Atlas Slugged


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.

What accounts for this brutal treatment of the league’s reigning MVP? There seems to be no simple explanation. “He inspires an incredible amount of jealousy,” says Steven Goldman, columnist for, “more than any player
I’ve ever seen. He’s movie-star good-looking, fabulously wealthy, and probably the most talented player of our time. He plays hard and clean, and he’s polite to everyone. And a lot of people seem to hate him for it.”

The strange thing about the fury directed toward Alex Rodriguez is that few of the reasons given for it hold water. Let’s consider those heard most often on the radio and the Internet:

“The fans are taking their frustrations with the team out on A-Rod.” What frustrations? The Yankees have been in the playoffs for the first two years he’s been with the team; in both seasons, the Yankees lost because of bad pitching, with staffs that finished above the league ERA average. Rodriguez can do many things on a baseball field, but he can’t pitch.

This season, contrary to the press, the Yankees have actually played quite well and shown poise in the face of adversity under pressure. If Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, and Carl Pavano had not been out with injuries, or if the Yankees simply hadn’t lost Robbie Cano, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Johnny Damon for so long, the Yankees would probably be in first by about 12 games and have the best record in baseball. You’d think Yankee fans would be applauding their team’s show of heart instead of looking for someone to blame. As one fan wrote in to Bronx Banter, “I swear, some Yankees fans think a perfect day is when the Yankees win and A-Rod goes 0-4 with two errors.”

“He isn’t a product of the Yankee system.” Neither were Babe Ruth or Reggie Jackson.

“He doesn’t have a World Series ring.” Don Mattingly, one of the best-loved players in Yankee history, never played in the World Series, and as Ray Robinson points out, Mantle was booed after winning five rings.

It’s hard to think of a superstar in recent years who gets so little respect from his own press, in which he has been referred to, at various times, as Nay-Rod, Pay-Rod, and A-Fraud. Alex Rodriguez, born in New York, perhaps the greatest all-around player of his generation, the greatest Latin ballplayer of all time, and the fifth-greatest player in Yankee history after Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and Joe DiMaggio—in most areas of personal accomplishment he is either ahead of or close to DiMaggio—is practically without support in his hometown.

But as fans are beginning to realize, the New York press, infiltrated by Boston homies such as the Daily News‘ Mike Lupica and ESPN’s Peter Gammons, is ridiculously Red Sox–centric. The New York Times, which owns a minority stake in the Red Sox, leads the pack. As Eric Wolff asked in New York magazine (January 9), “Has the Times Gone Red Sox Crazy?” From October 12, 2005, the first day of the Yankees’ off-season, to the first week in January, there were 105 articles mentioning the Red Sox, two more than the Yankees and 26 more than the Mets. “The paper’s Boston coverage can be absurd,” Wolff wrote. “Witness its infamous October 2003 pro-Sox editorial”—endorsing the Red Sox for the World Series over the Yankees—”What’s going on? Too many Harvard grads on 43rd Street?”

The eye-opener was how little support A-Rod got last year for his second MVP award, with many local writers clamoring for the Red Sox’s David Ortiz. A-Rod was equal or superior to Ortiz in all hitting stats, and in the field and on the bases he made contributions that Ortiz, a DH and a liability anywhere but in the batter’s box, couldn’t begin to match. Yet after the award was announced, the Daily News headlined “More Bling, but No Ring,” while the New York Post said “MVP But . . . Lack of Rings Tarnishes A-Rod’s Second AL Trophy.” That’s the way it goes for Rodriguez; if his team doesn’t win it all, his awards are “tarnished.”

More puzzling, at least to English-speaking fans, is why Latin fans, even A-Rod’s fellow Dominicans, don’t regard him as one of their own. Kevin Baker, novelist and baseball fan, remembers being at a Yankees–Red Sox game two seasons ago in New York and talking to a Dominican family of four who were all wearing Red Sox shirts. Why, Baker asked them, weren’t they rooting for the Yankees? “We love Manny!”—Ramirez—they replied. “He grew up near us in Washington Heights.” Then why don’t you root for the Yankees? Baker asked, since Rodriguez was born there. “They were dumbfounded,” Baker says. “They didn’t know A-Rod was born in the Heights.”

Two years ago, when I talked to Rodriguez for Interview magazine, he was overjoyed about the prospect of playing in what he called “my town.” “I’m one of the few players,” he told me, “who feels at home with both sides”—i.e., with both English- and Spanish-speaking fan bases. It now appears that the opposite may be true: He may be one of the few players uncomfortable with both sides. Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez was born on July 27, 1975, in New York of Dominican parents; when he was four, the family returned to Santo Domingo. When Papa Rodriguez’s job didn’t work out, they moved to Miami; shortly after, Alex’s father left, alone, for New York. “I can count on one hand,” he told sportswriter Tim Wendel, “the times I’ve talked to my father by phone since he left. I still don’t understand how a parent can abandon a family.” He has often hinted that his family’s being deserted is one of the factors that drove him to therapy, making him perhaps the most prominent professional athlete to acknowledge that he sought help with his mental health. This apparently has not sat well with a number of fans on talk radio and online who want their superstars to project a more macho image and who regard anyone who admits to seeing a shrink as something of a whiner.

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.”

Some people like to single out “late and close”: the seventh inning or later and three runs or closer. By this definition, there is a wide gap between Rodriguez and David Ortiz. From 2002 through 2005 in those situations, Rodriguez has hit .276 with an on-base average of .392 and a slugging average of .553, quite respectable numbers. Still, they’re not in the same league with Ortiz, who is .326, .408, and .724, though in fact Rodriguez’s clutch numbers are much better than the other Red Sox slugger he is often compared with, Manny Ramirez, who was .270, .387, and .423.

Many others look to postseason games as a yardstick for clutch performance, which is a handy stick with which to bop A-Rod, who hit just .133 in the five games of last year’s division series against the Anaheim Angels. Real fans, however, know that judging a player by a handful of postseason games is arbitrary and unfair. If Willie Mays’s reputation were dependent on his postseason play, it would come down several notches. In 25 games, Mays batted 89 times with one home run and a BA of .247 and an OBP of only .337. Was Mays not a “clutch” player?

Actually, Rodriguez’s postseason numbers aren’t bad. He has appeared in 31 games, batted 118 times with six home runs for a .305 batting average and .393 on-base percentage. This puts him at least in a class with several all-time greats, including Joe DiMaggio (eight home runs, .271 BA, .338 OBP in 51 games), Reggie Jackson (18 homers, .278, .358 in 77 games), and Barry Bonds (nine home runs, .245, and .433 in 48 games—eight of Bonds’s home runs came in the 2002 postseason, when he was alleged to have been pumped with performance-enhancing drugs).

There’s really nothing wrong with A-Rod’s postseason numbers; he has simply played fewer games than many others. Ortiz, for instance, has two more home runs than Rodriguez but has played in seven more games. A-Rod has slight edges over him in BA (.305—exactly his career average, thank you, Bill James—to Ortiz’s .301) and OBP (.393 to .383). A few weeks ago, Dave Justice raised eyebrows on YES by knocking Rodriguez’s ability to hit in the clutch. Just shows what a couple of World Series rings can do for a guy’s ego: Justice played in 112 postseason games, with a .224 BA and a .335 OBP.

In a carefully thought-out chapter to the recent book Baseball Between the Numbers, Nate Silver examines the evidence for clutch hitting in detail and concludes that “producing wins at the plate is about 70 percent a matter of overall hitting ability, 28 percent dumb luck, and perhaps 2 percent clutch or situational hitting skill.” Clutch hitting probably exists, Silver thinks, but its impact on winning baseball games is marginal at best. “Fans tend to overrate clutch hitting,” Silver told me, “because of the drama involved in a big ninth-inning hit. A three-run homer in the first inning can be just as important, but it isn’t as memorable.” True, but if Rodriguez starts hitting three-run homers in the first inning of playoff games, fans aren’t going to complain they came too early in the game.

Considering all the hot-button issues Alex Rodriguez touches, they should call him “L-Rod,” as in Lightning Rod. His recent road-trip disaster—one for 20 with 14 strikeouts and three consecutive at-bats without so much as a foul ball (“K-Rod,” the Daily News headline gloated)—nearly drew more ink than the fact that the Yankees lost four of those six games. But if he plays well the rest of the way, he could still put the run on bilingual boobirds.

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