"Joe wants to
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 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.
Yet there's still
another chapter to be written in the story of his season. He still, God help
him, has October.
Torre had been
concerned about Rodriguez and his game for weeks before he called him into his
office. Effort hadn't been the issue. If anything, the 31-year-old Rodriguez
works too hard, crams too many bits of information into his head. He even
studies videotape shot from centerfield cameras to see if he can decode
patterns in catchers' signal sequences with a runner on second base.
"I can't help
that I'm a bright person," he said last month. "I know that's not a
great quote to give, but I can't pretend to play dumb and stupid."
What bothered Torre
most was Rodriguez's seeming obliviousness to how badly he was playing. In
June, for instance, hitting coach Don Mattingly ordered Rodriguez into the cage
and sternly lectured him on the flaws in his swing, which Mattingly thought
A-Rod had been unwilling to address. "An intervention," Mattingly
called it. "He got to a pretty good point with [his swing], but it lasted
only a few days and he went right back to where he was."
In the 80 games the
Yankees played from June 1 to Aug. 30-almost half a season-Rodriguez hit .257
with 81 strikeouts while committing 13 errors. Tabloids mocked him. Talk radio
used him for kindling. "I haven't seen anything like it since I've been
here," said reliever Mariano Rivera, in his 12th year as a Yankee, of the