Atlas Slugged

Alex Rodriguez is one of the greatest Yankees ever. And the whole world is on his back?

There have been several indications that this just isn't Alex Rodriguez's year. One came on June 30, the day after he hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the 12th inning to beat the Atlanta Braves 4-3 and awoke to headlines that read "Okay, but Do It Again." Another came on July 2, when he hit a grand slammer to beat the Mets and was verbally abused by catcher Paul Lo Duca for "showing up my pitcher." (Actually, Paul, if anyone got shown up, it was you, not the pitcher; you were the one who called the pitch.) All Rodriguez did was show a little exuberance, which is what many have been asking from him all season long. Some years you can't win even when you win.

And yet another came on July 20 against Toronto, when he hit his 450th career homer, the youngest player in history to reach that mark. He capped it off with a costly error that helped the Yankees lose. These days it almost seems as if there's nothing Alex Rodriguez can do right—or at least nothing he can do so right that he can't take it away by doing something wrong. "His standing," wrote Joel Sherman in the New York Post on June 16, "is lower in New York today than any other point in his three Yankee seasons. None of his good deeds on the field have any sustainability. All that lingers are his mounting malfunctions." Everyone forgot, Sherman pointed out, that before beginning a stretch of hitting .149 with runners in scoring position, Rodriguez had gone through a .749 streak. With A-Rod, it seems, it isn't even a case of what he's done lately but what he did last time up.

In a world in which people are praised according to achievement, Rodriguez would be recognized as the last of the so-called five-tool superstars in the mold of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider, players who can hit for a high average with tremendous power, throw, field, and run. In a fair world, it would be enough that Alex Rodriguez is the greatest all-around player in baseball—which he clearly was before this season. He isn't playing as well this season as he did last, and the decline seems most attributable to a lack of focus. For instance, he's made 22 errors so far, nearly twice as many as in all of 2005, most of them on fairly routine ground balls or standard throws from third base to first. At bat, he has only been hitting about 15 or so points below his career average but looks to be headed for a career high in strikeouts.

In a sane world, Rodriguez, who will reach 500 home runs sooner than any player in the game's history, would be the obvious antidote to the ugly PR mess that Barry Bonds threatens to dump on the game if he approaches Hank Aaron's career record of 755 home runs. Baseball would at least have the consolation of knowing that Rodriguez, about whom there has never been a hint of steroid or any other kind of scandal, would, at the pace he's going, be on track to surpass both Bonds and Aaron by the time he's 40.

In a world that made sense, Alex Rodriguez would be the symbol of Latin ascendance over the game of baseball.

Unfortunately for Alex Rodriguez, this world is none of those. It's the world of New York baseball in 2006, in which the game's best player is subjected to what teammate Mike Mussina calls "lethal booing," where his every at-bat and play in the field is mercilessly scrutinized, and in which the local press and fandom treat him as if he were a member of a hated rival team—while fans of the hated rival team, the Boston Red Sox, boo and curse him hysterically for not playing for their team, a decision in which he had no say in the first place.

When he came to bat in the first game of the Boston massacre series (in which he hit .333 with no home runs but scored or drove in 10 of the Yankees' 49 runs), the Red Sox fans let loose with torrents of abuse, prompting Yankee announcer Michael Kay to quip, "That must make A-Rod feel like it's a home game." "I've never heard anything like it," says Alex Belth of the Bronx Banter website. "There may have been booing for a Yankee player that was more vicious than this, but not in the last 20 years at least."

Veteran sportswriter and Lou Gehrig biographer Ray Robinson has heard something like it. "The torrent of boos that Yankee fans inflicted on Mickey Mantle from about 1958 to 1960 was shocking," recalls Robinson. "What was baffling about it was that Mantle had, by 1959, two Most Valuable Player awards and five World Series rings. I'll say this: Rodriguez has reacted to the booing with a lot more maturity than Mantle did. Mickey led the league in smashed water coolers and batting helmets."

Though the booing of Mantle is now largely forgotten, many old-timers recall it as lasting up to the 1961 season, when Roger Maris became the target of fan abuse, and Mantle, almost overnight, was transformed into a hero. It doesn't look as if there's any Roger Maris in sight to take the heat off Alex Rodriguez.


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