Thursday, May 25, 2006

Bob Klapisch: Lightning Rod

The Bergen County Record
May 25, 2006

BOSTON -- The Yankees are all aware of the obsessive tracking of Alex Rodriguez's recent failures in pinstripes, which have turned his 2006 season, if not his Yankee career, into an at-bat by at-bat audition.

It's bad enough that A-Rod's teammates believe they're witnessing a witch hunt, prompting this message to the anti-A-Rod army:
Get real.

"People who care about the Yankees should be thinking about wins or losses, not just Alex, not one guy," Derek Jeter said. "Alex is a great player; there are lot of great players on this team. For some reason in my 10 years here, we've all gotten booed, myself and Mo and Bernie included."

Taking heat is the universal surcharge for getting rich on George Steinbrenner's millions, not to mention the virtual guarantee of making it to the postseason every year.

But nothing seems to make Yankee fans angrier than A-Rod hitting into a critical double play, as he did against the Mets on national TV on Sunday night, or slamming a meaningless home run in the ninth inning against the Red Sox on Monday.

The winds of war have temporarily softened, as the Yankees held off the Sox, 8-6, Wednesday and took 2-of-3 at Fenway. But Rodriguez's Monday blast off Keith Foulke -- No. 439 of his career -- resulted in a tabloid kick in the groin.

"Thanks for Nuthin" is what the Daily News' back page screamed. A-Rod insists he never saw the paper, but nevertheless heard about it from friends. His only response was to smile and say, "I'm used to it."

"I've been dealing with this since I was 15, so it's not like it's anything new," A-Rod said. "You know when it would bother me? If other players, experts like David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez and Mariano Rivera, started telling me I [stunk]. Then I'd start to worry. Otherwise, I let it go."
Rodriguez' logic goes something like this: a year after winning the American League MVP award, he's on his way to another 40-something home run season, another 120 RBI. They can't all be meaningless.

How can anyone who may eventually catch and pass Aaron, Bonds and Ruth be considered a choker, especially if he's already considered the most talented player baseball has ever known?
Rodriguez said, "people who really understand baseball understand" that slumps are part of the game's culture, if not its beauty. You know what they say about the difference between genuine leather and synthetic material: the real stuff is cut, scratched and flawed. It's the perfect product that's fake.

But it's the perception of failure, not necessarily its reality, that dogs Rodriguez. His .258 average against the Red Sox in the Great October Collapse of 2004 was nothing to brag about -- but it was still 58 points higher than Jeter's.

Yet, it's A-Rod, not Jeter, who was publicly flogged for trying to slap the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove in Game 6.

A-Rod did, indeed, look bad in making such a sophomoric attempt. And it's also true that some of the criticism that's heaped upon him is justified.

His .133 average against the Angels in last year's division series only deepened the impression that Rodriguez has a problem with pressure, especially in the playoffs.

That label will cling to Rodriguez like a second skin until the Yankees win a world championship on his watch. Until then, the current drought will be blamed on him, not Jeter or even Gary Sheffield.

That's what happens when you arrive in New York, thinking you're going to piggyback your way to the World Series. Ask Randy Johnson; he's learning the same, harsh lesson about getting what you wish for.

When the plot fails, someone has to pick up the check, and it's not going to be Jeter or Mariano Rivera. It's A-Rod and his millions, Johnson and his strikeouts. Somehow, they've become symbols of the Yankees' hollow pursuit of success, which teammates say is just absurd.

"The thing about Alex is that he believes he should drive in every run, which is unrealistic," Sheffield said. "In a way, he brings it on himself. But the fans who get on him should be thankful they have a player who's that driven. Not many guys care as much as he does."

Reggie Jackson said there are other, hidden qualities about Rodriguez that go unnoticed by his legions of detractors.

"When we have our staff meetings, never once do we ask, 'Is A-Rod available?' He's always in the lineup, always," Jackson said. "The guy never gets sick, never has a swollen finger or a bad knee. He wants to play every day and that's the sign of leadership.

"It was the same thing in my era. Whenever you went to Baltimore, you knew Frank Robinson was waiting for us. The sucker never had a sore throat or anything. Jim Rice, same thing. Never missed a game."

That's not to say the Yankees wouldn't have appreciated a base hit instead of a double-play grounder in the eighth inning at Shea on Sunday night.

And the home run off Foulke in the ninth inning Monday, which only slightly diminished the blowout factor in the 9-5 loss to the Sox, would've been more useful against Curt Schilling when the game was still on the line.

But Rodriguez bristles at the notion that hitting a 400-foot blast off a setup man somehow was an indictment of his character, just because he couldn't solve Schilling -- something which no other Yankee did, either.

"You think it's easy to hit a home run? You think Keith Foulke, someone I respect, wanted to let me hit it out?" A-Rod asked.

He exhaled said, simply, "come on."


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