Fun while it lasts
Also in this column: • Does Joe Torre gotta go to Mo'? • Andruw Jones vs. Alfonso Soriano • More new and notes
Alex Rodriguez was one of many players who told us he came to the Yankees to win a World Series ring. Well, if things continue this way, he may become the first player who'll want to leave the Yankees for that very same reason: to win a ring.
A-Rod's unprecedented hitting exploits have enabled the slumping Yankees, who have yet to win a game in which Rodriguez didn't homer, to go only 8-9 so far. Without A-Rod, they might be 5-12, or worse.
When considering Rodriguez's chances to stay with the Yankees, neither his unmatched season-starting tear nor New Yorkers' accompanying newfound adoration of A-Rod guarantees a thing. Except maybe that he won't ever again have to bat eighth in Joe Torre's lineup -- as he did in last year's Division Series loss to Detroit -- or anyone else's, for that matter. If anything, Rodriguez's extraordinary early play could enhance his chances to leave, as the likelihood increases by the homer that he can secure $175 million or more as a free agent.
In New York A-Rod might never find the type of unconditional love he once sought from his manager, his co-superstar and former bosom buddy Derek Jeter, and from the Yankees' tough fans, who like him just fine for the moment. If you spend some time in the subways or streets of New York, or even the corner coffee shops, as I did this week, you'll know that the chances of him hitting 60 home runs are greater than him ever winning over all the fans. Many of them seem to already have made up their mind to love him only when he's performing superhuman exploits (like his 12 homers, 31 RBIs and ridiculous .986 slugging percentage so far).
As great as A-Rod is now, just enough fans will forget it all the next time he fails to come through in the clutch. The pressure will never subside. And if he happens to fall short of postseason heroism again, he'll never have a shot. So if things look rosy now, there's only a small chance they'll stay that way.
To have come this far under enormous pressure is itself an almost unfathomable accomplishment, a feat impressive enough to assure there will be a multitude of suitors should he opt out of his deal and risk walking away from the $81 million that's coming to him if he chooses to stay a Yankee. Eight teams sought him in trade last year, and at least that many will call if he's free. It'll start with the Angels, but certainly won't end there.
New York should enjoy it while it lasts. Because the smart money says this could be it for A-Rod in New York.
Here's, in part, how he turned it all around (as if anyone needs to turn things around after a 35-homer, 121-RBI season):
1. Right away this spring, Rodriguez aired the reality that he and Jeter are no longer best friends, thus unburdening himself of a pressure he didn't need. According to people close to both men, Jeter was extremely ticked off to be thrown back into the middle of a soap opera (if only for a day), but Jeter got through what was to him an annoying day of follow-up questions and Rodriguez benefited by releasing himself from the lie that they were still close.
2. He took a page out of Jeter's book by sanitizing his answers after that first revealing day. A-Rod will never be quite as boring as Jeter (or before him, the King of the Intentionally Dull, Tino Martinez) and he'll eventually slip and say something back-page worthy. But until then, the strategy has helped him concentrate on the ballplaying aspect of his 24-hour job.
3. He lost quite a bit of weight. Rodriguez revealed that he's down to 9 percent body fat from 16. You don't have to be a nutritionist or mathematician to know that's quite a substantial drop. That may be why he's quicker to pitches and doesn't get tied up inside as often, and it can't have hurt his range at third base, either. In spring training, there was some clubhouse chitchat among Yankees pitchers about being nervous when the ball was hit to him. That talk has stopped. The weight loss also doesn't appear to have cost him strength.
4. He's changed some of his pre-at-bat ritual and dropped his exaggerated leg kick, which appears to have sped up his swing and helped make him almost invulnerable to inside pitches.
5. He's become more aggressive at the plate. Scouts were starting to notice how many called third strikes he was taking last year, quite possibly the result of overthinking. "Maybe he went back to tapes of his time in Seattle and Texas. He rarely took a third strike before, and he hit more bad balls for home runs than anyone," one scout said. He has regained that confidence and aggressiveness that made him baseball's most feared hitter.
The Yankees can say over and over again that the games against Boston were just three early games. But Torre showed us all how important he thought these games were when he summoned Mariano Rivera for the eighth inning Friday night.
At that moment, Torre's desperation was showing like almost never before.
The last thing Torre wanted to do was go back on his word to Rivera that he was henceforth a one-inning pitcher, a word so important Torre volunteered it about the first day of spring. Of course, Rivera didn't believe the word for a second. He chuckled when he heard about the pledge.
As it turns out, Torre's pledge was indeed laughable. Though Rivera technically only pitched one inning because he blew the save and the game, Torre contradicted his word before Rivera even saved one game this season. Or as Torre playfully put it, "I lied."
As it turns out, too, the Yankees may be fortunate in the long run that Rivera doesn't have his stuff together and didn't have to pitch both innings. There's no sense taking a chance adding Rivera to the list of fallen Yankees in what has to be the most painful (literally, painful, that is) start of any Yankees season.
One competition where the Yankees are beating the Mets is in the arena of ballpark building. The new Yankee Stadium appears to be slightly ahead of Citifield. And if anyone thinks the progress of the stadium builders doesn't matter, it may to the Mets. Consider that Citifield is being built in a spot beyond the outfield at Shea, and there's a theory going around that by late summer the new field will be built up enough to change the wind patterns and allow balls to carry out to left-center field. For years, balls have carried better to right-center, where the scoreboard cuts the wind, in the notorious pitchers' park.
As if the Mets could use any hitting help.
• Andruw Jones turns 30 today. That's only a reminder of how many years the free-agent-to-be has left to excel. Jones would love to remain with the Braves if all things were equal, but hardly anyone believes the Braves will spend "market value" on Jones. Market value should be somewhere in the range of Alfonso Soriano's $136 million deal. And as one NL executive said, "[Jones] is a much better player. He's great defensively. And he plays to win."
• The long-held belief in New York was that Soriano was playing for a contract. As one New York-based exec said, "And he got one." Might've been nice if they'd clued the Cubs in about this.
• Jose Reyes is the most fun player to be around. Tom Glavine said Reyes is just like Andruw Jones was as a kid, giggling for hours before gametime. Yes, it's a good life. It's just nice to see someone realize how good it is.
• While the Braves were in New York, Glavine teased Jones for being so honest and revealing that he would prefer to stay in a warm climate rather than talk up his love for New York, as many free agents do to juice up the market. According to Glavine, he joked to his former teammate that "you've got to keep the New York teams in it." But Glavine also knows that Jones' honesty was admirable.
• The Astros would love it if Brad Lidge retakes his closer's job, but he didn't help his case when he couldn't retire the one batter he faced Sunday. Meanwhile, the Astros fantasize about a closer who could combine the talent of Chad Qualls and the moxie of Dan Wheeler, who's doing the job for now.
• It's a good year to be a Hudson. Orlando Hudson is second in the NL in batting (.373) and Tim Hudson is second in ERA (0.62).
• Good to see J.J. Hardy, whose 2006 season was ruined by injury, get on a tear. Consider yourself a verifiable "seamhead" if you knew that Hardy recently had four home runs in a three-game span?
• Brett Myers might wind up as Phillies closer soon. This has to be a surprise to the team, which, as one competitor pointed out, gave Myers "starter money" ($25.75 million over three years) when it recently signed him to an extension.