Alex Rodriguez still was weak from a throat infection that had confined him to his Seattle hotel room for the New York Yankees' game the previous night -- not to mention forced him to cancel a recording session for his ringtone endorsement deal -- when he walked into the visitors' clubhouse at Safeco Field on Aug. 24 and was told to go to manager Joe Torre's office. Torre asked him to close the door, then motioned to the blue leather couch in the smallish room. "Sit down."
The richest and most talented player in baseball was in trouble. Rodriguez could not hit an average fastball, could not swat home runs in batting practice with any regularity, could not field a ground ball or throw from third base with an uncluttered mind and cooperative feet, could not step to the plate at Yankee Stadium without being booed and could not -- though he seemed unaware of this -- find full support in his own clubhouse.
For 11 summers Rodriguez had been the master of self-sufficiency, a baseball Narcissus who found pride and comfort gazing upon the reflection of his beautiful statistics. His game, like his appearance, was wrinkle-free. Indeed, in December 2003, when the Red Sox were frantically trying to acquire Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers, several Boston executives called on Rodriguez in his New York hotel suite after 1 a.m. Rodriguez answered the door in a perfectly pressed suit, tie knotted tight to his stiff collar. The Red Sox officials found such polished attire at such a late hour odd, even unsettling.
But then Rodriguez has long been the major league equivalent of the prettiest girl in high school who also gets straight A's, which is to say he is viewed with equal parts admiration and resentment. The A-Rod of 2006 was different, though -- unhinged and, in a baseball sense, unkempt. "My seasons have always been so easy," says Rodriguez. "This year hasn't been easy." He adds that his wife, Cynthia, in helping him with his struggles, encouraged him to "turn to the Lord for guidance."
With the boost of a September surge Rodriguez's final numbers will look, as usual, stellar. (At week's end he was hitting .287, with 33 homers and 114 RBIs.) But even Rodriguez admitted early this month that his statistics can't erase the pain he felt during his three-month slip into a dark abyss, when he lost his confidence, withered under media and fan pressure, and, some teammates believe, worked a little too hard at keeping up appearances -- displaying "a false confidence," New York first baseman Jason Giambi said. The slump (a word Rodriguez refuses to utter) revealed that for all his gifts, A-Rod may never be seen by Yankees traditionalists as worthy of his pinstripes.