Atlas Slugged

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

Young Alex had troubles in school; he had spoken mostly Spanish from ages four to eight, and his English was rudimentary. Years later, when he was traded from Seattle to Texas, he quipped, "I'm going to have to brush up on my Spanish." Rodriguez, with dual citizenship in the U.S. and Dominican Republic, is a man stranded in a cultural holding pattern.

"Most Latin fans in the New York area don't regard him as Latin like they do Ramirez or Ortiz," says Constantino Viloria, baseball writer for El Diario. "To them, he's an American, and comes off phony when he makes reference to his Latin background."

In a revealing interview a few weeks ago with The Sacramento Bee's Paul Gutierrez, Rodriguez said, "We're kind of lost in the mix a little bit because African Americans are one thing, or being of a different religion or descent. But Latinos who are born and raised here are kind of overlooked in a crazy way."

"A main criticism," Gutierrez said to Rodriguez, "from both mainstream America and the Latino culture, is that you are seen as a sellout. That your public persona is so polished that you're not real."

"Well," Rodriguez replied, "if you have two DUIs and a domestic-violence abuse [arrest] or something, they call you 'real' or whatever."

That was certainly the reaction earlier this year when White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen lambasted Rodriguez for wavering over whether to play for the U.S. or the Dominican team in the World Baseball Classic. "Alex was kissing Latino people's asses," said Guillen, a Venezuelan. "He knew he wasn't going to play for the Dominicans. He's not Dominican. I hate hypocrites. He's full of shit." Guillen, who later made headlines for calling critical sportswriters "fags," later apologized—sort of. The damage was done, though; Rodriguez pulled out of the WBC, saying, "When faced with the decision to choose between my country, the United States of America, and my Dominican heritage, I decided I will not dishonor either." The only worse decision he could have made would have been choosing to play for either.

Being "real" about one's cultural heritage is an issue that this generation of Latino athletes is struggling with. For children of Italian, Irish, Polish, or Jewish immigrants, assimilation into the American mainstream was the goal. "Being real" meant becoming an American. To millions of Latins who found that pathway blocked, there is increasing resentment toward the few who are able to make the transition. Paul Gutierrez makes an interesting analogy: "On the West Coast, you see the same hostility for Oscar De La Hoya from Mexican fans," he says. "He's too rich, he's too good-looking, and he doesn't speak with enough of an accent. They are indignant when he waves the Mexican flag. There's just too much separating him from the average Mexican American." Gutierrez refers to an old line by Mexican American comic George Lopez: "He used to say, 'For every Latino who climbs out of the garbage can, there's five waiting to pull him back in.' "

Probably no athlete in American professional sports has more separating him from the average fan than Alex Rodriguez, beginning with the Contract. When he signed the infamous 10-year, $252 million deal in December 2000, Rodriguez stepped right into the crossfire between the players' union and owners over escalating salaries. For years commissioner Bud Selig had been hammering the press that baseball was suffering from a lack of "competitive balance," though, in fact, by the 2000 season baseball was more competitive than it had ever been. In 2000, for the first time ever, not a single team finished above the .600 mark or below .400 in won-lost percentage. Still, the press bought Selig's line, and Rodriguez became the poster boy for fiscal irresponsibility.


What wasn't mentioned was that the Texas Rangers had, shortly before signing Rodriguez, negotiated a 10-year, $250 million cable agreement that was widely reported at the time as contingent on the team's signing a major Hispanic star. In all likelihood, the Rangers probably couldn't have made the deal without Rodriguez looming on the horizon. No one would say it, but Texas gave Rodriguez the money from the cable contract in expectation of profits on increased ticket and concession sales.

The Contract has been an albatross, creating unfair expectations and absurd standards of performance. Last year—perhaps Rodriguez's best in the majors, with 48 home runs, 130 RBIs, a .321 BA, and 21 stolen bases—there were still grumblings that he didn't play "like a $25-million-a-year man." And of course he didn't. As Baseball Prospectus's Nate Silver puts it, "At those prices, Babe Ruth would have been overpaid."

If the Yankees go on to win it all this year, it's doubtful that anyone's going to complain about A-Rod's salary, at least for a while. Can they get over the hump without Rodriguez rising to the occasion? Perhaps the biggest rap against Rodriguez is "he's not a clutch player. He can't win the big one." Is there any evidence to support this?

Analysts have been arguing about the existence of clutch hitting for decades without being sure whether it exists or how exactly to define it. Bill James, the most influential baseball analyst, concluded after much study that "clutch hitting" as generally defined by fans and sportswriters is an illusion: Given enough chances, a player will hit in so-called clutch situations pretty much what he hits at other times. There are, though, different definitions of "clutch."

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