And though the Yankees have drawn some life from portly Nebraskan relief wunderkind Joba Chamberlain and resurgent veterans Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada, the real reason they’re headed to the postseason again is third-baseman Alex Rodriguez—baseball’s best player, a lock for the American League MVP award, a superstar having the best season of a career that would already put him in the Hall of Fame even though he has years left in his prime. Without Rodriguez, the Yankees would be lost; with him, they could win it all.
Yet in less than a month and a half, there’s a chance he could opt out of his contract—the biggest in sports history—and voluntarily leave baseball’s wealthiest and most successful team. It depends on how Rodriguez plays in the postseason; it depends on how a cadre of Yankees insiders in the dawn of the post-Steinbrenner era can work with A-Rod’s agent, Scott Boras. If Rodriguez leaves, the repercussions for the future of the Yankees organization could be enormous. And in the end, what happens might depend less on the actions of any one person than it will on the mood at Yankee Stadium the moment the team finishes its last inning of the year.
Given [Scott] Boras’s style—which has been called “ruthless,” but in the incompetence-plagued world of pro-baseball management might be better described as “not boneheaded”—and simple common sense, the possibility seems small that Rodriguez, after the best year of his career, won’t sell high. And there are plenty of teams out there ready to bid for his services. The leading competitors are the Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. Other, less likely possibilities include both Los Angeles franchises, the Detroit Tigers, and, if they can figure out a place to play him, the Mets.
G.M. Brian Cashman is in charge of baseball operations, and without Steinbrenner to interfere, he’s shown a level of clearheadedness that gives no reason to indicate he’d want to lose the best player in baseball. Cashman doesn’t cut the checks, though it’s not like the money isn’t there, in the form of the YES Network. Kagan Media Research has estimated that YES made $136 million in profit last year. The financial decision, insiders say, could be heavily influenced by Lonn Trost, the Yankees’ C.O.O., the guy who knows the true ins and outs of the Yankees’ business. YES, for example, was his brainstorm. In the middle of it all is Randy Levine, the Yankees’ president, who’s known to have difficult relationships with Cashman and manager Joe Torre. Levine has driven the construction of the team’s new stadium; he believes A-Rod is financially indispensable to the franchise, especially given the investment in the new park, and is pushing to re-sign him at almost any cost.
On the field, the major knock on Rodriguez has been that he didn’t “come through in the clutch.” Statistical analysts might debate whether such an animal as “clutch hitting” exists, but Yankees fans have no doubt. The notion that some players like Derek Jeter have a champion’s biochemistry is particularly strongly held in New York. Rodriguez was booed relentlessly last year for alleged clutch dysfunction. In last season’s four-game ALDS loss to the eventual American League champion Tigers, he went 1 for 14 with four strikeouts, prompting Torre to bat him eighth in the deciding fourth game. His most famous postseason moment, to date, is his illegal attempt to slap the ball out of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s glove in the 2004 ALCS. As every Yankees fan knows, the team has failed to win a World Series since acquiring Rodriguez. This year, though, he’s led the league in RBIs and hit several dramatic home runs late in games. He hasn’t been booed much lately.
If A-Rod plays well and the Yankees win the World Series, it’s a moot point. Everyone’s happy; management offers a massive contract—they’ve got enough money to outbid anyone, in the end—and he accepts. But what if he struggles and they lose? What if he struggles and they win? Maybe he’s earned enough goodwill this year that the tide has turned. But maybe the crowd will boo and the sports pages will vituperate. Even in that scenario, the Yankees will likely still bid as much as anyone else: Cashman knows that the team would never have even made the playoffs without him; Trost, unlike Steinbrenner, is a moneyman who will rely on Cashman rather than emotion; even Levine, Steinbrenner’s heir in unpredictability, is set on bringing A-Rod back. But if the fans don’t want him, A-Rod’s history indicates he won’t want to be here. Boras’s history indicates he can certainly find a satisfactorily gigantic pile of money elsewhere in America. And losing A-Rod—with the consequent near-guaranteed crumminess of next year’s team that entails—is the kind of catastrophe that could leave the tenuous Torre-Cashman-Trost-Levine management system in ruins, ending the Yankees as we’ve known them for the last twelve Octobers. In the end, the Zeitgeist may have the final say. So take heed, Yankees fan. The future is in your hands.
I’ve noticed this year, while attending games at Yankee Stadium, that during a player’s first At Bat of the game, A-Rod gets the biggest ovation (of all the Yankees) from the fans. Even more so than Jeter these days.
I was at the game last Friday, and, the place practically erupted when Alex came to bat for the first time and his name was announced.
It’s clear to me, now, that this is not 2006 anymore and Yankees fans, on the whole, love Alex Rodriguez more than ever before.
That said, if A-Rod goes 2 for 15, or 1 for 14, in the ALDS this year – with some strikeouts in big spots, or a GIDP or two when the chips are on the line, it will be interesting to see how the fans react to that result – especially given Alex’s performance in the 2005 and 2006 ALDS games for the Yankees.
The funny thing is, that, before Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS, Alex always seemed to hit well in the post-season. Go ahead, check the stats. His numbers from the 1997 ALDS, 2000 ALDS and ALCS, and 2004 ALDS are very good.
Basically, it’s been Games 5, 6, and 7 of the 2004 ALCS and the 9 games from the ALDS of 2005 and 2006 where A-Rod has failed. These contests are Alex’s October Dirty Dozen.
Personally, and this is just a hunch, I think Rodriguez will have a fine post-season this year. Maybe it won’t be off-the-charts, in terms of being positive. But, it will not be a total bomb like 2005 and 2006. And, the fans will be fine with that effort – regardless if the Yankees win or lose.
The only way the fans will turn on A-Rod now is if he has a post-season this year like Willie Wilson’s World Series for the Royals back in 1980. Or, if he leaves town for the money after this season. If I had to place a bet on what’s more likely to happen, I’d go with the latter over the former.