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Rite of passage

New York fans, media put A-Rod through the wringer

Posted: Friday June 30, 2006 4:21PM; Updated: Wednesday July 5, 2006 10:08AM
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In big spots, Alex Rodriguez seems to come up empty more often than not, and the fans let him hear about it.
In big spots, Alex Rodriguez seems to come up empty more often than not, and the fans let him hear about it.
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BRONX, N.Y. -- "In all my years of coming here, I don't remember anyone being booed like Alex Rodriguez has been booed," Nancy Smith, a Yankees season-ticket holder since 1965, told me on Wednesday afternoon at the Atlanta-New York game. There is something about the intensity and emotion behind the booing, a viciousness, that she finds most disturbing. It feels too personal.

Wearing a wicker visor and small glasses, Smith sits on a red cushion and meticulously keeps score in a personal scorebook. She is an astute fan of the game as well as a sharp judge of character. Last summer Smith was profiled in The New York Times, and when the Yankees learned about the story, she was brought down to the field and introduced to the likes of Joe Torre, Mariano Rivera and Rodriguez. Smith found Rodriguez to be charming and doesn't understand the steady stream of abuse he has endured at Yankee Stadium.

"When he does something well, all you hear is how it isn't important, how it isn't enough,"  she says.

Such is life for the reigning AL MVP, the man with the richest contract in the history of American sports.

The perception in New York is that despite all his gifts, Rodriguez is something of a bust, a fugazi. In 2005, Rodriguez had the best offensive season ever by any right-handed Yankee not named DiMaggio. Yet after Tuesday night's 5-2 loss to the Braves, YES Network analyst David Justice said, "If the game is 9-2, [he] might make it 9-4. If the game is 7-1, he might make it 9-1. But when it is 2-2 late in the ball game and I need a base hit to score a run, the numbers show that he has not been getting it done." (Bob Raissman had a great write-up on this in the Daily News.)

Though Rodriguez wound up belting a game-winning, two-run home run to end Wednesday's game against Atlanta, some Yankees fans remained unmoved. When I told a co-worker on Thursday afternoon that I was writing a piece on Rodriguez, he flatly replied, "About what? What a choker he is?" In the evening, on my subway ride home, I chatted with a Mantle-Maris-era Yankees fan. I told him that I admired Rodriguez's work ethic despite his struggles this year. The reply: "I don't care about effort. I don't want to hear about trying. It doesn't matter. The bottom line is: Did you get the job done or not? That's it. Go try somewhere else. If you are here, you'd better win or you're going to get it."

And this was after one of Rodriguez's best moments of the year.

Of course, a down year for Rodriguez is relative. He is still leading American League third basemen in OPS, RBIs and runs scored. He has regressed defensively -- on Wednesday he committed his 13th error of the season, one more than his total for 2005 -- and Rodriguez's inconsistency at the plate has been magnified by the major injuries to Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui.

But mostly, it's the same old story. Many Yankees fans dwell on what Rodriguez is not instead of what he is -- one of the all-time greats. He has been good in the playoffs (.305/.393/.524 in 31 career postseason games) but has not had a defining moment. Rodriguez is held to the highest standards possible, and when he fails, there is always a group of resentful fans ready to pounce. The local media often encourages the outrage. When the Yankees lost to the Red Sox earlier this year, Rodriguez hit a home run with New York down big in the ninth inning. The following day, instead of praising Curt Schilling's dominant performance, the back page of the Daily News ran a photograph of Rodriguez hitting the homer. The headline read: "Thanks for Nuthin."

At least Rodriguez isn't alone in drawing the ire of Yankees fans. Everyone from Babe Ruth, Joe D. and Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and even Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera have gotten the business in the Bronx, some worse than others. (Can you imagine if Rodriguez ended the World Series like Babe Ruth did in 1926, when the Bambino was thrown out trying to steal second in Game 7?) That's not a bad club to belong to, yet there is no telling how long Rodriguez will stay there. Thursday on a sports radio show, Winfield said it took Yankees fans about four or five years to come around to him.