"He's guessing," Giambi said, "and he's doing a bad job of it, which is inevitable when you guess as often as he guesses. He's squeezing the f------ sawdust out of the bat."
Said another teammate, "I think he ought to get his eyes checked. I'm not kidding. I don't think he's seeing the ball."
And another: "I honestly think he might be afraid of the ball."
Every clubhouse has a unique current, like that of a river, with a temperature and a pace that can be felt only by wading into it. The A's, taking their cue from general manager Billy Beane's shorts and flip-flops, play as if it's Friday happy hour. The Atlanta Braves, eschewing the clubhouse stereo, have a self-assured, nine-to-five approach. The Yankees, the last baseball bastion in which beards and individualism are verboten, foster a Prussian efficiency.
The old guard with connections to New York's four championship seasons from 1996 to 2000 -- Torre, Rivera, shortstop Derek Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada and outfielder Bernie Williams -- almost never talks about individual numbers because stats are incidental to the team's mission: winning the World Series. Those title teams talked about "passing the baton" -- taking a walk or moving a runner over out of confidence in and respect for the next hitter. Reliance on one another is what mattered. That is still the covenant of the Yankees, though perhaps not as sublimely executed.
One day last month, wading into that current, I asked Rodriguez whom he has relied on most during his difficult summer. He first mentioned Cynthia.
But to whom has he turned on this Yankees team?
He looked down and thought in silence. Ten seconds passed.
Finally he said, "Rob Thomson." Thomson is the team's special-assignment coach who throws batting practice.
"And Mo. Mariano is the best. Those three."
And that was it.
As the conscience and soul of the team, Rivera is everyone's touchstone. When asked if he had counseled Rodriguez this summer, Rivera said, "He has my support, [but] he has to figure it out on his own. Sometimes you try so hard to do things so right that you do them all wrong. It's like moving in quicksand. The more you move, the more you sink."
As revered as Rivera is, though, no one is more important to the Yankees' clubhouse culture than the captain, the 32-year-old Jeter. As younger players Rodriguez and Jeter enjoyed a close friendship, often staying with each other when the Yankees faced the Mariners. But they have had little personal connection since 2001, when Rodriguez referred to Jeter as a number-two hitter in an Esquire story, code for a complementary player. Giambi referred last month to "the heat that exists between them."
Jeter, who publicly supported Giambi when he was being blasted for his BALCO involvement, has refused to throw any life preservers to Rodriguez this summer. I asked Jeter why he hasn't told the critics to ease up on A-Rod. "My job as a player is not to tell the fans what to do," he said. "My job is not to tell the media what to write about. They're going to do what they want. They should just let it go. How many times can you ask the same questions?"
Had he ever seen such persistent criticism? "Knobby," he said, referring to error-prone former second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. "[Roger] Clemens for a whole year. Tino [Martinez]."
Has A-Rod's treatment been worse?
"I don't know," Jeter said. "I don't think about that. I'm just concerned with doing what we can to win."
Here is the way Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson, a Yankees special adviser and a member of the franchise's mythological pinstriped society, explained the yin and yang of the Jeter-Rodriguez relationship: "Alex is too concerned with wanting people to like him. Derek knows he can control only things within the area code DJ."
Rodriguez must be deferential to Jeter because birth order within the Yankees' family is a powerful influence. Rodriguez will never be as popular as Jeter with New York fans, will never catch him in rings or Yankees legacy, in the same way the younger brother never will be the oldest, no matter how many birthdays pass.
When I asked Rodriguez about his relationship with Jeter this year, he replied, "People always want to look at someone's silence and equate that with a negative thing. I don't see it that way."
I reminded him that Jeter's words carry the most weight. "Mariano said good things [about me]. Joe said good things. [G.M. Brian] Cashman said great things," Rodriguez said. "But again, people want to focus on Jeet. Jeet's very quiet by nature, so I wouldn't want him to change who he is to come and defend me. Because I'm a grown man."
Watching a Yankees-Angels game in Anaheim from a television booth, Jackson noticed Rodriguez (the number-two hitter that day) and
Jeter (batting third) near the on-deck circle with their backs to each other. "Classic Ruth-and-Gehrig picture right there," said Jackson, referring to the legends and their frosty relationship.
Jackson likes Rodriguez, recognizes in him the same need for ego massaging that he had as a player. Jackson took him to dinner last month -- yet another intervention -- and described how bad he had it as a Yankee. Jackson talked about when his teammates left notes in his locker telling him that they didn't want him in New York; about how manager Billy Martin so beat it into his head that he was a bad defensive player that on the night Jackson hit three home runs in the 1977 World Series, he played a routine double into a triple because he'd been stricken with fear that he'd screw it up; about when he was in the midst of such a horrific strikeout streak that he pleaded to Detroit Tigers catcher Lance Parrish, "Tell me what's coming, and I promise I'll take a turn right back into the dugout no matter where I hit it. I just want to look like a pro a little bit." (Parrish replied, "F--- you"; Jackson, to his immense satisfaction, grounded out.)