Slappy Rue Hereby John Brattain
September 23, 2006
So much A-Rod bashing.
Usually when something "jumps the shark" it means that something has outlived either its usefulness or it's relevance.
Not surprisingly Alex Rodriguez's shark-jumping moment—insofar as being a beloved baseball icon—was something completely different. It started during a time of greatness and continued on through the prime years of a first ballot Hall-of-Fame career.
And it happened despite doing everything in his power to be liked.
A-Rod jumped the shark shortly after signing his mega-contract. After stating repeatedly that it "wasn't about the money," Rodriguez did a complete about face in an interview with Esquire Magazine:
"He [Mike Lupica] kills me on national TV ... On The Sports Reporters. I would like to ask that guy, What would you do if you had this guarantee? He's barkin', 'You wanna win? Seattle gave you a winner.' So what? I made a business decision. An economic decision. It was simple." (Italics and bolding mine)
He followed that up with the fateful words that would also come back to haunt him in a way he would've never suspected at the time. It was a stunningly mindless bit of synaptic flatulence when you consider that not only had the Derek Jeter-led Yankees trumped the Rodriguez led Mariners in the ALCS just short months before, but also that Jeter went on to cop World Series MVP honors:
"Jeter's been blessed with great talent around him ... He's never had to lead. He can just go and play and have fun. And he hits second—that's totally different than third and fourth in a lineup. You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie [Williams] and [Pual] O'Neill. You never say, Don't let Derek beat you. He's never your concern."
Between the contract and these comments you begin to see in clearer focus A-Rod's current nightmare.
He said it wasn't about the money—later he said it was precisely that. He has said that Seattle was his first choice—it wasn't. He said he always wanted to be on the Mets—but he couldn't come to terms there. He said he wanted to be remembered as a Texas Ranger—then he wanted out.
While the first statement made him a marked man in Texas, it was those words about Derek Jeter that are the cause of his current malaise.
Here's the perception that Alex Rodriguez is finding himself being viewed with: His defenders point out how good A-Rod has been; how much better his numbers are, how at one time he was a superior shortstop. He was, and is, for the most part all those things.
Jeter has four rings. Flags fly forever. It doesn't matter what Jeter does in the clutch between now and Doomsday because he has those rings. No more proof be needed about Jeter's heart or his pedigree. We're talking about a guy who has never played on a team that failed to reach the post season—ever. Jeter is a legend in The Big Apple and legends don't need [superior] numbers.
A-Rod can point to his stats, Jeter points to the jewelry. There isn't a fan, writer, or star player alive who would take great stats over four rings. Jeter's legend is made. For the rare exception (Ted Williams or Ty Cobb) legends are built in October and not the Baseball Encyclopedia.
What, when and where Jeter hits from here on in is irrelevant as far as comparisons to A-Rod goes. Jeter's reputation is made. He has the rings, he has the clutch moments, the highlight reel plays. He is a lifelong Yankee, born and bred in pinstripes. He is among baseball's best paid players but because he has attained that status with one uniform he will never be viewed a mercenary or an interloper. These things "stand forever in the guide" and anything he does or has done will be viewed through that prism.
What was happening in Rodriguez's career during the decade plus when Derek Jeter was performing on baseball's greatest stage? As we mentioned, everybody heard how he said it wasn't about the money, that Seattle was his first choice, that he always wanted to be a Met (the Yankees' crosstown rivals) and to be remembered as a Texas Ranger only to want to leave. It looked like he wanted to go to Boston (the Yankees' division rival). "The Contract" was keeping the Rangers from contending, "The Contract" is what took him away from the Red Sox and landed him in pinstripes. "The Contract" stayed intact but has yet to play in a World Series, and his most remembered October moment was a supremely embarassing one.
Derek Jeter played on a team that won 114 regular seasons games. Alex Rodriguez departed a team that won 116 [regular season] games after he left.
These things too "stand forever in the guide" and anything A-Rod does or has done will be viewed through that prism. It isn't fair but it is reality.
A-Rod said: "He's never had to lead" about a guy who is captain of a team that has nine consecutive division titles. Now what can "outsider" Alex Rodriguez possibly do to compare with a guy who is about to play in his 11th consecutive post season?
Here's the prism from which many now view Alex Rodriguez: Two MVP's? So what? Two-thousand hits? Big deal. Nine time All-Star? Whoopdee-dingle-doo. Career .305 average, 463 home runs and ten 100 RBI campaigns at age 30? Didn't Alvin Dark once complain about players leading the league in home runs and RBIs and not helping his team win? Despite incredible stats, the number most associated with him is 252.
Here's the prism from which many view Derek Jeter: The Captain, Mr. Intangibles, Mr. Clutch, Count the Rings baby!
Now throw Jeter—the true blue Yankees legend—not being in the corner of someone who was once nicknamed "A-Fraud" into the mix, and what do you have?
The kiss of death.
Still more amazing is that Mets general manager Steve Phillips' concern about Rodriguez has come true; that A-Rod would create a "24+1" environment in the clubhouse.
However, it didn't happen the way he envisioned.
Rodriguez seemed to separate himself from his Texas teammates. He allegedly was calling pitches from shortstop. He made the "24-kids" comment (24+1?); when he left the Rangers there were whispers about how he was "the cooler." There weren't many tears shed in Arlington after he left.
He went to the Yankees to seemingly "seal the deal" because New York lost the Fall Classic after winning a thrilling seven game LCS tilt against the rival Red Sox. The first year of the A-Rodded Bombers featured the greatest choke in baseball history against their greatest rivals.
In 2005, in the minds of many, A-Rod won the MVP—a regular season honor—and folded in the ALDS, and added post season dishonor. When viewed through the "A-Rod prism," it just reinforces all the negatives and negates all the positives.
Coming into this year's postseason, he doesn't just have a monkey on his back—it's an 800 lb. gorilla.
Tom Verducci's intriguing Alex Agoniste column has brought into sharp focus that he has to try to throw off that gorilla without popular support.
Granted, A-Rod has to share his share of the blame, but make no mistake—this isn't all his doing.
Jeter is home grown and is perceived as a player who led his team to four World Series championships. A-Rod is viewed as a mercenary who went to the Yankees in hopes of they taking him to a World title. It appears that nobody is willing to dispute that perception—especially the Captain.
Part of the problem for me in trying to figure things out is that I take what makes it out to the media with a grain of salt large enough to de-ice an interstate.
Writers are human, and sometimes our seamier side—which contain such nasty things as prejudice, jealousy, capriciousness, envy, pride, vindictiveness—filters into our writing and colors our points of view.
Players are human too.
We cannot be 100% certain about what goes on in the Yankees clubhouse. What we do know is that A-Rod has very few allies in the media or the bleachers. His struggles may be overshadowing the team. Most of what I read about A-Rod and the rest of the Yankees is "24+1." They just won their ninth straight division title and the hot topic is Verducci's column.
Something else we do know is that Rodriguez desperately craves to be liked, to be accepted. He tries to be perfect and he's not. He tells the media that he's bright and good-looking (which isn't very bright, and guaranteed to make you look bad), he tries to point out that others make a ton of money too and don't get half the grief, which is just inviting more.
It's like finding yourself in shark-infested water and cutting yourself, hoping that the smell of blood will distract the sharks enough to let you get away.
We can try to assess blame in this whole saga, assigning percentages to A-Rod, the media, the fans, his teammates etc., but that won't accomplish anything positive. The Yankees have a third baseman who can produce monster numbers under the right circumstances—even in October. Up to the fourth game of the 2004 ALCS, Rodriguez was a postseason hitter par excellence. The Bronx Bombers have to do everything in their power to create those circumstances.
Alex Rodriguez needs a haven to escape the negativity of the media and the fans, and that haven should be the New York Yankees organization, from Steinbrenner on down. That's what "team" is all about. He needs it—now. If the Yankees don't win the World Series and Rodriguez struggles again, the Yankees can expect this tempest to grow into a full Category 5 storm next year, and they'll have to go through all this again. A World Series title probably won't end this, but it'll quiet it down a bit. It's true that a man who makes $25 million a year should be able to succeed under these conditions, but it's equally true that anybody investing $25 million a year in someone should make sure that the correct environment exists to enable that investment to pay off.
It's still a team game.
And Alex Rodriguez is part of a team.
References and Resources
I realize the Yankees are paying just $16 million for A-Rod's services but the point stands nevertheless.
Our good friend, and THT stalwart, John Brattain passed away on March 24, 2009. John was a prolific writer, whose work can also be read at Sympatico/MSN Sports and Baseball Digest Daily. John's work was also featured at USA Today, MLBtalk, ESPN Insider, Baseball Prospectus, The Baseball Analysts and The Baseball Journals. Never afraid to express himself in any medium, he was also a frequent radio speaker.