Posted: Friday June 30, 2006 4:21PM; Updated: Wednesday July 5, 2006 10:08AM
Rodriguez broke out of a June slump with this game-winning home run against the Braves on Wednesday.
For Mantle, it wasn't until Roger Maris started hitting all those home runs in 1961 that Mantle became embraced (and still, many old-time Yankees fans will tell you that Yogi Berra was a better pressure hitter than Mantle). In other words, it could be a long time before Rodriguez has his coming-out party.
In the sixth inning against John Smoltz on Wednesday, Rodriguez came to the plate with one out and runners on the corners, the Yanks trailing 2-0. The crowd enthusiastically generated a "Let's go A-Rod" chant. It was genuine and convincing. They continued during the first couple of pitches but steadily quieted down the longer the at-bat went on. A hush, a quiet tension fell over the place, as if the crowd was just waiting for him to fail. They braced for a letdown.
Rodriguez ended up hitting a sharp line drive up the middle. But Smoltz got a glove on what looked to be a sure base hit. A hustling Rodriguez was narrowly thrown out at first. He collected an RBI but it felt disappointing. It wasn't enough.
"That's where being clutch and being unlucky meet," says Adam Birbrower, seated two rows behind Smith. Birbrower, a 35-year-old lawyer from Peekskill, N.Y., still pitches in an over-30 league. Next to him sat Quentin Lindsay, a high school teammate of Birbrower's who later played middle infield for Old Dominion and now coaches high school ball in Armonk. Even though neither played professionally, they think of themselves as players and watch and discuss the game as if they were still players.
When asked about Rodriguez, Lindsay is incredulous. "What are my feelings about him?" Lindsay completely lacks any sense of irony. He is almost insulted by the question. "I think the guy is slumping this year and he's still hitting .280. What do I think of him?" Lindsay spits tobacco into an empty beer bottle. "What, are you serious? The guy's great."
Rodriguez drew a walk in the eighth but grounded out weakly to second base to start the 10th. As he walked back to the dugout the boobirds rained down from the stands. Rodriguez heard it again the 11th when he made an error on what would have been the final out of the inning.
A familiar face at Yankee Stadium made his way down the first-base-line stands. He is an older man who goes by the name of Freddie, and he walks around the park with a hand-written sign attached to a stick all afternoon. On the bottom of the stick is a pan with a green shamrock painted on it. Freddie bangs a spoon on the pan and anyone is free to approach him and bang some themselves. His sign on this day cautions, "Yankee Fans Booing Players Doesn't Help so Keep Calm." On the flip side it reads, "It's Frustrating but Yankees will Prevail."
When Rodriguez came to the plate again in the bottom of the 12th, the Yankees were down a run with a runner on base. "Don't leave it up to A-Rod," shouts a voice several rows away from Smith. Atlanta reliever Jorge Sosa fell behind Rodriguez 3-1. Rodriguez planted Sosa's next pitch deep beyond the left-field fence. The crowd erupted. As he approached home, Rodriguez tossed his helmet into the air with both hands and then disappeared into the mob of awaiting teammates.
"I don't think I've ever seen him take so long to round the bases," beamed Nancy Smith.
Will this be remembered as A-Rod's coming out party? A huge weekend against the Mets would go a long way with Yankees fans, but I wouldn't hold my breath. A headline in Thursday's New York Post read, "Great, Now Do It Again."
Rodriguez has had plenty of big hits for the Yankees -- the two monster games against the Twins in the 2004 ALDS, the 4-5 game against the Red Sox in a division-clinching game last fall, the huge dinger off Schilling in Boston last summer, and another big one off Schilling in New York earlier this year. But that isn't enough. Rodriguez's game-winner on Wednesday has probably bought him nothing more than two at-bats of relative peace. If he makes an out with runners on base after the sixth inning against the Mets this weekend, the Yankees fans will be bringing the pain once more.
Alex Belth is the founder and co-author of Bronx Banter. His biography of Curt Flood, "Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights," is available on Amazon.com.