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A man of his times

Constant media scrutiny teaches A-Rod hard lessons

Posted: Tuesday September 19, 2006 11:47AM; Updated: Tuesday September 19, 2006 1:01PM
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Alex Rodriguez's struggles to produce in key situations this season have not won him many friends in the stands or in the dugout.
Alex Rodriguez's struggles to produce in key situations this season have not won him many friends in the stands or in the dugout.
Chuck Solomon/SI
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One day, when Alex Rodriguez had just about bottomed out from the most tortured, most dissected summer of his baseball life, I mentioned to Yankees GM Brian Cashman, "Imagine how bad it would have been had he gone through this 10 years ago or so, when Steinbrenner was still Steinbrenner." Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, reined in by age and public-relations advisors, long ago stopped calling out his own star players as Mr. May (Dave Winfield), a fat pussy toad (Hideki Irabu) or an embarrassment who ought to walk out of the stadium with the hot dog vendors (Dave Righetti).

Cashman immediately disagreed that the climate for Rodriguez would have been worse when Steinbrenner still had his fastball and wasn't afraid to use it.

"Today," Cashman said, "George doesn't have to say anything. That's because we live in a 24-hour news-cycle world where the critics are everywhere: newspapers, talk radio, TV, the Internet. There are a thousand different Georges."

The man was on to something. Rodriguez -- rich, talented, handsome and unloved by many of his own team's fans -- is the ultimate fodder for the Internet age, an era in which no man has a chance of standing up to the psychobabble and almighty snarkiness that fuels much of the media criticism. No one would be penning odes to DiMaggio if the aloof Clipper played today. And DiMaggio's .271 postseason average, 54 points below his regular-season average? Surely he'd never live it down, leaving him to defend the conventional wisdom that he wasn't a "clutch" player.

No wonder Rodriguez, who began every day since he was in high school reading the sports section, said he stopped reading newspapers last year. Much of the media analysis of Rodriguez as a person and a player is done from afar, pundits quoting pundits or interpreting everything from his body language to his statistics. That's why the Rodriguez presented in this week's edition of SI hopefully cuts a truer image. It's Rodriguez as seen from the inside: how he is viewed inside the New York clubhouse and what's going on inside his own head.

I interviewed Rodriguez more than a half-dozen times for this story in four different cities. He is a baseball junkie who plays and follows the game with a deep passion -- it's rare for a player of such star caliber to be so well-versed about baseball history and so curious about what's going on outside his own clubhouse. If anything, his hyperawareness can work against him. But it's also true that he is working at being desensitized. "New York," he said, "hardens you."

To further illuminate Rodriguez, and the lessons he's learned from his most trying season, here is more A-Rod on A-Rod.

On whether he ever considered this summer that he might be better off being traded: "Never." (Rodriguez actually cut off the question before it could be finished.) "Never. I'd rather retire than go somewhere else.... One of the things I'm proudest of is being able to play every day and be in the mix of a win every night."

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