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A-Rod Agonistes (cont.)

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By Tom Verducci

During the game, Jackson told a parable to make a point about Rodriguez. A man is trapped in his house as floodwaters rise. Twice he refuses help, once from rescuers in a boat and then, when the man seeks refuge on his roof, from rescuers in a helicopter. "No, thanks," the man says. "I've got faith." The next thing he knows he is face-to-face with God in heaven.

"But I put my faith in you!" the man cried.

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"Yes," God replied, "and I answered your faith and tried to help you twice."

As Jackson spoke, Rodriguez whiffed yet again, this time on a pitch that bounced on the grass in front of home plate. How does a player with so much talent get so bad? It seemed ages ago, but Rodriguez was the American League Player of the Month for May, when he batted .330 with eight homers and 28 RBIs. Then he lost the natural groove and quickness in his stroke. A crisis of confidence befell him when he could not hit the ball out of the park to right centerfield in batting practice.

"BP is a big key for me," Rodriguez said. "And you don't know how devastating it is to hit a ball you think you got squarely and see it die on the warning track. Out of 40 swings in BP, I should hit 22 out of the park. I was hitting three out of 40. I couldn't hit a fastball. Eighty-nine, 90 [mph pitches] were going right past me, and I knew it."

Trying to catch up to fastballs, he started guessing and began his swing early, lunging at the ball with his hips drifting forward, creating a flaw that robbed him of even more power -- or worse, flailing embarrassingly at what turned out to be a slider. Then as he carried the anxiety into the field, his usually reliable glove began to fail him.

"He puts in the work before games and looks textbook out there," third base coach Larry Bowa said last month. "But all of a sudden the game starts, and he quits using his feet and he's fielding with a lazy lower half. That causes his arm to drop, and the ball sails on him."

There was one game against Boston in Yankee Stadium in June when Rodriguez looked so anguished by the rough treatment from New York fans that Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, while watching him from the on-deck circle, grew concerned. Ortiz caught Rodriguez's attention and gave him an exaggerated exhale, the way you might when a physician asks you to take a deep breath. Rodriguez would later thank Ortiz. "It was painful to see his face," Ortiz said. "I had to tell him to just breathe and relax."

Asked when his season turned sour, Rodriguez replied, "I was absolutely on fire in Detroit early in the year. Then I got sick and I didn't play for three or four days. And then the whole month was kind of lost. It took a while to get my strength back. I'm not explaining that June, the month I stunk, was because I got sick. Let's make that clear. You ask, 'What's the turning point, going from Player of the Month in May to June?' That's the only thing in the middle."

He did admit that the media and fan criticism caused him stress that crept into his game. "I think it bothered me, early in the year," he said. The jeering of Rodriguez fed on itself, with Yankees fans emboldened by the obvious physical signs from A-Rod that he was unnerved. Posada could go 0 for 25 in August and go uncriticized, but Rodriguez would be excoriated for popping up in the first inning.

Sample A-Rod headlines from the summer:

E-ROD

K-ROD

A-ROD GETS A HIT....

DO YOU HATE THIS MAN?

Said Rodriguez, "It actually reached the point of being so ridiculous that I just had to laugh. It's like if you show up at work one day with a red shirt, and I go, 'Man, that's an ugly shirt.' And the next day you wear a blue shirt, and I go, 'Man, that's an ugly shirt.' And the next day, yellow shirt, same thing. And on and on, every day. At some point you understand it's not really about the shirts. And it becomes easy to dismiss the criticism."

Why must Rodriguez defend himself? He plays hard, is durable, stays out of trouble off the field, has hit more than 460 home runs and might wind up reaching 800, which would place him on the short list of the greatest players in history. He is a career .305 hitter (and has batted nearly the same with runners in scoring position, by the way) with 10 All-Star selections, eight Silver Sluggers, four home run titles, two MVP Awards, two Gold Gloves and one batting title.

And yet A-Rod routinely is treated like the guy in the dunk tank at the county fair, even, most incriminating of all, by his peers. In the past two years he's been called out by Boston pitcher Curt Schilling ("bush league"), Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon ("He can't stand up to Jeter in my book, or Bernie Williams or Posada"), Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen ("hypocrite") and New York Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca (who accused him on the field of showing up the Mets by admiring a home run too long).

"One thing people don't like," said one teammate, "is his body language. Too much of what he does on the field looks ... scripted."

I asked Rodriguez why criticism of him from inside and outside the game is so amplified. "We know why," he said.

The contract? That 10-year, $252 million deal that no one has come close to matching for six years? He nodded.

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