For the past eight years, the general consensus among Yankee fans has been to blame, and boo, Alex Rodriguez for anything and everything that goes wrong.
Team not hitting? A-Rod’s fault.
Lost playoff series? A-Rod.
Gas prices too high? War in the Middle East? You get the idea.
Now, with the Yankee offense mired in a subterranean slump, teetering two losses from elimination, and with A-Rod 3-for-25 so far in the postseason, the aging third baseman is feeling the pressure once again from fans and media.
But Rodriguez is not to blame.
First, let’s put A-Rod’s struggles in some context. The 37-year-old was hit in the hand by a Felix Hernandez fastball on July 24th causing him to miss 37 games of action. At the time, Rodriguez was having a respectable, albeit unspectacular, season at the plate, hitting .276/.358/.449.
After returning on September 3rd, he was never quite right, struggling to drive the ball and accumulating just six extra-base hits for a September line of .261/.341/.369. Going into the playoffs, the Yankees were fielding A-Rod at far less than 100%.
3-for-25 is terrible any way you look at it, but consider the performance of some of A-Rod’s younger, uninjured teammates—teammates who are also supposed to be focal points in the Yankee offense. Curtis Granderson…3-for-26. Nick Swisher…4-for-26. Robinson Cano…2-for-32!
Yet A-Rod, in many ways, has been singled out for his poor performance, not only by the fans and media, but by manager Joe Girardi as well. Like his predecessor Joe Torre, who batted the then-31-year-old reigning MVP eighth in Game 4 of the 2006 ALDS, Girardi has begun the practice of pinch hitting for Rodriguez late in games, and even benching him in the decisive Game 5 vs. Baltimore. Raul Ibanez famously rewarded Girardi for that in ALDS game three, but the usual replacement, Eric Chavez, is 0 for 10 this October. Granderson, Swisher and Cano haven’t been benched or pinch hit for.
“But he’s the highest paid player in the game!” the boo bird squawks. “He should be carrying the team.”
The fact that A-Rod is overpaid is not arguable. But as far as we know, he didn’t show up at contract negotiations back in 2007 packing heat. He didn’t force Hank Steinbrenner to bid against himself and offer $275 million guaranteed on a deal that kept him in pinstripes through his 42nd birthday. What was A-Rod supposed to say? “Wow, that’s a lot of money, Hank, you sure you want to go there?”
The Yankee front office misread the market and made a bad decision on A-Rod’s extension. All he did was say “Yes.” Money is no cure for aging, or for broken bones. 10-year contracts for players in their thirties often set the stage for a very uncomfortable, very public decline. Albert Pujols should take notes.
“But he never hits in the playoffs,” is the next caw. It’s true that A-Rod’s career .838 playoff OPS is well below his regular season mark of .945. It’s also true that he’s hit just 13 postseason homers in 272 at bats, and that he’s batted below the Mendoza line in his last three full series’. But let’s not forget 2009, when A-Rod powered the Yankees to the World Series, hitting well over .400 with five home runs and twelve RBI in the American League playoffs, and driving in six more runs in the Fall Classic.
Rodriguez is certainly not the first superstar to struggle in October. Nine-time World Series champ Joe Dimaggio had a playoff OPS of just .760, and Barry Bonds was hitting at a postseason clip of .196 before he finally broke out in historic fashion in 2002.
A-Rod’s role as the scape-centaur for all the Yankees’ failures is nothing new. He’s somehow viewed by many as the main culprit for New York’s 2004 collapse in the ALCS despite the fact that he OPSed a respectable .895 in that series, and the fact that the Yankee bullpen blew two would-be series-clinching leads in the eighth innings of Games 4 and 5. Maybe it was the “slap play” or the long saga that nearly sent A-Rod to Boston before landing him in New York, but, by the end of his first season in pinstripes, the Rodriguez blame game was firmly established.
A-Rod has fallen victim to a new kind of Yankee fan base. The rabid loyalists of the nineties who lived through the Stump Merrill era and who camped outside the old stadium for playoff tickets have been joined by a generation for whom losing in the playoffs is the worst result they’ve witnessed.
Then there’s the legion of lower-bowl corporate types, who are generally more concerned with whether to order the lobster tail or the filet mignon from the Legends Suite lounge than with the actual game. Since A-Rod’s arrival the latter two groups have grown in number and voice and have made his booing a sort of fashion statement.
These fans, armed with ridiculous expectations and a smarmy sense of entitlement, have characterized Rodriguez’s Yankee career as mostly a failure, despite seven straight 30 homer/100 RBI seasons from 2004 through 2010, and two AL MVP awards.
For his part, A-Rod has taken his treatment by the fans mostly in good humor. He’s understood their need for performance, and he’s gone about his business, mostly respectfully and professionally, outside of a few relapses into his chronic foot-in-mouth syndrome. He has an amazing life, whether the fans boo him or cheer him. It's hard to feel bad for a man who earns close to $30 mil a year. Still, he must ask himself, sometimes, “What do these people want from me?”
There are a lot of things not to like about Alex Rodriguez. He’s embarrassingly rich. He thinks highly of himself. He’s shown questionable decision-making skills off the field, and he sometimes says, wears and does things he shouldn’t. But he’s is one of the most supreme talents to ever set foot on a baseball diamond. He works as hard as anyone else in the game, he never jogs out a ground ball, and he’s good with younger players. He’ll very likely end his career as the all-time leader in home runs and RBI. Yankee fans have had the privilege of witnessing A-Rod for a good portion of his prime.
While it’s clear he’s not in it anymore, it’s a shame they can’t appreciate him for what he is and for what he’s done.