the Tigers got back in return, really. Which was obvious, when all LeFlore netted the Tigers was Schatzeder, who was OK but nothing terrific.

Sparky continued to have Campbell purge the roster of those not of the manager’s liking, over the next several years. But you can’t argue, because the Tigers became solid contenders by 1981 and won the World Series in 1984.

The point to all my meanderings? Trades were made for just about anything except for what they’re mostly made for now.

It’s the money. The cash. The filthy loot.

The Toronto Blue Jays were the latest to get cheaper, practically giving pitcher Roy Halladay away in a three-team trade involving the Phillies and the Mariners. The Jays got “prospects” in return. Read: they got some guys who don’t cost the GNP of a small country.

It used to be that you made baseball trades because of, well, baseball. You assessed your needs and met up with some other GMs in the lobbies of hotels and trade proposals would be scratched out on the back of a room service menu and then hands were shaked later that day.

Hardly ever was a guy’s contract status the prime consideration. And deals were rarely made in the superstar-for-prospect category.

Now, if you’re a GM, you have to keep your finance guy tethered to you. You don’t scout potential players anymore, you vet them.

Teams today simply cannot afford to keep their best players, at least not all of them. Some, like the Blue Jays and others, can’t really keep any of them, because of their light pocketbooks.

You can suggest “salary cap” all you want, but good luck getting such a proposal through the MLB Players Association. You’ll have better success shoving this morning’s toothpaste back into its tube.

A devoted reader bemoaned to me last week about the Curtis Granderson “get cheap quick” trade.

“The Yankees buy their championships!”

I gently reminded him that that’s what the Red Wings used to do, pre-salary cap. A July press conference announcing that year’s big free agency catch was an annual thing around Detroit.

“That’s true,” he said. “Guess we can’t really complain then.”

No, you can complain. Because I am.

I’m complaining because I’m not sure that most baseball trades aren’t made because of money first and personnel needs second.

How else to explain the cashiering of a pitcher like Halladay, who is a legitimate Cy Young threat every year, for a bunch of unproven kids?

Closer to home, it’s also OK with me if you wring your hands over Justin Verlander. He can be a free agent before the 2012 season, if the Tigers don’t get him signed long term before then. Verlander is making $3.75 million this year, which is today’s drop in the bucket. How much will it take to keep JV in a Tigers uniform? Maybe a cool $100 million over five, six years?

Halladay has Cy Young potential every season; Verlander has no-hitter potential every start.

Baseball teams are like college programs anymore. Just when you get enamored with the players, they’re gone in four years.

A hard look needs to be taken at baseball’s financial setup. It’s not even about the Yankees and the Red Sox. It’s about giving teams more of an opportunity to compete financially and keep the players who draw the most fans, i.e. tickets.

Then we can get back to making trades based on baseball, not contracts.

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