Why is Major League Baseball’s best player also its biggest punchbag? Alex Rodriguez must be looking in the mirror each morning and asking that very question.
Rodriguez, who plays for the New York Yankees, has twice won the league’s Most Valuable Player award, in 2003 and again last year after a typically stellar season that saw him bat .321, hit 48 home runs and drive in 130 runs. He was twice awarded a Gold Glove for his defensive performance as shortstop for the Texas Rangers.
He switched to third base on joining the Yankees in 2004 and has since become arguably the finest player at that position. At 30, he is already considered a certainty for the Hall of Fame.
He is also considered by many baseball fans to be a choker and the angel of death for any team that employs him. That is because “A-Rod” is widely seen as a player who never fails to fail when a season is at stake.
His career statistics suggest otherwise – in eight play-off series, he has a .305 batting average, six home runs and 16 runs batted in. However, he has yet to take a team to the World Series and he has been a disappointment in New York. In the semi-finals two years ago, he all but disappeared as the Yankees squandered a 3-0 lead over the Boston Red Sox, who went on to win the title. During New York’s first-round loss last year to the Los Angeles Angels, Rodriguez again failed to shine, collecting just two hits and not delivering a single run.
The early exit last year marked the fifth consecutive year that New York did not win a title, an unacceptable record for owner George Steinbrenner and millions of Yankee fans. Although Rodriguez was not a team member for three of those seasons, his poor performance against the Angels turned him into the scapegoat for five years of disappointment and the criticism has been merciless.
Some Yankee fans speak of a “Curse of the A-Rod”. After last year’s play-off debacle, one New York sportswriter suggested A-Rod be renamed A-Clod. Rodriguez has also been derided as “an expensive creampuff”.
The reference to cost is telling. That is because as impressive as Rodriguez’s on-field statistics are, he is best known for another set of numbers – his 10-year, $252m contract.
He signed the record deal with the Texas Rangers in 2000 and the Yankees assumed most of the contract when they acquired him in 2004. He is the league’s highest-paid player by a considerable margin, earning about $5m more a year than team-mate Derek Jeter, the next highest-paid, and the money has become a millstone.
Asked what explains all the invective heaped on Rodriguez, Rick Cerrone, the team’s director of media relations, is frank. “It’s the contract,” he says. “It’s so far above anything we’ve seen that Alex is almost held to a different standard.”
Tim McCarver, a former Major League player and now a broadcaster for Fox Sports, believes the issue is not so much the pressure others have put on Rodriguez as the pressure he puts on himself. “He admitted that he was trying too hard during his first season in New York,” says McCarver. “There are expectations when you sign with the Yankees and he admitted that he was trying to justify his salary.”
It is odd, however, that the money would be an issue in New York. After all, the city is hardly a stranger to outlandish pay cheques.
The top hedge fund managers earn more in a year than Rodriguez’s contract pays him over a decade. The heads of the major investment banks typically take home more in a year than Rodriguez draws in salary. New York is so comfortable with outsized wealth that it even elected billionaire Michael Bloomberg as mayor. The city’s most recognizable figure, Donald Trump, is also a billionaire.
Moreover, unlike many lavishly paid people, Rodriguez does not appear to have let riches influence his attitude. Since arriving in New York, he has been anything but a prima donna. , and generally self-effacing in the extreme. —and the Yankees know something about prima donnas. Shortly after Reggie Jackson was traded to New York in 1976, he gave an interview in which he allegedly claimed that he was, for the Yankees, the “straw that stirs the drink”, a comment that left many of his team-mates seething. (Jackson has always insisted the reporter put the words in his mouth.)
Nothing of the kind has ever been heard from Rodriguez. Typical was the comment he made last Sunday, following New York’s victory over the Minnesota Twins, a game in which he collected three hits. “It seems like when I’m swinging the bat well, the boys roll,” he said. “It’s contagious.”
No grandiose claim; just the simple observation that success tends to beget success. Since joining New York, Rodriguez has generally been self-effacing in the extreme. From the outset, he said the Yankees were, and would remain, Jeter’s team. To underscore the point, he agreed to transfer to third base in deference to shortstop Jeter, the club captain and most popular player.
Rodriguez may also be the Yankees’ hardest-working player. “No one outworks Alex,” says Cerrone. “No one gets to the stadium earlier for games or practice.”
Indeed, the club believes Rodriguez pushes himself too hard. Last weekend, manager Joe Torre said: “He drives himself to the point of expecting himself to do more than any human being is capable of doing. He doesn’t think he should do anything wrong, ever. We can’t live our lives that way.”
But Rodriguez surely feels he has no choice. The fact that the Yankees, a team with the most expensive collection of superstars in baseball history, have gone five years without a title is a source of enormous frustration in New York – and it is only natural that the frustration is taken out primarily on the guy with the most talent and the biggest salary.
The Yankees have started this season in lacklustre fashion and should they finish the way they have begun, the dissatisfaction with Rodriguez will mount. Until he helps lead the Yankees to a championship, the money he earns is going to buy him more grief than love in New York.