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Posted: Wednesday January 28, 2009 12:25PM; Updated: Wednesday January 28, 2009 1:01PM
Alex Belth Alex Belth >
INSIDE BASEBALL

A-Rod's underappreciated greatness: a familiar story

Story Highlights

The biggest fallout from Joe Torre's book concerned its portrayal of Rodriguez

Rodriguez's Yankees teammates teasingly called him "A-Fraud" in his first year

He is held up as a symbol of the Yankees' recent failure to win a World Series

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Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez has struggled to gain acceptance since arriving in New York.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI
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The frozen hot stove saw some sparks in New York last weekend, when the Daily News and the Post leaked snippets of The Yankee Years, Joe Torre's forthcoming book about his 12 seasons in the Bronx.

A-Fraud, screamed the headline, a term that Yankees teammates (teasingly) aimed at Rodriguez during his first year with the club. It came as no surprise that Alex Rodriguez was at the center of attention once again. Sure, Torre's falling out with general manager Brian Cashman also made the early reports, but the big story was A-Rod.

Torre, of course, didn't call Rodriguez "A-Fraud." In fact, Torre technically didn't write The Yankee Years, even though he has top billing on the cover and must take responsibility for its contents as a result. This is Tom Verducci's book about the Torre era in New York. Torre is the lead character and principal source, but this is not your standard as-told-to biography. It's a sprawling book that is equal parts Buster Olney's Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty and Howard Bryant's Juicing the Game, with a pinch of Sparky Lyle's Bronx Zoo thrown in for flavor.

Rodriguez takes up only a small portion of the narrative -- the 22-page chapter devoted to him ("The Problem of Alex") comes halfway through a book that is just shy of 500 pages. And while the tone of the chapter is often sharp, Verducci and Torre don't simply rip Rodriguez. They admire that he was the hardest worker on the team, even if he was also a high-maintenance star. "Nobody works harder than Alex," says Torre. "He's a workaholic."

Still, Rodriguez is held up as a symbol of the Yankees' recent failure to win a World Series. He's forever the un-Jeter, especially in the eyes of many Yankee fans.

"He may be the most underappreciated great baseball player in the history of the city," says novelist Kevin Baker, who is currently writing a book about New York baseball. "Has any athlete ever kept as clean a nose in New York and gotten more flack? He hasn't shot himself in a nightclub or turned over numerous cars like Babe Ruth or been accused of statutory rape like David Cone. [Jason] Giambi was forgiven for being a drug user. Rodriguez devotes himself to the game and the complaints never stop."

We know that Alex Rodriguez is a breed apart. Mike Mussina tells Verducci that Rodriguez's motivation is "to be the best player in the game. When all is said and done, he wants to be the best player ever." He was the No. 1 pick, he became a tremendous player, as well as the richest player, a future Hall of Famer.

"He needs the game," Torre says. "He needs all of those statistics. He needs every record imaginable. And he needs people to make a fuss over him. And he's always going to put up numbers because he's too good. It means a lot to him, and good for him."

Rodriguez is also a gym rat and a baseball junkie. According to Mike Borzello, a bullpen catcher and Rodriguez's best friend on the team, when he leaves the park at night, Rodriguez goes home and watches the west coast games like any other seamhead. In The Yankee Years, Borzello describes the time that Rodriguez visited Jeter's home and was shocked to discover that Jeter didn't subscribe to the baseball package or watch any games that he wasn't playing in.

Baseball players have their share of issues, but generally neurosis isn't one of them. Alex Rodriguez is neurotic, though, and that has not made him an endearing figure in New York. He is a man who is constantly looking at himself. He plays a stylized game. He wears his uniform just so, and he walks up the plate and takes his practice cuts in a controlled, measured way. He is thinking it all through, all the time.

"You want people to know how good you are, how smart a baseball player you are. And we already know." Borzello once told Rodriguez, as told in The Yankee Years. "Stop saying, 'Look at me.' We're already looking."

At times, Rodriguez's neurosis keeps him from surrendering to the moment. The game speeds up on him. A hitter doesn't have the time to be neurotic; it's better to be a simple-minded savant like Manny Ramirez. At times it can be difficult to watch Rodriguez at bat, his breathing labored; it's as if you can feel his self-awareness burn through the TV screen.

"When it comes to a key situation," Torre says in the book, "he can't get himself to concern himself with getting the job done, instead of how it looks. He always wants it to look good. That's never going to happen, because you can do some things in an ugly way and still accomplish something too."

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