Thirteen. The unlucky number. A curse, a jinx. A harsh slap in the face of a sport that lives and dies by the numbers, breeds superstition. Don't wash those socks, flip a rally cap, tap your bat on homeplate twice, tighten your batting gloves, don't step on the foul line.
Alex Rodriguez had to take the number. The now highest-paid player in baseball history arrived in New York, a city notorious for melting its athletes and celebrities under the glare of the media spotlight, and already was at a disadvantage. His lifelong number, 3, was long ago retired by the Yankees' great Babe Ruth, in devout homage to the household name who substituted steroids and a bad attitude with hotdogs, beers, and homeruns-- still not fashionable even in today's game.
Two MVP awards later, A-Rod still deals with the turmoil of stark contrasts: three homerun games followed by a Golden Sombrero performance. Just like the number 13 sticking out on the back of a jersey where the interlocking NY and midnight blue pinstripes conjure up all the ghosts of victories, championships, and successes past.
Despite all his successes, record-setting homerun pace, even switching positions from shortstop to third base, A-Rod continues to be a target of many MLB fans, even those who follow the Yankees. Maybe it is jealousy for his talent. Perhaps a sense of betrayal from fans in Seattle or Texas. Whatever the case may be, A-Rod has taken teammate Derek Jeter's previously dubious distinction of being the Yankee most-booed on the road, and sometimes in Yankee Stadium too.
First, the baseball basics--hitting, fielding, baserunning, and the like. Nobody does it better than Alex Rodriguez. There may be someone with a better swing or a better eye. Maybe someone is quicker on the basepaths, gets better jumps, reads a pitcher better from first base. Maybe someone has a quicker glove at the hot corner, or tracks down a bunt better. But this is a fact: not one single player can perform the wide-range of baseball skills at the high level with the thoroughness that A-Rod does. Basically the principle is this: Jose Reyes may be quicker, but his Rocket-Cannon-Arm only equals that of A-Rod's, and A-Rod's power is much more potent. Prince Fielder could hit towering shots himself, but good luck with him running around the bases without two cheeseburgers, a diet coke, and a large side of CPR.
The notion that Rodriguez is not a clutch player is simply wrong. Helped out by the fact that the entire network are homers (not a bad thing in New York), the YES Network--created by the Yankees and broadcasting most Yankee games-- determined that during many points last season, A-Rod was either the best, or in the top five in categories like hits in the 7th-9th innings, game winning hits/homeruns, hits with RISP and two outs... and the like. Alright, I'll buy for a second maybe Alex Rodriguez isn't the best postseason hitter in the playoffs with the Yankees so far. But consider this:
A) The entire Yankee lineup has hit badly enough in the playoffs over the past six or seven years to make Jim Mora proclaim, "We couldn't do didley-poo offensively."
B) The quality of starters in the AL East/AL in general, especially in the playoffs where ONLY the good pitchers start, is a tough obstacle. Santana, Schilling, Zito, Beckett, Sabbathia at the top of their games.
With the excuses, this isn't a teary-eyed defense of A-Rod that reminds you of "LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!!!" and gets me on YouTube where the viewers won't know if I'm a man or a woman. But if wondering about the playoffs, A-Rod basically helped put the Yankees in the position to [i]have[/i] a postseason last year at a time where many of their offensive contributors faced down years or injuries (Jeter, Matsui, Cano midway through the season, Giambi, Cabrera, Damon, Mientkewicz).
And then there is the slumping. Just like the number 13 stands at homeplate in Yankee Stadium with the luck of the Yankee Greats oddly at his back, A-Rod has combined MVP seasons with ridiculous slumps. It has nothing to do with his abilities on the field physically, but everything to do with his attitude. A-Rod is a competitor to a fault. In the playoffs against the Boston Red Sox, A-Rod's frustration led him to swat the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove as he ran towards first base. He wasn't trying to cheat. He didn't have anything against Arroyo. He was just pissed off he hit a groundball and wanted to do everything in his power to get to first base. Is it bush league? Maybe. But bad performances literally drive him to inspect every aspect of his game. He tweaks his stance, adjusts his swing, takes hours of extra batting practice. A-Rod literally gained 20 pounds two years ago because he thought corner infielders were "supposed to be a bit on the bigger side" to the point where it made his swing slower, range narrower, and batting average lower.
He would pout after bad games, wonder "what is 'wrong' with my game," rather than move on. All fans and analysts know it: all players go through slumps. A-Rod focused so much on "getting out of the slump," rather than on the positives--hitting the ball, stealing a base, making good contact.
A-Rod once did all of the things coaches wind up getting into trouble with themselves. Teach teach teach, and think about your lessons, but in the end, the more you actually think about doing something, the worse you are. It's supposed to occur naturally, a reflex that these incredible athletes all share. It's the reason why Joe DiMaggio was a prolific hitter but an awful coach. He just couldn't understand why people couldn't just sit in the batters box and hit the ball all over the place.
Take a bit of A-Rod's naivety in its context. He did all of that ridiculousness with the intention of getting better. Losing burns his ass. Hearing boos, he can't grin with that million-dollar grin that Jeter can and still poke a base hit the opposite way. It gets to him. Eats him alive. Drives him to get better.
And it's that last fact that should be scary.
Last year's season saw A-Rod eclipse the 500 homerun mark at an age younger than any player in history. When everyone talked about his hitting, A-Rod would steal a base (24 out of 28 tries, for an 85.7 percent success rate) late in a game to get into scoring position, helping the Yankees to win (143 runs scored, first in the AL, personal career season-record). He won his third MVP award of his career. And even with credentials that already would put him in Cooperstown amongst the best ever, A-Rod is still learning. Last season taught him to relax about the game, to smile... to just, not think, and become a better player. To purely compete, and win as an end result, not a direct route.
Maybe 13 isn't as unlucky as we all thought.