Tuesday, June 20, 2006

They Never Boo A Bum

Alex Rodriguez is a stiff. Everyone knows this.

Yankee fans know. They've taken to jeering Rodriguez with righteous anger every time the New York third baseman makes an out at the Stadium. The more fevered among those fans, the ones worth never venturing east of the Mississippi in order to avoid, say A-Rod is not a "true Yankee." As compared to Oscar Gamble, one assumes.

The legion of Yankee-haters know, too. They greet every A-Rod out with glee. He's what they've spent futile lifetimes wishing all the Yankees were-a paper tiger, a soft player who does more to hurt his team than help it. Red Sox fans, who sang a very different tune when they thought A-Rod would joing their team, are particularly vociferous in this opinion.

There are only two subsets of the baseball world not currently united in disdain for the 2005 American League MVP. Those would be non-Yankee pitchers and statistics.

Just emerging from one of the worst slumps of his career, the aftermath of a food poisoning attack, Rodriguez currently is hitting .285 with 15 homers and 50 RBI. That projects to a full season with around 35 homers and 120-plus RBI. Those figures are slightly below A-Rod's amazing career norms, but they still don't represent a season that'd get a slugger kicked out of Cooperstown. To the extent one considers the current crop of "clutch hitting" stats valid (my view: handle with care), Rodriguez is also within his career norms. So why all the hate for A-Rod?

The easy answer is money. The highest paid player in the game gets the most abuse. Twas ever thus, but Manny Ramirez, the SECOND-highest paid player in the game, is also having a not-quite-as-good-as-usual season so far, and he's getting nowhere near the flak Rodriguez is taking.

The fact based answer is short, simple, and from A-Rod's point of view, sour. Through no fault of his own, he's getting many, many more clutch at bats than before. All of 'em in fact. The 2006 Yankees can't afford Rodriguez to produce at an All-Star or even MVP level. He's got to be better than that for them to win.

The Yankees' pitching remains what it was in 2005-just good enough to get by if one's lineup is producing over 900 runs a year. Their annoally revampled bullpen is as unreliable as ever in innings 6-7-8, and Randy Johnson might have hit the end of the trail.

The Yankee offense remains built on the same principles as it's been for the past decade. Work the count, get a lot of men on base, and sooner or later, someone will fuel a big inning with a clutch hit. It's a sound strategy, or it was until New York's RBI someones began keeling over.

Hidekl Matsui and Gary Sheffield are out for the season with wrist injuries. They produced a combined 57 homers and 239 RBI in 2005, and not even George Steinbrenner is expected Melky Cabrera and Andy Phillips to pick up the slack. That's A-Rod's job, the lion's share of it, anyway.

For openers then, Rodriguez is being counted on for a 50 homer, 175 RBI season AT A MINIMUM by fans famous for their judicious, reasoned expectations. That burden means his every plate appearance with men on base now looks like the game's turning point. Given his inevitable 65 percent failure rate, that translates into a boos for A-Rod.

Now we get to what clinical psychologists would find truly the interesting motives of the current craze for A-Rod bashing-Rodriguez' standing as a symbol. Forever more, irrationally, incorrectly, and inescapably, A-Rod will represent what depending on one's symapathies was either the most humiliating or glorious event in Yankee history-the 2004 American League championship series. The Yanks traded for Rodriguez to keep the Red Sox at bay, then became the first team to kick away a 3 games to none lead in baseball history. Talk about cause and effect in action!

As anyone without guacamole where their frontal lobes should be recognizes, blaming a team's biggest star for its failures is fallacious-no, make that dumber than a picket fence. As a fan of the 1964 Phillies, the team the '04 Yanks got off the hook, and thanks fellas, I learned at an early age that any historic triumph or failure in a team sport is a true group effort. If EVERY member of the team contribute, it doesn't happen.

A-Rod went swirling down the bowl in Games 4-7 of that ALCS, but so did all the other Yankee hitters. As I recollect, the entire Boston comeback began when Mariano Rivera, whom even Red Sox know better than to criticize, failed in the clinching save opportunity in Game 4. Does this mean Mo choked? Hardly. He failed, as it is the fate of all athletes to do once in a while when they're needed most.

So don't give me that "A-Rod's not a true Yankee" guff. In terms of true Yankeedom, Rivera's up at the same level as Lou Gehrig. He probably spends much of his time in the Stadium bullpen planning the best spot for his monument.

For outsiders, A-Rod is today's baseball quiz. If you think he's a stiff, you flunk. Write on the blackboard 1000 times, "Good players aren't why teams lose. Not having enough of them is."

For A-Rod, what can I say but "welcome to New York!" You knew the job was dangerous when you took it. The jeers you're getting in the Stadium have everything to do with Yankees fans' love of themselves and almost nothing to do with you.

For solace, Rodriguez should obtain and read the poem whose title I swiped for the title of this piece. It was written over 60 years ago by a sportswriter far better than yours truly, addressed to a player in A-Rod's historic peer group, one whose relationship with the fans was far worse and more tempestuous than the MVP's current struggles with the Yankee faithful.

Grantland Rice wrote the poem as friendly advice to a young Ted Williams.


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