Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 12, 2012

In The Bronx, It’s The End Of The A-Rod Era

A NOTE TO READERS: This post was delayed by one day because of my travel to and attendance at Game Four of the ALDS in the Bronx on Thursday. This Sunday’s post will also be one day late, as Game Two of the ALCS now awaits.  Thanks as always for your understanding.

On the night Justin Verlander made sure the magic ran out for the Oakland A’s, who were without question the best story of the postseason with their phenomenal late run to dethrone the twice reigning AL champion Texas Rangers in the league’s Western Division, I was in my usual spot high above first base at the big Stadium in the Bronx. The Baltimore Orioles, MLB’s second best postseason story, simply refused to go away and eventually prevailed over the Yankees in a 13 inning taut and tight duel of both starting pitchers and bullpens. Neither team could mount much offense in a contest that was ultimately decided by a score of 2-1. The result meant that through four games the two evenly matched Eastern Division foes had played 43 innings, including 12 the previous night. Except for a five run Yankee outburst in the top of the 9th of Game One, neither team had ever led by more than one run, nor except for that first result had either team scored more than three runs in any game.

With numbers like that it would be fair to say that both squads had plenty of hitters who were struggling. By the time Game Four ended a little after midnight on Friday morning, Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson was 1 for 16 with nine strikeouts in the series. Second baseman Robinson Cano, who finished the regular season with a string of multi-hit games, had gone cold in the postseason, with just a pair of hits in 18 at bats; and right fielder Nick Swisher was 2 for 15. But the poster child for offensive futility for the team wearing pinstripes was third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who was 2 for 16 with nine strikeouts. With every missed opportunity at the plate, the boos pouring out of the Stadium’s three decks as A-Rod trudged back to the dugout grew louder.

If it seems unfair for Yankee fans to single out Rodriguez given the number of other teammates who were putting up equally bad numbers, it is worth noting that the numbers don’t tell the whole story. In all four games A-Rod appeared to be just flailing at the plate, especially against right-handed pitchers. There were at-bats in which he missed so badly that one wondered whether he had developed sudden vision problems; and speculation grew that he was nursing some kind of injury. But beyond the dispiriting nature of his offensive futility lay the fact that of all the Yankee hitters who were struggling, only one was named Alex Rodriguez. Robinson Cano has been named to four All-Star teams; Rodriguez to fourteen. Curtis Granderson set a career high for home runs this season, and finished one behind Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera for the AL homer crown; A-Rod has led the league in homers five times. Only A-Rod has hit 647 career home runs while winning three MVP awards; and of course, only A-Rod has five years left on a decade long contract valued at $275 million.

It would be inaccurate to call A-Rod the face of the franchise. The Yankees have been Derek Jeter’s team for more than a decade and a half, and they remain so today. When Jeter finally retires it seems likely that Cano will become the player fans most admire, the Yankee who will receive the loudest and longest ovation when the lineups are announced. But from the day he arrived from the Texas Rangers in 2004, Rodriguez held down the cleanup spot in the lineup and heard plenty of cheers when he drove towering home runs deep into the outfield seats. He also heard boos and catcalls when his postseason performances fell far short of his regular season power. Then in 2009 A-Rod posted a .365 postseason batting average and smashed 6 home runs in 52 at-bats as the Yankees won their 27th championship. At last it seemed that the slugger had delivered on his potential for October greatness, and fans cheered their third baseman as loudly as they did any member of the team during the victory parade down Broadway. But then he regressed in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs, batting just .219 and .111 respectively. Both years he struck out to end the Yankees’ season.

All players age; decline is inevitable. Sometimes it is a gradual lessening of skills and sometimes it is a sudden and sharp fall into mediocrity. Rodriguez is 37 and no one should be surprised that in a season in which he spent time on the disabled list he hit just .272 with only 18 home runs. Except that there is that contract, which will pay A-Rod a further $114 million over the next five years, as he plays on to the age of 42. To those whom much is given much is expected, and the fans and New York media still expect much of Rodriguez, never more so than during the playoffs.

Which is why fans and pundits alike were stunned in the 9th inning of Game Three. With the Yankees trailing at home and in danger of falling behind in the series, manager Joe Girardi called upon Raul Ibanez to pinch hit for Rodriguez. For all of A-Rod’s struggles, had Ibanez struck out the Yankee manager would surely have been roundly criticized. But instead Ibanez homered to tie the score, and then homered again in the 12th to win the game, and Girardi was instantly lionized for his boldness. A clear-headed view would see the move as both logical and prudent, given A-Rod’s numbers and the fact that the Yankees signed the left-handed hitting Ibanez largely because of his ability to hit with power against right-handed pitchers. After the game A-Rod said all the right things, about how it was all about the team and not him. But he also said that he couldn’t really remember the last time he had been lifted for a pinch hitter, surmising that there might have been one time in high school when it happened.

When an aura is pierced an image can change overnight. Less than 24 hours after Girardi sent Ibanez to the plate, A-Rod walked in his first at-bat in Game 4. In the stands the cheers were especially loud and laced with sarcasm. A single in his next appearance, his second hit of the series, brought warmer applause and a touch of renewed hope. But then he struck out with a runner in scoring position in the 6th and the boos began. Two innings later A-Rod came to the plate with runners on second and third and one out, the score knotted at one. A fly ball would push the Yankees ahead. Instead it was three swinging strikes, and the jeers were unrelenting. After the Orioles took the lead in the top of the 13th, Rodriguez was scheduled to hit third in the bottom of the inning. When Eric Chavez came out into the on-deck circle no murmur ran through the crowd; rather a move that was bold and daring in Game 3 seemed overdue in Game 4.

Then late on Friday afternoon the lineups for Game 5 were posted. For the Yankees Ibanez was listed as the DH and Chavez was penciled in at third base. The press tried to make something out of A-Rod being benched, but comments from fans reflected mostly simple relief. By the time CC Sabathia fielded a 9th inning ground ball and tossed to first to finally dispatch the doughty team from Baltimore A-Rod was an afterthought.

So the Yankees move on to the ALCS, seemingly carrying a new role player on their roster who shares a nickname with a one-time giant of the game. Perhaps A-Rod can bounce back against Detroit. Or perhaps the Yankees and their fans are looking at five more years of paying the price for the worst example ever of Steinbrenner profligacy.

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