Fall From Grace

A-Wad, A-Fraud, A-Dog, Choke-Rod, Slappy McBluelips …

It’s hard to believe isn’t it?

Just five short years ago this man was considered what was right about baseball. Alex Rodriguez was the best young player in MLB. He was handsome, personable and a slick fielding shortstop who could hit like a first baseman. Indeed at the end of the 2000 season he was coming off three straight seasons of 40+ home runs, the latter on in a park suited for pitching, not hitting.

He wasn’t an all-or-nothing slugger either. He wasn’t one of these guys who blasts 40 home runs while batting .230 and striking out 150 times. He was a career .309 hitter who had once ripped 54 doubles. He had a 40-40 season on his resume, he had a batting title, and in his five full major league seasons he was an All-Star four times.

He was the total package. He was only 25. Fans sat back contentedly and decided to enjoy the ride of what looked to be potentially the career of the greatest major league baseball player ever.

What happened?

No, I don’t buy the whole $252 million reason behind his fall from grace. When Alex Rodriguez hit the free agent market the consensus was he’d probably get a 10-year deal for at least $200 million. It was widely predicted that A-Rod would become baseball’s first $20 million-a-year player.

Perhaps nobody expected his contract to get as high as it did, but let’s be realistic—it was in the ballpark of what most thought it would be.

I’m not a psychologist so I don’t pretend to know what goes on in Rodriguez’s head but like most people I imagine he wants to be liked, plus he’s in a business where being controversial can result in colossal headaches, and he wished to avoid those headaches. Oddly enough, if may be those two qualities that have caused him to become the lightning rod (pun intended) that he currently finds himself.

What’s contributed to the problem is his tendency to contradict himself, which makes him come off as a bit of a phony. When he was with the Mariners he stated:

“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.”

Of course we know he went to Texas coming off a last place finish. In his defense, the Rangers brain trust showed A-Rod the talent coming up through the pipeline, which Rodriguez said played a large factor in his decision. However when he requested a trade from the Rangers he stated: “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.”

However while he was with Texas, Rodriguez commented about his free agency tour “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.” The Mets were obviously interested in A-Rod as well, so why didn’t this deal come off? Some blamed then Mets’ GM Steve Philips, others blamed Rodriguez’s agent Scott Boras, and of course still others blamed Alex Rodriguez.

With comments like these, Rodriguez’s newly signed $252 million contract drew much criticism. H e had made himself a target. He had much to live up to and to his credit he did, averaging 52 HR while batting .305 and copping an MVP award during his three years in Texas.

However that wasn’t good enough for the critics. It was one thing that the Rangers couldn’t escape last place with him in the lineup, but it was another thing that his former team—the Seattle Mariners—won 116 games in their first A-Rod-less season and almost made the postseason the following year with a 91-win season.

People took these two tidbits and came to the conclusion that Rodriguez lacked a championship pedigree. The Rangers were all to willing to spend money (poorly it should be added), but there was A-Rod and his contract in the AL West cellar. The Rangers had fallen and could not get up and as is typical in situations like this, fans and media alike blamed a poor team’s best player for failure.

After three years A-Rod wanted out. He was tired of the losing, and regrettably made the “24 kids” comment. Just three years after saying a big reason he signed to play in Arlington was the talent in the pipeline he came out said he didn’t want to play with that very talent.

First it looked like he was going to Boston, but the MLBPA nixed it due to the money A-Rod was asked to give up. Then the Yankees swooped in. Although a superior shortstop, he agreed to shift to third base so Yankees captain Derek Jeter could stay put. Everybody howled. The rich had gotten richer, the Yankees had bought another World Series and probably several more. The Red Sox were cursed and on and on it went. In 2004, the Rangers started hot and A-Rod started cold and the talk started again. First the Mariners now the Rangers were suddenly better without him and A-Rod was called “the cooler” by some.

Rodriguez bounced back—although he didn’t have a typical A-Rod type year—and the Yankees won the AL East for the seventh straight year. The Yankees looked like world beaters as they defeated the Twins 3-1 and raced out to a 3-0 lead against the Red Sox. A-Rod batted .424/.472/.756 with two HR, six RBIs and 10 runs scored.

Then it all fell apart. The Yankees went into the tank. A-Rod’s bat went cold and there was the incident in the eighth inning of game six where he attempted to slap the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove.

It would be the subject of much derision and internet humor.

Rodriguez put together another MVP season this year, but we already know about his dismal performance in the ALDS.

The New York media and a great many fans have turned on him. Some have suggested he be traded. Despite being one of the best players of all time he is viewed as an overpaid prima-donna choke artist that’s as phony as a three-dollar bill. Make no mistake, he’ll be a target of George Steinbrenner just was Dave Winfield was.

What to do?

To begin with, the Yankees would be nuts to part with Rodriguez. Gold Glove quality third basemen who bat .321/.421/.610 and are capable of launching 50 bombs just don’t grow on trees. If he’s dealt, the Yankees have two jobs: one, find a replacement; two, find the lost production elsewhere in the lineup. You have to remember that to flop in October, you first have to get to October. Let’s look at a worst-case scenario: Even if Rodriguez turns out to be the greatest postseason flop in the history of baseball, he’s proven he’s a guy who can get you there. That has significant value.

The trouble is, he has made himself a target; first the contract, then going to the Yankees. The simple fact of the matter is, if you’re going to be the best paid player in baseball and play for the New York Yankees then you have to be a superstar from Opening Day through the end of October, when you’re dog piling with your teammates on the field after winning the World Series.

Other facts exacerbating Rodriguez’s image is that he’s not a home-grown Yankee; he’s an outsider. Also he’s viewed as insincere. He always says the right thing, however sometimes his actions haven’t lined up with his words, as we’ve outlined earlier. He’s worked so hard at creating an image that people think that’s all he is—an image, not real, something contrived, more pointedly contrived in the mind of his agent [the much despised] Scott Boras.

In the minds of fans, winning solves everything, great stats don’t. Trouble is, a player can have great stats all by himself, but to win requires 24 other players. A-Rod has been a great player in Seattle, Texas, and New York, he has been in the playoffs and he’s been in last place. Did he become a winner, then a loser, only to become a winner again? Obviously not. What has changed has been his teammates. How Rodriguez has comported himself going from Seattle to Texas to New York is what has defined his legacy. Perceptually, A-Rod has gone from a player who helped his team to get to the postseason (Seattle) to a player who couldn’t get his team into the postseason (Texas) to one who has been taken by his team to the post season; a feeling born out by his last eight playoff games and the fact the Yankees won six consecutive division titles five pennants, and four World Series pre-A-Rod.

So what can Alex Rodriguez do? Well he has to remember that his image can’t get any worse. He’s going to have to let his game speak for itself. He’ll never satisfy all his critics but he can avoid adding more. He might consider simply not speaking to the media a la Steve Carlton and Albert Belle, since everything he says will be viewed with suspicion or scorn—just let his bat do the talking. If the Yankees brass decides he’s expendable, he should try to get out of the American League; his non-baseball reputation is slag [in many parts] of Seattle, Texas, Boston and New York. We’ve seen players like Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, and Jim Edmonds thrive in St. Louis—maybe A-Rod could find peace there. He should distance himself from his agent to help dispel that he reads from a script written by Scott Boras.

I do think he needs a change of scenery. He looked like a deer in the headlights during the LDS. He’ll always be under a microscope but maybe he can find one with a less penetrating lens. Until then the less he says and the more he plays like Alex Rodriguez the better off he’ll be.

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