It was the best of timing; it was the worst of timing.
It was the best of timing: He was a 24-year-old slick fielding shortstop coming off his third consecutive 40+ HR season and had batted .316/.420/.606 in 2000—on top of all this he had surpassed the century mark in runs scored, RBI and walks. He had accomplished this playing half his games in a park that favored pitchers, and his team had played for the AL pennant. Both the national economy and the baseball economy were booming. His agent’s name was Scott Boras.
And he was a free agent.
Fortuitous circumstances indeed.
It was better than winning the lottery. Most lottery winners don’t end up with a jackpot in excess of a quarter billion dollars.
Alex Rodriguez signed with a team that had won three division titles in the last four years. Granted, the Texas Rangers finished last in 2000, but the three AL West championships that preceded it would make it easy to write off the season in the cellar as an off year—a fluke. Surely adding a talent of A-Rod’s magnitude was all that was needed to right the ship; all the more so when you consider that while strengthening his new club, he had weakened his old squad, which happened to be the main rival of his new team.
Truly the best of timing.
It was the worst of timing: As it turned out, the Rangers’ poor finish in 2000 wasn’t a fluke. They three-peated in the AL West basement just as they had when they copped the division title. Further, the Mariners reloaded and would win a stunning 116 games in 2001, outdistancing the field by 14 games and the Rangers by a whopping 43 games. Although the Mariners didn’t make the playoffs in 2002, they did win 91 and finished 21 games ahead of Texas. It became obvious that in 2000 that the Rangers needed to rebuild—not reload.
Truly the worst of timing.
It was the best of timing: Tiring of last place finishes A-Rod wanted out. After a brief flirtation with the Red Sox failed, the New York Yankees, a team that had made it to the post season each of the last nine seasons making off with six pennants and a quartet of World Series championships, had a problem. Their third baseman, Aaron Boone—who had hit a game-seven, pennant-winning, extra-inning HR off Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield the previous October—tore up his knee playing basketball.
They had a hole to fill.
The Yankees knew that Rodriguez was available and that the Red Sox were interested too. The Yankees were willing to take the contract as is (although Texas threw in a chunk of cash when all was said and done), while the MLBPA nixed the money A-Rod was asked to give up to go to the Red Sox. The only thing separating Rodriguez from pinstripes was a willingness to switch to third base.
It couldn’t be more perfect. The Yankees were guaranteed to win several World Series with A-Rod on board while Rodriguez got the best of both worlds: the biggest contract in baseball history remained intact, and now he was a member of a team that had become synonymous with late October baseball.
Adding to this perfect mix were the acquisitions of Gary Sheffield, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, and later Randy Johnson.
How could they possibly miss?
It was the worst of times: Jason Giambi got sick—possibly a side effect of his steroids usage, Kevin Brown got old, Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras apparently couldn’t handle New York. Despite these difficulties they still vied for the pennant, and despite being red hot through the divisional series and the initial games of the LCS, Rodriguez’s bat went cold. On top of this he had a moment that might go down in history the same way as “Merkle’s Boner” did when he slapped the ball out of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s glove and was called out, costing Derek Jeter a base in the process.
The Yankees became the first team to blow a 3-0 lead in a playoff series, and Rodriguez’s slap of Arroyo’s glove became the picture most frequently associated with the greatest choke in baseball history.
He rebounded in 2005, copping the MVP while hitting .293/.418/.520 close and late, .438/.571/.750 with the bases loaded, and .302/.429/.512 with men in scoring position and two out.
However, come October that year, his bat went south again, and this year the Yankees are in second place with both A-Rod’s bat and glove seeming to be off kilter. It might well appear that Rodriguez joined what arguably could be called the greatest dynasty of the free agent era just as they got to the end of their success cycle.
On top of this, the fruits of the Texas Rangers rebuilding efforts started to manifest themselves. The Rangers surged briefly into contention in 2005 before the All Star Break, and are just 1.5 games out of first in the AL West in 2006.
Bad timing indeed.
You’d think the story about a player who might end up on the short-list of all-time greats, playing for a team that’s known for memorable October moments, and in the possession of the greatest contract in sports history would automatically have a happy ending.
However for all that there’s not a stadium in Major League Baseball where he can go to escape the boo-birds.
How could this have happened? Derek Jeter has a huge contract, but he escapes the public’s wrath. Then again, he’s perceived as both loyal and a winner—four World Series rings will do that. Manny Ramirez also possesses a gargantuan contract and changed teams to obtain his money, but for the most part Red Sox fans seem to like him and he rarely hears excessive booing on the road. Shoot, Barry Bonds makes massive coin and is Public Enemy #1, but at least gets to play half his games in front of a friendly audience.
Some feel part of the backlash might be due to the ‘Boras factor’—the fact that among agents, Scott Boras is perceived by many to be the epitome of everything that is wrong with professional sports. Yet the much respected Bernie Williams, Greg Maddux, and Jason Varitek are also members of Boras’ stable.
Of more recent vintage is the perception that Rodriguez isn’t a big-game player. Granted he’s had some recent struggles, but it hasn’t always been like that. The three seasons preceding 2006 saw these situational numbers for A-Rod:
Bases Loaded .371/.422/.657 Close and Late .276/.392/.553 Men on, two out .280/.381/.553 Runners On .292/.387/.542 Scoring Position .273/.381/.482 Scoring Pos./two out .270/.392/.495
So why the vitriol?
If I had to hazard a guess, it would be that in his desperation to be liked in all quarters, he’ll say whatever he thinks people want to hear, but his actions have often contradicted his words.
He said to the Seattle press: “I’ve always said to everybody that Seattle is my first choice” and, “But if you tell me, am I willing to take `X’ amount less and win a championship, absolutely. I would defer money, I would take a lot less money. Trust me, there’s no one that wants a ring in a worse way than I do.”
Later he said to the New York media “I wanted to be a Met. I’ve always wanted to be a Met, I’ve been a Met fan since I was a kid. And I would’ve played there for less money and less years and they know that.”
However at his introductory press conference in Texas he commented, “I want to be remembered as a Texas Ranger,” and stating that it was the talent in the Rangers’ minor league pipeline that was a big factor in his decision, yet would later complain when the Rangers started playing that very talent: “I would have never gone to Texas if they had told me, ‘Alex, it’s going to be you and 24 kids.’ Never. For no amount of money.”
His derisive ‘A-Fraud’ nickname has started to encompass his on-field persona now too. Yes, the critics say, he puts up great numbers, but he isn’t helping the Yankees win games. He tried to be Mr. Perfect, a man without a flaw, and people can’t relate to that. Barry Bonds is being nasty, well that’s “Barry being Barry.” Manny Ramirez is being flaky, well that’s just “Manny being Manny.” They’re imperfect, and being what they are, people can relate to that. However A-Rod is never A-Rod. A-Rod is the master of spin. A-Rod will say all the “right things.”
He comes across as a phony, and people hate that. Toss in the perception that his stats are “fake” (read: meaningless) too, and you’re left without anything to like or cheer about him.
For you poor saps who needlessly subject themselves to reading my drivel week after week (Ed. Note: Don’t forget those of us who have to edit it!), I need not make this caveat, however to you first time readers I would like to point out the following: I am a Blue Jays fan. From that perspective nothing would make me happier than the New York media and Yankee fans getting on A-Rod’s case to the point where he ends up soiling himself, assuming the fetal position in the left field corner of Yankee stadium, sucking his thumb, and blubbering like David Samson after a stadium vote.
After all, A-Rod’s play goes south, the Yankees suffer, and the Blue Jays have the opportunity to take advantage.
Having said that, I cannot fathom the mindset of getting on Alex Rodriguez by the Bronx boo-birds. I think back to Steve Bartman. Steve Bartman did something that might have cost the Cubs—the team he roots for—from winning the NL pennant. Many fans say that, in Bartman’s position, they would have had the presence of mind not to interfere with the ball. A ‘true fan’ doesn’t do something that negatively affects his team’s chances of winning.
Some of these ‘true fans’ [of the Yankees], however, that delight on getting on A-Rod’s case are doing what Bartman did to Moises Alou—making it more difficult for Rodriguez to do his job successfully. Every error and out causes more abuse to rain upon him, which in turn appears to cause him to tighten up further and make him play worse.
It becomes a vicious circle.
Do Yankee fans have a right to get on A-Rod’s case? Absolutely. The question that has to be asked is: is the exercise of that right creating the optimal circumstances for Rodriguez, and by logical extension, the Yankees to succeed? A-Rod has demonstrated that negative feedback has a detrimental effect on his play.
Some may say, “He has to be man enough to take it.”
So which is more important to you: the Yankees winning and making the post season, or making life miserable for a man who had the audacity to take a proffered quarter billion dollars?
Steve Bartman acted once—on the spur of the moment without knowing the consequences of his act. Certain Yankee fans have witnessed the negative impact the jeering is having on Rodriguez’s play, which again by logical extension, negatively affects the Yankees, yet these fans continue to jeer.
One was a brain cramp, the other is premeditated.
Which is worse?
I think Steve Goldman put it best in his excellent Pinstriped Bible:
Everyone is different. Every man’s story is new. Alex Rodríguez is a great player. If he can’t bear up under relentless criticism – and we don’t know that to be the case-then fans who are actually interested in seeing the Yankees win should probably find diminish their contribution to that criticism. So many fans live vicariously, wishing they could do something to influence the outcome of the season. Here’s your chance. Alternatively, you can tear a man down for some fanciful definition of manhood just because you can, just because you feel anonymity gives you the right to do so.
The Yankees are far better off with a struggling Alex Rodriguez than they are with most other third sackers in AL. In the NL this year, Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, and Scott Rolen are enjoying better seasons. Even if A-Rod never gets another postseason hit, he’s proven that he’ll help get you to October and there isn’t a team in baseball that would discount the value that brings to a team. In October, anything can happen, and believe it or not before the 2004 ALCS, Rodriguez was a .361/.413/.611 (72 AB) hitter in post-season play.
Alex Rodriguez has plenty of baseball and big plays left in the tank. Do folks want him to have them with the Yankees or against them? Chances are good that a Yankees win/A-Rod loses scenario is unlikely, so some of the Yankees fan base have to decide which one they want more.