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A-Rod Agonistes (cont.)

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By Tom Verducci

"This is all about honesty," Torre told A-Rod in Seattle. "You can't pretend everything is O.K. when it's not."
Julie Jacobson/AP
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Yet there's still another chapter to be written in the story of his season. He still, God help him, has October.

Torre had been concerned about Rodriguez and his game for weeks before he called him into his office. Effort hadn't been the issue. If anything, he 31-year-old Rodriguez works too hard, crams too many bits of information into his head. He even studies videotape shot from centerfield cameras to see if he can decode patterns in catchers' signal sequences with a runner on second base.

"I can't help that I'm a bright person," he said last month. "I know that's not a great quote to give, but I can't pretend to play dumb and stupid."

What bothered Torre most was Rodriguez's seeming obliviousness to how badly he was playing. In June, for instance, hitting coach Don Mattingly ordered Rodriguez into the cage and sternly lectured him on the flaws in his swing, which Mattingly thought A-Rod had been unwilling to address. "An intervention," Mattingly called it. "He got to a pretty good point with [his swing], but it lasted only a few days and he went right back to where he was."

In the 80 games the Yankees played from June 1 to Aug. 30 -- almost half a season -- Rodriguez hit .257 with 81 strikeouts while committing 13 errors. Tabloids mocked him. Talk radio used him for kindling. "I haven't seen anything like it since I've been here," said reliever Mariano Rivera, in his 12th year as a Yankee, of the rough treatment.

Torre hit .363 with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971 and .289 the following season, giving him a deep understanding of the ebb and flow of performance. With veteran players especially he operates like an old fisherman checking the tide charts, believing that the worst of times only means the best is to come. Rodriguez will hit, he thought, and he kept telling his third baseman exactly that.

Torre's trademark placidity ended, though, when Giambi asked to talk to Torre in Seattle. "Skip," Giambi told Torre, "it's time to stop coddling him."

For all the scorn heaped upon Giambi for his ties to the BALCO steroid scandal, he is a strong clubhouse voice because he plays with a passion that stirs teammates and even opponents. This season, for instance, he reprimanded his former Oakland A's teammate, Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada, for occasionally showing up late to games out of frustration over another losing Baltimore season. "You're better than that," he told Tejada. So Giambi's gripe about Rodriguez sounded an alarm with Torre.

"What Jason said made me realize that I had to go at it a different way," Torre says. "When the rest of the team starts noticing things, you have to get it fixed. That's my job. I like to give individuals what I believe is the room they need, but when I sense that other people are affected, teamwise, I have to find a solution to it."

The players' confidence in Rodriguez was eroding as they sensed that he did not understand how much his on-field struggles were hurting the club. Said one Yankees veteran, "It was always about the numbers in [Seattle and Texas] for him. And that doesn't matter here. Winning is all you're judged on here."

Before Giambi went to Torre, he had scolded Rodriguez after a 13-5 win in Boston on Aug. 19. Irked that Rodriguez left four runners on base in the first three innings against a shaky Josh Beckett, Giambi thought A-Rod needed to be challenged. "We're all rooting for you and we're behind you 100 percent," Giambi recalls telling Rodriguez, "but you've got to get the big hit."

"What do you mean?" was Rodriguez's response, according to Giambi. "I've had five hits in Boston."

"You f------ call those hits?" Giambi said. "You had two f------ dinkers to rightfield and a ball that bounced over the third baseman! Look at how many pitches you missed!

"When you hit three, four or five [in the order], you have to get the big hits, especially if they're going to walk Bobby [Abreu] and me. I'll help you out until you get going. I'll look to drive in runs when they pitch around me, go after that 3-and-1 pitch that might be a ball. But if they're going to walk Bobby and me, you're going to have to be the guy."

(Asked about Giambi's pep talk, Rodriguez said he could not remember what was discussed, though he added, "I'm sure we had a conversation.")

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