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A-Rod Agonistes (cont.)

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By Tom Verducci

"But I don't expect people to feel sorry for me," he said. "My teammates get more upset about the criticism and booing than I do. A hundred players have come to third base and said, 'This is bulls---. You're having a great year.' You wonder why it bothers players so much. Tim Salmon, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Garret Anderson ... I could throw you a hundred names. They're looking at the scoreboard and saying, 'This guy's got 90 RBIs and I've got 47, and I'm getting cheered?'

"My agent, Scott Boras, was talking about [Oakland third baseman] Eric Chavez, who's a great player. He's hitting .235. He's got 16 home runs, 43 ribbies? This guy is getting cheered every time he comes up to the plate. If I can look back on 2006 and see I made 25 errors, hit .285 and drove in 125, I mean, has God really been that bad to me?"

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Alex doesn't know who he is," Giambi said in late August. "We're going to find out who he is in the next couple of months."

October is the foundry of Yankees legend. It's why Scott Brosius will never have to buy another meal in New York, though the third baseman was a career .257 hitter, including .245 with a dreadful .278 on-base percentage in the playoffs. But Brosius had a couple of huge hits, and the Yankees were 11-1 in postseason series with him.

For all his career achievements, Rodriguez cannot become a made Yankee without a memorable October. He won the AL MVP award last year, but what stuck to him was his 2-for-15 showing in a Division Series loss to the Angels. It reinforced his disappearance during New York's historic 2004 ALCS collapse to Boston. Until Game 4 of that series, Rodriguez had hit .372 and slugged .640 in 22 career postseason games. But since then he has hit .125 (4 for 32) and slugged .250 while the Yankees have gone 2-7. It's unfair, of course, but to find real acceptance in New York, Rodriguez must win a ring as a Yankee.

Not that A-Rod believes he has all that much that needs to be redeemed this season. His extreme slump -- not his word, of course -- that peaked in Anaheim didn't seem so bad to him. "Reggie hit .230 one year," Rodriguez said. "That's awful. He struck out 170-something times in a year. I don't care who you are, extremes are just part of the game. I was awful [in Anaheim], but Jeter was 0 for 32 [in 2004], Mo blew three games in one week [last year].... Everybody goes through it."

Rodriguez isn't the only Yankee who needs a good October. When he looks around the clubhouse, he sees more teammates who have never won a title in New York than those who have. And thanks to the Rangers' picking up $67 million of the money left on his contract when he was traded to New York, Rodriguez can find three players in the same room to whom the Yankees are paying more this year -- Jeter ($21 million), Giambi ($19 million) and righthander Mike Mussina ($19 million) -- and a fourth, lefthander Randy Johnson, to whom they pay an equal amount ($16 million). Next year the Yankees will pay outfielder Bobby Abreu ($17.5 million) more than Rodriguez, making A-Rod a veritable bargain. I point out all of this to Rodriguez early this month as we walk underneath the first base stands at Yankee Stadium toward the indoor batting cage.

"Mussina doesn't get hammered at all," he said. "He's making a boatload of money. Giambi's making [$20.4 million], which is fine and dandy, but it seems those guys get a pass. When people write [bad things] about me, I don't know if it's [because] I'm good-looking, I'm biracial, I make the most money, I play on the most popular team...."

He laughed easily, his mood still bright after a Yankee Stadium curtain call the previous day in which Torre told him the fans wanted him, prompting Rodriguez to observe, "I'm very shy when I play. I always wonder, If I was an a------ and a very flamboyant guy, how much attention could I really call to myself?"

Yet that shyness has been his undoing. Rodriguez suffers from an astonishing lack of competitive arrogance proportionate to his immense skill. Jackson, for instance, hates the way A-Rod does his pretty peacock-preening practice swings and then lacks any physical presence once he steps in. Even his infamous gut reaction to Boston pitcher Bronson Arroyo's trying to tag him along the first base line in the 2004 ALCS -- Rodriguez awkwardly slapped Arroyo's glove rather than bulldozing the pitcher or first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz -- was a window into his softer side.

Rodriguez knows reporters' names and their affiliates and will often ask them questions about themselves, a rarity among ballplayers. This solicitousness can be awkward, even detrimental, in the socially stunted environment of a clubhouse and the brutally demanding environment of Yankee Stadium. His blood may not run cold enough.

"You know what you are?" Jackson said to Rodriguez in the New York clubhouse last Thursday. "You're too nice."

With a hitter as talented as Rodriguez, it would seem inevitable that after the drought would come a deluge. ("No," says Rodriguez, "because you don't believe it's inevitable when you can't hit the ball out in batting practice.") On Aug. 31 in the Bronx he banged out three hits against the Detroit Tigers, only his second three-hit game at home since the All-Star break. That triggered a 9-for-17 tear in which Rodriguez smashed five home runs, including one that looked so much like a routine fly-out off the bat that Torre yelled to the runners, "Tag up." Four hundred fifty feet later the ball landed in the black seats beyond centerfield. "Once you're relaxed, you react to the [pitch]," Torre said. "He's reacting to the ball, not predetermining what he was going to do, like before."

Rodriguez hasn't stopped hitting, either, batting .360 since that breakout game as the Yankees, comfortably in control of the AL East, play carefree baseball. He rediscovered his smooth footwork in the field, and his hands felt faster at the plate. He began to wait long enough on pitches to drive them hard to centerfield and rightfield, the satisfying confirmation for a righthanded hitter, like a wink from a pretty girl, that life is good.

After the home runs Rodriguez would credit Torre for helping to put the groove back in his swing. Under the stadium on a cool, wet night in which October seemed so close, I thought about that meeting Torre had with A-Rod in Seattle and had one last question:

What was Joe's main message?

Rodriguez rolled the question around in his head for a moment. He hesitated, "Uh ..." and then answered with this: "'We need you.'"    

Issue date: September 25, 2006

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