Despite his extraordinary numbers, New York fans are quick to discount his contributions. And when things go wrong for A-Rod, even his teammates find him hard to motivate and harder to understand
By Tom Verducci
"Joe wants to see you."
Alex Rodriguez 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.
"This is all about honesty," Torre told A-Rod in Seattle. "You can't pretend everything is O.K. when it's not."
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, he 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 rough treatment.
Torre hit .363 with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971 and .289 the following season, giving him a deep understanding of the ebb and flow of performance. With veteran players especially he operates like an old fisherman checking the tide charts, believing that the worst of times only means the best is to come. Rodriguez will hit, he thought, and he kept telling his third baseman exactly that.
Torre's trademark placidity ended, though, when Giambi asked to talk to Torre in Seattle. "Skip," Giambi told Torre, "it's time to stop coddling him."
For all the scorn heaped upon Giambi for his ties to the BALCO steroid scandal, he is a strong clubhouse voice because he plays with a passion that stirs teammates and even opponents. This season, for instance, he reprimanded his former Oakland A's teammate, Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada, for occasionally showing up late to games out of frustration over another losing Baltimore season. "You're better than that," he told Tejada. So Giambi's gripe about Rodriguez sounded an alarm with Torre.
"What Jason said made me realize that I had to go at it a different way," Torre says. "When the rest of the team starts noticing things, you have to get it fixed. That's my job. I like to give individuals what I believe is the room they need, but when I sense that other people are affected, teamwise, I have to find a solution to it."
The players' confidence in Rodriguez was eroding as they sensed that he did not understand how much his on-field struggles were hurting the club. Said one Yankees veteran, "It was always about the numbers in [Seattle and Texas] for him. And that doesn't matter here. Winning is all you're judged on here."
Before Giambi went to Torre, he had scolded Rodriguez after a 13-5 win in Boston on Aug. 19. Irked that Rodriguez left four runners on base in the first three innings against a shaky Josh Beckett, Giambi thought A-Rod needed to be challenged. "We're all rooting for you and we're behind you 100 percent," Giambi recalls telling Rodriguez, "but you've got to get the big hit."
"What do you mean?" was Rodriguez's response, according to Giambi. "I've had five hits in Boston."
"You f------ call those hits?" Giambi said. "You had two f------ dinkers to rightfield and a ball that bounced over the third baseman! Look at how many pitches you missed!
"When you hit three, four or five [in the order], you have to get the big hits, especially if they're going to walk Bobby [Abreu] and me. I'll help you out until you get going. I'll look to drive in runs when they pitch around me, go after that 3-and-1 pitch that might be a ball. But if they're going to walk Bobby and me, you're going to have to be the guy."
(Asked about Giambi's pep talk, Rodriguez said he could not remember what was discussed, though he added, "I'm sure we had a conversation.")
"If I can look back," says A-Rod, "and see I made 25 errors, hit .285 and drove in 125, I mean, has God really been that bad to me?"
In Seattle, Torre looked at Rodriguez squarely and said, "This is all about honesty. And it's not about anybody else but you. You can't pretend everything is O.K. when it's not. You have to face the reality that you're going through a tough time, and then work from there."
It was as close to a tongue-lashing as the low-key Torre ever gets. When the manager comes down on a player, he will mix in the occasional profanity, but his voice remains even and there are no threats. Here his hammer was in the rebuke that Rodriguez's unwillingness to address his slump head-on was letting himself and theteam down. Torre told him he needed to show some fight, some anger even, rather than continuing to act as if he were doing just fine.
Rodriguez maintained eye contact while Torre spoke and nodded repeatedly. His only sign of discomfort was that he kept twirling his wedding ring around his finger. When Torre was done, he asked A-Rod if he understood what he had just told him. "Yes, 100 percent," Rodriguez said firmly.
Earlier this month, in recalling the meeting with Torre, Rodriguez said, "Oh, he was real tough. That was the toughest he's been on me."
On the night of the meeting Rodriguez struck out as a pinch hitter to end the game. He whacked the dugout railing with his bat, walked up the runway and into the clubhouse, and picked up a folding chair and threw it.
Two days and seven more embarrassing strikeouts later, it seemed as if the meeting with Torre had never happened. It was late afternoon at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, so late that the concession and maintenance workers were long gone as Rodriguez walked through the empty labyrinth of service tunnels from the clubhouse to a rightfield parking lot. "It's not a big deal," he said. "It's only two games. Back in 1999 I was 5 for 81 [actually 6 for 62] and got an 0-and-2 fastball from Esteban Yan over my head and hit it out, and I was fine. This is nothing like that. It's only two games."
It was classic A-Rod: the instant recall of his numbers, the whistling past the graveyard of a slump that was much deeper than two days. He has already hit into more double plays than ever before, and he most likely will exceed his career highs in strikeouts and errors. Rodriguez also hadn't come to terms with his teammates' sense that he wasn't doing enough to shake things up. Torre and his coaches, for instance, lingered late in the Angel Stadium clubhouse on the previous night trying to decide what to do about Rodriguez. Some wanted him dropped in the lineup. Torre came down on the side of moving him up to second in the order.
Despite taking 45 minutes of batting practice after the game that day, Rodriguez continued to flail away, in the midst of what would be a 2-for-20 stretch with 14 strikeouts. Like a blindfolded kid hacking at a piņata, he missed the baseball 19 of the 36 times he swung the bat.
Said centerfielder Johnny Damon during that West Coast trip, "His swing is so mechanical. He's too good to be swinging like that. Just let it flow. See the ball and react to it. And sometimes you need to do whatever you can, especially with two strikes or with runners on, to get the job done. He's not doing that."
"He's guessing," Giambi said, "and he's doing a bad job of it, which is inevitable when you guess as often as he guesses. He's squeezing the f------ sawdust out of the bat."
Said another teammate, "I think he ought to get his eyes checked. I'm not kidding. I don't think he's seeing the ball."
And another: "I honestly think he might be afraid of the ball."
Every clubhouse has a unique current, like that of a river, with a temperature and a pace that can be felt only by wading into it. The A's, taking their cue from general manager Billy Beane's shorts and flip-flops, play as if it's Friday happy hour. The Atlanta Braves, eschewing the clubhouse stereo, have a self-assured, nine-to-five approach. The Yankees, the last baseball bastion in which beards and individualism are verboten, foster a Prussian efficiency.
The old guard with connections to New York's four championship seasons from 1996 to 2000 -- Torre, Rivera, shortstop Derek Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada and outfielder Bernie Williams -- almost never talks about individual numbers because stats are incidental to the team's mission: winning the World Series. Those title teams talked about "passing the baton" -- taking a walk or moving a runner over out of confidence in and respect for the next hitter. Reliance on one another is what mattered. That is still the covenant of the Yankees, though perhaps not as sublimely executed.
One day last month, wading into that current, I asked Rodriguez whom he has relied on most during his difficult summer. He first mentioned Cynthia.
But to whom has he turned on this Yankees team?
He looked down and thought in silence. Ten seconds passed.
Finally he said, "Rob Thomson." Thomson is the team's special-assignment coach who throws batting practice.
"And Mo. Mariano is the best. Those three."
And that was it.
As the conscience and soul of the team, Rivera is everyone's touchstone. When asked if he had counseled Rodriguez this summer, Rivera said, "He has my support, [but] he has to figure it out on his own. Sometimes you try so hard to do things so right that you do them all wrong. It's like moving in quicksand. The more you move, the more you sink."
As revered as Rivera is, though, no one is more important to the Yankees' clubhouse culture than the captain, the 32-year-old Jeter. As younger players Rodriguez and Jeter enjoyed a close friendship, often staying with each other when the Yankees faced the Mariners. But they have had little personal connection since 2001, when Rodriguez referred to Jeter as a number-two hitter in an Esquire story, code for a complementary player. Giambi referred last month to "the heat that exists between them."
Jeter, who publicly supported Giambi when he was being blasted for his BALCO involvement, has refused to throw any life preservers to Rodriguez this summer. I asked Jeter why he hasn't told the critics to ease up on A-Rod. "My job as a player is not to tell the fans what to do," he said. "My job is not to tell the media what to write about. They're going to do what they want. They should just let it go. How many times can you ask the same questions?"
Had he ever seen such persistent criticism? "Knobby," he said, referring to error-prone former second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. "[Roger] Clemens for a whole year. Tino [Martinez]."
Has A-Rod's treatment been worse?
"I don't know," Jeter said. "I don't think about that. I'm just concerned with doing what we can to win."
Here is the way Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson, a Yankees special adviser and a member of the franchise's mythological pinstriped society, explained the yin and yang of the Jeter-Rodriguez relationship: "Alex is too concerned with wanting people to like him. Derek knows he can control only things within the area code DJ."
Rodriguez must be deferential to Jeter because birth order within the Yankees' family is a powerful influence. Rodriguez will never be as popular as Jeter with New York fans, will never catch him in rings or Yankees legacy, in the same way the younger brother never will be the oldest, no matter how many birthdays pass.
When I asked Rodriguez about his relationship with Jeter this year, he replied, "People always want to look at someone's silence and equate that with a negative thing. I don't see it that way."
I reminded him that Jeter's words carry the most weight. "Mariano said good things [about me]. Joe said good things. [G.M. Brian] Cashman said great things," Rodriguez said. "But again, people want to focus on Jeet. Jeet's very quiet by nature, so I wouldn't want him to change who he is to come and defend me. Because I'm a grown man."
Watching a Yankees-Angels game in Anaheim from a television booth, Jackson noticed Rodriguez (the number-two hitter that day) and
Jeter (batting third) near the on-deck circle with their backs to each other. "Classic Ruth-and-Gehrig picture right there," said Jackson, referring to the legends and their frosty relationship.
Jackson likes Rodriguez, recognizes in him the same need for ego massaging that he had as a player. Jackson took him to dinner last month -- yet another intervention -- and described how bad he had it as a Yankee. Jackson talked about when his teammates left notes in his locker telling him that they didn't want him in New York; about how manager Billy Martin so beat it into his head that he was a bad defensive player that on the night Jackson hit three home runs in the 1977 World Series, he played a routine double into a triple because he'd been stricken with fear that he'd screw it up; about when he was in the midst of such a horrific strikeout streak that he pleaded to Detroit Tigers catcher Lance Parrish, "Tell me what's coming, and I promise I'll take a turn right back into the dugout no matter where I hit it. I just want to look like a pro a little bit." (Parrish replied, "F--- you"; Jackson, to his immense satisfaction, grounded out.)
During the game, Jackson told a parable to make a point about Rodriguez. A man is trapped in his house as floodwaters rise. Twice he refuses help, once from rescuers in a boat and then, when the man seeks refuge on his roof, from rescuers in a helicopter. "No, thanks," the man says. "I've got faith." The next thing he knows he is face-to-face with God in heaven.
"But I put my faith in you!" the man cried.
"Yes," God replied, "and I answered your faith and tried to help you twice."
As Jackson spoke, Rodriguez whiffed yet again, this time on a pitch that bounced on the grass in front of home plate. How does a player with so much talent get so bad? It seemed ages ago, but Rodriguez was the American League Player of the Month for May, when he batted .330 with eight homers and 28 RBIs. Then he lost the natural groove and quickness in his stroke. A crisis of confidence befell him when he could not hit the ball out of the park to right centerfield in batting practice.
"BP is a big key for me," Rodriguez said. "And you don't know how devastating it is to hit a ball you think you got squarely and see it die on the warning track. Out of 40 swings in BP, I should hit 22 out of the park. I was hitting three out of 40. I couldn't hit a fastball. Eighty-nine, 90 [mph pitches] were going right past me, and I knew it."
Trying to catch up to fastballs, he started guessing and began his swing early, lunging at the ball with his hips drifting forward, creating a flaw that robbed him of even more power -- or worse, flailing embarrassingly at what turned out to be a slider. Then as he carried the anxiety into the field, his usually reliable glove began to fail him.
"He puts in the work before games and looks textbook out there," third base coach Larry Bowa said last month. "But all of a sudden the game starts, and he quits using his feet and he's fielding with a lazy lower half. That causes his arm to drop, and the ball sails on him."
There was one game against Boston in Yankee Stadium in June when Rodriguez looked so anguished by the rough treatment from New York fans that Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, while watching him from the on-deck circle, grew concerned. Ortiz caught Rodriguez's attention and gave him an exaggerated exhale, the way you might when a physician asks you to take a deep breath. Rodriguez would later thank Ortiz. "It was painful to see his face," Ortiz said. "I had to tell him to just breathe and relax."
Asked when his season turned sour, Rodriguez replied, "I was absolutely on fire in Detroit early in the year. Then I got sick and I didn't play for three or four days. And then the whole month was kind of lost. It took a while to get my strength back. I'm not explaining that June, the month I stunk, was because I got sick. Let's make that clear. You ask, 'What's the turning point, going from Player of the Month in May to June?' That's the only thing in the middle."
He did admit that the media and fan criticism caused him stress that crept into his game. "I think it bothered me, early in the year," he said. The jeering of Rodriguez fed on itself, with Yankees fans emboldened by the obvious physical signs from A-Rod that he was unnerved. Posada could go 0 for 25 in August and go uncriticized, but Rodriguez would be excoriated for popping up in the first inning.
Sample A-Rod headlines from the summer:
A-ROD GETS A HIT....
DO YOU HATE THIS MAN?
Said Rodriguez, "It actually reached the point of being so ridiculous that I just had to laugh. It's like if you show up at work one day with a red shirt, and I go, 'Man, that's an ugly shirt.' And the next day you wear a blue shirt, and I go, 'Man, that's an ugly shirt.' And the next day, yellow shirt, same thing. And on and on, every day. At some point you understand it's not really about the shirts. And it becomes easy to dismiss the criticism."
Why must Rodriguez defend himself? He plays hard, is durable, stays out of trouble off the field, has hit more than 460 home runs and might wind up reaching 800, which would place him on the short list of the greatest players in history. He is a career .305 hitter (and has batted nearly the same with runners in scoring position, by the way) with 10 All-Star selections, eight Silver Sluggers, four home run titles, two MVP Awards, two Gold Gloves and one batting title.
And yet A-Rod routinely is treated like the guy in the dunk tank at the county fair, even, most incriminating of all, by his peers. In the past two years he's been called out by Boston pitcher Curt Schilling ("bush league"), Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon ("He can't stand up to Jeter in my book, or Bernie Williams or Posada"), Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen ("hypocrite") and New York Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca (who accused him on the field of showing up the Mets by admiring a home run too long).
"One thing people don't like," said one teammate, "is his body language. Too much of what he does on the field looks ... scripted."
I asked Rodriguez why criticism of him from inside and outside the game is so amplified. "We know why," he said.
The contract? That 10-year, $252 million deal that no one has come close to matching for six years? He nodded.
"But I don't expect people to feel sorry for me," he said. "My teammates get more upset about the criticism and booing than I do. A hundred players have come to third base and said, 'This is bulls---. You're having a great year.' You wonder why it bothers players so much. Tim Salmon, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Garret Anderson ... I could throw you a hundred names. They're looking at the scoreboard and saying, 'This guy's got 90 RBIs and I've got 47, and I'm getting cheered?'
"My agent, Scott Boras, was talking about [Oakland third baseman] Eric Chavez, who's a great player. He's hitting .235. He's got 16 home runs, 43 ribbies? This guy is getting cheered every time he comes up to the plate. If I can look back on 2006 and see I made 25 errors, hit .285 and drove in 125, I mean, has God really been that bad to me?"
Alex doesn't know who he is," Giambi said in late August. "We're going to find out who he is in the next couple of months."
October is the foundry of Yankees legend. It's why Scott Brosius will never have to buy another meal in New York, though the third baseman was a career .257 hitter, including .245 with a dreadful .278 on-base percentage in the playoffs. But Brosius had a couple of huge hits, and the Yankees were 11-1 in postseason series with him.
For all his career achievements, Rodriguez cannot become a made Yankee without a memorable October. He won the AL MVP award last year, but what stuck to him was his 2-for-15 showing in a Division Series loss to the Angels. It reinforced his disappearance during New York's historic 2004 ALCS collapse to Boston. Until Game 4 of that series, Rodriguez had hit .372 and slugged .640 in 22 career postseason games. But since then he has hit .125 (4 for 32) and slugged .250 while the Yankees have gone 2-7. It's unfair, of course, but to find real acceptance in New York, Rodriguez must win a ring as a Yankee.
Not that A-Rod believes he has all that much that needs to be redeemed this season. His extreme slump -- not his word, of course -- that peaked in Anaheim didn't seem so bad to him. "Reggie hit .230 one year," Rodriguez said. "That's awful. He struck out 170-something times in a year. I don't care who you are, extremes are just part of the game. I was awful [in Anaheim], but Jeter was 0 for 32 [in 2004], Mo blew three games in one week [last year].... Everybody goes through it."
Rodriguez isn't the only Yankee who needs a good October. When he looks around the clubhouse, he sees more teammates who have never won a title in New York than those who have. And thanks to the Rangers' picking up $67 million of the money left on his contract when he was traded to New York, Rodriguez can find three players in the same room to whom the Yankees are paying more this year -- Jeter ($21 million), Giambi ($19 million) and righthander Mike Mussina ($19 million) -- and a fourth, lefthander Randy Johnson, to whom they pay an equal amount ($16 million). Next year the Yankees will pay outfielder Bobby Abreu ($17.5 million) more than Rodriguez, making A-Rod a veritable bargain. I point out all of this to Rodriguez early this month as we walk underneath the first base stands at Yankee Stadium toward the indoor batting cage.
"Mussina doesn't get hammered at all," he said. "He's making a boatload of money. Giambi's making [$20.4 million], which is fine and dandy, but it seems those guys get a pass. When people write [bad things] about me, I don't know if it's [because] I'm good-looking, I'm biracial, I make the most money, I play on the most popular team...."
He laughed easily, his mood still bright after a Yankee Stadium curtain call the previous day in which Torre told him the fans wanted him, prompting Rodriguez to observe, "I'm very shy when I play. I always wonder, If I was an a------ and a very flamboyant guy, how much attention could I really call to myself?"
Yet that shyness has been his undoing. Rodriguez suffers from an astonishing lack of competitive arrogance proportionate to his immense skill. Jackson, for instance, hates the way A-Rod does his pretty peacock-preening practice swings and then lacks any physical presence once he steps in. Even his infamous gut reaction to Boston pitcher Bronson Arroyo's trying to tag him along the first base line in the 2004 ALCS -- Rodriguez awkwardly slapped Arroyo's glove rather than bulldozing the pitcher or first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz -- was a window into his softer side.
Rodriguez knows reporters' names and their affiliates and will often ask them questions about themselves, a rarity among ballplayers. This solicitousness can be awkward, even detrimental, in the socially stunted environment of a clubhouse and the brutally demanding environment of Yankee Stadium. His blood may not run cold enough.
"You know what you are?" Jackson said to Rodriguez in the New York clubhouse last Thursday. "You're too nice."
With a hitter as talented as Rodriguez, it would seem inevitable that after the drought would come a deluge. ("No," says Rodriguez, "because you don't believe it's inevitable when you can't hit the ball out in batting practice.") On Aug. 31 in the Bronx he banged out three hits against the Detroit Tigers, only his second three-hit game at home since the All-Star break. That triggered a 9-for-17 tear in which Rodriguez smashed five home runs, including one that looked so much like a routine fly-out off the bat that Torre yelled to the runners, "Tag up." Four hundred fifty feet later the ball landed in the black seats beyond centerfield. "Once you're relaxed, you react to the [pitch]," Torre said. "He's reacting to the ball, not predetermining what he was going to do, like before."
Rodriguez hasn't stopped hitting, either, batting .360 since that breakout game as the Yankees, comfortably in control of the AL East, play carefree baseball. He rediscovered his smooth footwork in the field, and his hands felt faster at the plate. He began to wait long enough on pitches to drive them hard to centerfield and rightfield, the satisfying confirmation for a righthanded hitter, like a wink from a pretty girl, that life is good.
After the home runs Rodriguez would credit Torre for helping to put the groove back in his swing. Under the stadium on a cool, wet night in which October seemed so close, I thought about that meeting Torre had with A-Rod in Seattle and had one last question:
What was Joe's main message?
Rodriguez rolled the question around in his head for a moment. He hesitated, "Uh ..." and then answered with this: "'We need you.'"