Monday, October 29, 2007

A Rod Shows His True Colors: Shades of Green

"When they say it's not about money, that means it's all about money."
- The late George Young, long-time general manager of the New York Giants (NFL)

Yankee fans spent 2007 trying to convince themselves Alex Rodriguez had changed. But yesterday, A Rod showed that he has always been the same guy, an ego-driven, money-hungry player completely lacking in respect for the sport that has made him a very rich man.

In 2007, Yankee Universe chose to put aside A Rod's two-for-15, zero RBI performance in the 2005 American League Division Series and one-for-14, zero RBI mark in the 2006 A.L.D.S. (with the Yankees going out in the first round each time) and treated him like a Yankee hero. Flashbulbs popped every at-bat that he went for home run number 500 (and it was a lot of at-bats, because in typical fashion, A Rod had trouble handling the pressure, taking nine games to reach the mark after clubbing his 499th dinger). Number 13 jerseys were ubiquitous in the crowd at Yankee Stadium. A Rod's successes were greeted with standing ovations, and his failures were, for the first time, met with silence (that is, he wasn't booed).

Yankee fans were told numerous times last off-season: "Be nice to this guy, and he'll play better. And, he'll stay." As simple as this request seemed on the surface, the Bomber faithful understand that being a true Yankee entails more than hitting a lot of home runs. Rather, it comes down to adopting a team concept, putting ego (and personal statistics) aside for the sake of winning, and coming through in big moments, when the pressure is on. In other words, Yankee fans were asked to treat A Rod like he had accomplished something, even though, by these criteria, he had done nothing. Supporters were asked to act like he was a Yankee great, even though he had done nothing to warrant inclusion with Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez (let alone Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle) as key cogs in championship clubs.

But the New York supporters sucked it up and pretended that A Rod had actually done something, in the hopes that wishful thinking would make it true.

And what did Yankee Universe get for their blind faith? They were swindled like marks of a master con man. I'm not just talking about A Rod not showing up in the post-season again in 2007 (four for 15, 1 RBI), because on the list of culprits responsible for the loss to the Indians, you would find, in order, Chien-Ming Wang (you can't have your ace lit up twice in four games and expect to win), Derek Jeter (too many momentum killing double plays and strikeouts in key situations) and the Lake Erie midges that swarmed Joba Chamberlain in the eighth inning of Game 2. A Rod was hardly the number one goat, but then again, his agent, Scott Boras, keeps telling us how special A Rod is. But special players rise to the occasion in the big games. Reggie Jackson, David Ortiz, Joe Carter, and Bernie Williams don't come close to A Rod's career numbers, but all four lifted their teams in October. A Rod, on the other hand, was just another baffled Yankee hitter against the Indians. (To put things in perspective, Melky Cabrera, who batted .188 in the 2007 post-season, matched A Rod's one home run and doubled A Rod's series RBI output, two to one.)

Again, though, Yankee fans were not necessarily fleeced because of what A Rod did (or didn't do) in four October games against the Indians. Rather, A Rod showed his true colors when, during Game 4 of the World Series, with the Red Sox about to clinch a championship, he had Boras (a man who would trade a year of happiness for an extra nickel) announce that he was opting out of the final three years of his Yankee contract and becoming a free agent.

Now, don't get me wrong: Players have every right to take advantage of whatever options are available to them, and to make as much money as they can in the limited years that they get to ply their trade. But you can't have it both ways. Some players look to maximize every dollar they can earn, making the value judgment that raking in the most money is symbolically (or actually) the most important pursuit of their careers. Others want to get rich, too, but they also want to win and, even more crucially, they want to be a part of something. They want to be a member of a team that competes to win. They understand that to be successful, personal goals have to come second to team goals. A Rod had every right to try and go for the highest possible number of dollars, but in doing so, he has to relinquish any claim to caring about anything else.

By opting out of his contract a full ten days before he had to, and by making the announcement during the marquee event of his sport, A Rod demonstrated exactly what his value system entailed. That is, A Rod is first, last, and always about one thing: A Rod. He is an ego run amok. How often do you hear teams looking for players with that quality?

After all, the Yankees had made it clear that they would be willing to offer A Rod an extension that would be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million a year for five years (beyond the three years at $27 million already left on his record-breaking ten-year, $252 million contract). Knowing Boras's sleazeball ways (just ask the Dodgers and his handling of J.D. Drew's opt-out last year), A Rod would not be on his way out of New York if there wasn't a team out there whispering that it would offer more.

Again, A Rod has every right to try and do better than an eight-year, $240 million offer (on top of the approximately $180 million he has already made from the contract he opted out of). But that means he is the guy that puts a few extra million above all else. Former Giants General Manager George Young was right when he famously uttered the quote that started this piece. A Rod can say whatever he wants about the uncertainty surrounding the Yankees, from a new manager to pending free agents to the Steinbrenner sons asserting themselves in the front office, but it's a load of bull. He's going for every penny he can get, like a ten-year old sprawled on the floor gathering coins from a crashed piggy bank.

A Rod's actions speak louder than his words. After spending an entire season talking about how much he wanted to stay in New York, and after being embraced by Yankee fans like never before, he didn't even bother to wait for the ten-day period to expire. He didn't give the Yankees a chance to pitch him an extension. He knew that the Yankees had said, in no uncertain terms, that if he opted out of his contract, which would result in the Yankees losing the $21 million the Texas Rangers had agreed to pay the Yankees to subsidize A Rod's contract as part of the 2004 deal that brought A Rod to New York, it made no financial sense for the Yankees to pursue him in free agency. So, he knew that by taking this action, he was saying goodbye to the Yankees, or taking a huge risk on the belief of his agent that the Yankees were bluffing.

In effect, A Rod showed, yet again, that he is a me-first baseball player, one who fundamentally doesn't understand the concept of being part of a team. Nowhere is that clearer than in his decision to try and upstage his sport's biggest moment, the last game of the World Series. Again, it wasn't about baseball or the Yankees, but about A Rod himself. And how fitting that he placed himself above the game on the same day he didn't bother to show up to accept the Henry Aaron Award from Aaron himself. A Rod couldn't have sent a stronger message that he has no respect for the game if he had bought a billboard at Coors Field for last night's game.

Where do the Yankees go from here? I think that from a long-term perspective, they are much better off not being tied down by an eight-year, more than $200 million commitment to a player with a questionable make-up that has never shown that he can be a force in the post-season. But it would be truly unfair to A Rod's regular season numbers to deny that losing him will have an impact in the short term, mainly next year. After all, to get to the post-season, you need to have enough hitting to win, especially when you plan on relying on a lot of untested young arms in the starting rotation. The Yankees were missing a big right-handed bat this year, so with the loss of A Rod, now they need two. And as much as Yankee bashers would have you think the Bombers can just buy whatever they want, it's not true. There are not a lot of dependable right-handed bats on the trade and free agency markets right now.

So long as the team doesn't panic and give away too much of their young pitching to replace the hole A Rod has left in the lineup, I think the long-term effect of A Rod's departure will be positive. With a new manager and A Rod gone, the Yankees can build an environment with the types of players that help you win. They can try and build the next era of championships.

If I was Brian Cashman, my first move would be to try and get Joe Crede from the Chicago White Sox to play third base. The White Sox would like to move Crede, since he is due to make more than $5 million in 2008, and they have the inexpensive second-year player Josh Fields waiting in the wings to take over. Crede had injuries in 2007 that limited him to 47 games, but in 2006 he blossomed, hitting .286 with 30 home runs and 94 runs batted in. He is a good fielder and has a good reputation as a team guy. And, most of all, he has demonstrated his ability to flourish on the big stage, hitting .294 with two home runs in the 2005 World Series and .368 with two homers and seven runs batted in in the 2005 American League Championship Series. Sure, Crede's regular season numbers are quite a tumble from A Rod's 2007 accomplishments, but, unlike A Rod, Crede has demonstrated that he knows what it takes to win big games, and he won't hurt the chemistry of the locker room. It would be a step in the right direction in demonstrating that winning goes beyond putting up numbers that make fantasy league owners drool.

You see, I believe it's no coincidence that A Rod has failed on the big stage time and time again. Despite the one-on-one, pitcher-versus-batter battles of baseball, the sport is still, at heart, a team game. The teams that win tend to play the right way. They get good pitching, timely hitting, and avoid the kind of mistakes that sink games. It doesn't necessarily take big sluggers to win the World Series.

Don't believe me? Between 1996 and 2000, during which the Yankees won the World Series four of five years, the heart of the order averaged the following seasons:

Paul O'Neill
.302 batting average, 20.2 home runs, 106.8 runs batted in

Bernie Williams
.324 batting average, 26.2 home runs, 107 runs batted in

Tino Martinez
.278 batting average, 28.2 home runs, 115.4 runs batted in

These guys posted very good numbers, yes, but none of them even sniffed the level of A Rod's 2007 season (.314, 54, 156). And yet, while those guys won four rings, A Rod only got out of the first round with the Yankees once in four years. I think it's interesting that Martinez's best year in that era (.296, 44 home runs, 141 runs batted in) came in 1997, when the Yankees lost in the first round to the Indians. In fact, between 1996 and 2000, no Yankee player won a league MVP award. The lesson isn't that you can't win with a guy having a monster year. That's just silly. But what these numbers do tell you is that you don't need a guy putting up huge MVP numbers to win the World Series.

In fact, winning in the regular season and succeeding in the playoffs are two very different propositions. During the regular season, batters can fatten up on bad pitching and bad teams to pump up their statistics. There is no shame in that. You have to beat the bad teams to make it to the post-season, and not every batter can make mediocre pitchers consistently pay the price for their mistakes. Rather, cashing in on bad pitches is what makes guys like A Rod able to put up monster numbers like he did last season. But in the playoffs, you rarely get to face a pitcher that is less than good. The skill as a hitter then becomes finding a way to succeed against good pitching, whether that means working a walk, slapping a single the other way, or thinking your way through an at-bat and being able to put yourself in a position to hit a ball hard. That very skill is one that A Rod has not mastered, and, more importantly, he has shown no indication that it is an ability he will ever have.

Simply put, again, winning in the post-season is about good pitching, timely hitting and avoiding mistakes. While during the regular season A Rod demonstrated a nearly unparallelled ability to succeed, he has not demonstrated the ability to solve good pitching, hit in the clutch, or make good decisions in the post-season. It's that simple.

So farewell, A Rod. Let your post-season struggles, me-first attitude that infects a locker room and year-round self-obsession become some other team's troubles (how perfect would it be for A Rod to replace Barry Bonds in San Francisco?). If the Yankees are smart, they will acknowledge A Rod's impressive regular season accomplishments and move on, building a team that succeeds in October. That is one thing A Rod has not been able to accomplish so far. George Young's quote goes both ways. For the Yankees, it's about the money; the money they no longer have to waste on a toxic player with one run batted in in his last 44 playoff at-bats, and who is zero for his last 18 in the post-season with runners in scoring position.

Best of all Yankee fans can go back to waiting for players to earn their status as greats before being prematurely coronated. They were burned once by A Rod. It will be hard to get them to fall for another false idol anytime soon.