The notion of Alex Rodriguez as an over-priced flop has been the single largest media story around the Yankees in years. Rodriguez does not go 5-5 in playoff games like Derek Jeter--he hasn't done much of anything substantial in his past two-and-a-half playoff series. Forget about what he has done in the past--his lifetime post-season numbers are far from embarassing--New York is a what-have-you-done-for-us-lately town. I hear Yankee fans everywhere hating on A Rod, and the papers fuel the flames. The back page of the Daily News today shows a close shot of A Rod after a strike out. He is looking down, a sullen expression on his face, as he lifts the helmet off his head in frustration. The headline reads "Awol." The New York tabloids relish humiliating Rodriguez when he does not play well, especially in the playoffs.
Even far-minded critics like my man Jake Luft are harping on Rodriguez's failure, which grows more glaring with each mediore game. Buster Olney has a great blog entry on the subject today over at ESPN. A Rod hit the ball well in Game One, but only had one hit to show for it. He whiffed three times in Game Two. The first and lasat K you have to give to Verlander and Zumaya, the other two at-bats are on Rodriguez.
But New York's obsession with hating Rodiriguez says more about Nee Yorkers themselves, and the nature of the tabloid competition here, than it necessarily does about Rodriguez himself. (Just like ovation Torii Hunter got from Twins' fans after mis-playing a ball into an inside-the-park home run said something about Minniesota fans. I know Hunter is different to them than A Rod is to Yankee fans, I'm just saying. ) Not that A Rod doesn't contribute to the matter but the resentment that people express says more about what they demand from the highest-paid player: nothing short of being the absolute best in every way. They feel entitled to take the guy down if he doesn't match their expectations.
It's not that Yankee fans don't want him to do well. They do want to see him succeed. He got a bonafide ovation as he walked to the plate in his first at bat of the series. But when he fails the fans turn on him quickly and without mercy. He reminds us of our own failures, our own inability to meet certain "clutch" situations all the time in our own lives. Not only that, he confirms our worst fears about ourselves--that we won't do well. Watch a Rodriguez at-bat with a group of Yankee fans and most of them expect him to fail, and go so far as to root against him. It's a weird kind of maschochistic thing, I don't get it.
I heard two construction workers talking about the Yanks in the local deli this morning and their entire riff on A Rod was what a bum he was for making all that money. "If you or I performed like that in our jobs, Frankie, we'd be out of jobs, am I right?"
"And then he sits there and takes pitches. How do you take pitches."
"They teach you in little league you gotta swing the bat, right?"
"I can't believe a guy gets paid all that money to leave the bat on his shoulder."
And so forth. You've heard it all. It's not as if Rodriguez has not have some big hits as a Yankee--he has. But he has to have them in the playoffs. Now. He's the only star player in baseball whose entire season is judged almost exclusively by how he does in the playoffs. 120 RBI? Should have been 148. Get bent. What have you done for me lately?
It is a very real media story and while we're all sick of it but it could get the guy run out of town if he fails and the team bows out early. That would be a shame because headcase or not, after three years in New York, Rodriguez is probably the best third baseman in Yankee history, and that's pretty awesome. He's not Nettles with the glove by a long stretch, but he's a much better hitter. Better base runner, better player. But a bigger mystery. When the game looks hard for a player, when he's a scrappy guy like Wally Backman or David Eckstein, fans identify them with and give them a pass. It's the Wayne Cherbet syndrome, you know what I mean? The game is hard for A Rod too, even though he's supremely gifted. It's just difficult in a different way, a way people can't relate to or identify with. They just see that he's good looking and very rich and he's strikes out three times in a playoff game.
But now it's time for Mr. Rodriguez to meet our old pal, the Gambler Kenny Rogers. If you don't get at least two hits tonight, it's only gunna get worse tomorrow, kid. So as Don Corelone said to Johnny Fontaine, "You can act like a MAN! (slap) What's the matter with you?" Go get 'em, bro, leave it all out on the field and kick some ass. Remember, the Gambler is a bigger headcase than you. Doubles in the gap, dude, doubles in the gap. The story won't go away until you come through. Make it happen.