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Growing Pains

March 16, 2009
March 16, 2009

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March 16, 2009

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Growing Pains

A-Rod's injury fits an unhealthy pattern for aging sluggers

ALEX RODRIGUEZ isso outsized a presence that it's easy to forget that in addition to being aparamour of Madonna, a user of steroids and an owner of tasteful sweaters, he'salso a normal ballplayer. He does things like take batting practice, dive backinto first base, and barrel into catchers at home plate. All of this causessmall injuries, and whether you're an All-Star or a scrub, over time these addup. A microscopic tear is felt as nagging stiffness, the player eager tojustify his absurd earnings ignores it, the tear spreads and before you know itthe player is looking at losing a chunk of a season—and, for all he knows, hisbat speed—to an operation. The Yankees third baseman, who announced on Sundaythat he will undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip and willmiss at least six weeks, is now familiar with the normal process of aging.

This is an article from the March 16, 2009 issue

It's the mostcommon story in the game, and also why teams don't usually commit to players intheir fourth decade of life for 10 years at a clip. But in November 2007, whenthe Yankees gave him a contract extension worth nearly $300 million, Rodriguezwas supposed to be a special case. He was 32, and at the time he had hit 54more home runs than anyone else had ever hit at that point in his career. Morethan that, he was almost uniquely durable, having missed an average of fewerthan three games a season over the previous seven years. Given this and modernconditioning, it was easy to assume that he would go along as he alwayshad.

But what looklike assets can, on closer inspection, prove to be liabilities, which is whyRodriguez's contract might be the biggest financial disaster in baseballhistory. Start with the home runs. Through age 31, Rodriguez had hit 518,placing him right ahead of Jimmie Foxx, Ken Griffey Jr., Eddie Mathews andMickey Mantle. It was the heaviest possible company—and, in actuarial terms,some of the scariest. Those are four of the most notorious burnouts ever. Foxxwas essentially done at 34. Griffey, after playing 111 games at 31, averaged 89per season for the next five years. Mathews was never again a true star afterturning 32, and like Mantle, who famously spent the last years of his career inpain, he played his last game at 36.

Each of theseplayers were teenage prodigies who came up early and were ridden hard. Whatsets Rodriguez apart, of course, is that unlike them he came up playingshortstop, the second most physically demanding position on the field, aftercatcher. And he played it a lot, ranking third among post-integration playersin games in the middle infield through age 27. A look at the players ahead ofhim is as frightening as a look at the home run rankings. Robin Yount never hada really strong season after he was 33, and played his last game at 38. BillMazeroski fell apart at 32, and played his last game at 36.

Set asideKaballah, Boli, "Brandon" Arroyo's glove, "single whitefemale," cheesecake shots in the tabloids and all the other detritus andkipple that's built up around Rodriguez over the years. More than any of it, heis defined by the fact that he reached the major leagues at 18 and was workedlike a farm animal in years when his body was still developing. More or lessevery other player of whom that can be said fell apart disastrously. Whateverthe exact state of his hip right now, the most significant number he's playingfor isn't 763 but 138. That's how many games he played last year; it might bemore than he ever plays again.

Go Figure

0--13
The Wizards' record against Southeast Division teams this year; no NBA team hasgone winless within its division for an entire season.

3
Division games Washington has left.

$1.2 million
Payout Rutgers received for playing in the PapaJohns.com Bowl in December.

$184,000
Amount Rutgers lost on the trip after travel expenses and performance bonusesto its coaches.

56
Years since Washington had won a regular-season conference basketballchampionship before clinching the Pac-10 title with a win over Washington Statelast Saturday.

8--2
Score by which the Blue Jackets beat the Red Wings last Saturday, a Columbusrecord for goals and margin of victory.

58
Consecutive Conference USA wins by Memphis, which can run its streak to 61 inthis week's conference tournament.

64
Consecutive SEC victories by Kentucky from 1945 to '50, the longestin-conference streak in NCAA history.

PHOTOMITCH STRINGER/CAL SPORT MEDIA (RODRIGUEZ)CRUEL COMPANY Rodriguez hopes to avoid the breakdowns that plagued Mathews, Foxx, Griffey and Mantle (clockwise).PHOTOMLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (MATHEWS)[See caption above]PHOTOCORBIS (FOXX)[See caption above]PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (GRIFFEY)[See caption above]PHOTOJAMES DRAKE (MANTLE)[See caption above]