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The Yankees' 2012 postseason was dominated by one man: Alex Rodriguez. Unable to get around on even mediocre fastballs, Rodriguez was eventually pinch-hit for by 40-year-old journeyman Raul Ibañez and benched for Eric Chavez, who went 0 for 16 with eight strikeouts in the postseason. Despite half the Yankees' lineup's no-showing in October, the blame for the team's offensive woes fell on A-Rod's shoulders. He was even widely criticized for flirting with a woman in the stands after he'd been pulled from a game, inviting the question of how modern media would have handled the even-less-savory behavior of Yankees past.
We now have the rest of the story. Rodriguez will miss at least the first three months of the 2013 season following surgery (scheduled for January) to repair damage to his left hip. The injury, which may have contributed to his terrible performance in last year's postseason (3 for 25, 0 home runs, 0 RBIs), leaves one of the best players in baseball history facing a new set of questions. It's no longer about whether Rodriguez will break the game's biggest records but whether he'll even be able to play to the end of a contract that runs through 2017 and on which he's owed $114 million.
This injury is just the latest in a series of maladies that have slowed Rodriguez over the past four years. In 2009 he underwent similar surgery on his right hip. In 2011 it was a torn right meniscus. A fluke injury—a Felix Hernandez fastball off his left hand—ate up six weeks of 2012. Now the other hip. All told, Rodriguez missed more than a full season of games from 2009 through '12 and saw his performance when he did play fade from MVP-caliber to a bit above average. Last year, batting .272/.353/.430 in 122 games, Rodriguez was worth two wins to a Yankees team that won the division by exactly that margin.
Of course Rodriguez doesn't get measured against the baseline of a replacement player but against the expectations placed upon the highest-paid player in baseball history. It's silly, the way we do this, as if paying a man lots of money would serve as a barrier to the effects of age. When Rodriguez signed his current contract, a 10-year deal worth $275 million, he was 32 years old. That he would decline, that he would lose time to injury, that he would not consistently produce value commensurate with that contract was inevitable.
Rodriguez, though, always seems to be judged a bit more harshly than the rest of the field. When he did what hundreds of other players have done and signed with a new team for big money as a free agent, he was criticized as a carpetbagger. When he was the best player in the American League in the first three years of that deal, he was criticized for the performance of the team around him, as the Rangers slipped to last place. When he tried to leave millions of dollars on the table to get out of that situation and enable a trade to Boston, he was seen as giving up on a losing situation. When he accepted a trade to the Yankees that would involve his taking his two Gold Gloves to third base, leaving shortstop to the lesser player in Derek Jeter, he got no credit for tamping down a potential controversy. When he has huge postseason series, he's given grudging credit; when he has poor ones, all the blame for the outcomes falls on his shoulders. When he goes along with his union and takes a drug test, promised anonymity in return so that the league can gather information as to the extent of its problem, he's outed as a steroid user years later, and ever tarred as such. When he's humiliated by his manager, singled out to be pinch-hit for in a playoff game despite being just one of a number of his teammates not hitting, he doesn't stomp his feet or create a controversy, doesn't mention that his hip is bothering him, but rather backs his manager's decision and moves on to the next game.
And, of course, there's always some nonbaseball nonsense following Rodriguez around, whether it's his failing marriage or his dalliances with Madonna or Kate Hudson or Cameron Diaz or other fodder for the ravenous New York tabloids. Whatever his role—or one's interest—in those salacious stories, they shouldn't affect the evaluation of Rodriguez as a player.
Lost in all this is that we've been watching the career of one of the dozen best baseball players who have ever lived. Rodriguez heads into 2013 with a chance to reach 3,000 hits and 2,000 RBIs, a season or so away from 2,000 runs and 700 homers. He's 17th all time in Wins Above Replacement, top 10 among players who played in integrated baseball. He has three Most Valuable Player awards and deserved at least three more. In 2009 he carried the Yankees to a World Series title by hitting .365 with six homers and five doubles, including a game-winning double in the ninth inning of Game 4 in the Series—the hit his detractors like to say he never gets.
Rodriguez, 37, is supposed to miss half a season, but maybe the best thing for him would be to miss all of it. There's a Yankees parallel here. Dave Winfield missed all of 1989, at the same age Rodriguez is now, with a back injury, then came back in 1990 and added a coda to his career that included a World Series ring (with the Blue Jays) and a spot in the Hall of Fame. Winfield, like Rodriguez, signed a huge contract to play for the Yankees and was largely unappreciated while performing under it. Perhaps Rodriguez would be best served by giving his body a full year to heal so that he can have a better shot at finishing his career the same way Winfield did.
Perhaps we would, as well. Too focused on the millions of dollars and tabloid headlines and parsing postseason stat lines just so, we missed that one of the great talents who ever lived was right in front of us.