Faced withdescribing the current plight of the Yankees, The Record of Bergen, N.J.,responded on Sunday with a story that began: "It's no secret that AlexRodriguez has sunk to the bottom of a cesspool filled by self-doubt."
Ignoring for amoment the imagery involved--are there also septic systems of shame, latrinesof laziness?--the sentiment is telling for two reasons. First, it's indicativeof the drubbing Rodriguez, or "E-Rod" as the tabloids have taken tocalling him, has taken in New York of late. Second, it is essentiallyaccurate.
The nadir came lastweekend. After Rodriguez made five errors in five games (hence the E-Rod tag),Yankees manager Joe Torre mercifully installed him as the DH last Saturday, anadmission that his star player might need a mental health day. Rodriguez wasback at third base the next afternoon and survived without an error. But he didgo 0 for 4, prolonging a 4-for-22 slump riddled with ugly strikeouts. (Hewhiffed four times during his DH stint.) His .277 average is his lowest sincehis rookie year, and his power numbers--21 home runs and 71 RBIs--also sagbelow his lofty standards. Regardless, after Saturday's game, Rodriguez toldreporters, "I still feel good."
It was classicA-Rod, whose public party line could be summed up as, "Move along, there'snothing to see here." During his tenure in New York, he has seemed distant,orchestrated and disingenuous. Things are always fine, nothing ever bothershim, obstacles are reconfigured as challenges. He would make a wonderful presssecretary someday.
Sure, we've seenmeltdowns like this before, but none have been endured by such a talentedfigure, or as heavily scrutinized. Rodriguez is on track to be the greatestever; last week he became the youngest player to hit 450 home runs. This is notNick Anderson missing free throws; this is Michael Jordan, in his prime, airballing layups, Joe Montana flubbing spirals.
Worse, Rodriguezhas no social capital to spend in New York. There is no leeway, nounderstanding. He hits a home run and the hordes wonder why it came during arout (Newsday headline: if it doesn't count, count on a-rod). He goes toCentral Park with his family, as he did last week, and he's painted as vain(for taking his shirt off) and unprepared (he made three errors that night,leading news outlets to speculate a rather unlikely cause and effect). He biffsa play, and teammates proffer not the usual no-I-in-team-isms but this, frompitcher Mike Mussina, after he threw wide of home against the Jays last week:"All he had to do was throw it on target and [the runner] was out by 20feet." Ouch.
Unlike, say, JasonGiambi, who has rehabilitated his steroid-tainted image despite looking againlike a Frigidaire, A-Rod cannot seem to make a lasting impression unless it'snegative. In psychology there's a concept called primacy. When faced withsuccessive pieces of information, humans tend to remember whichever came first.Thus, Rodriguez will forever be remembered as the $252 million man. There isalso a recency effect: People tend to recall the last thing that happened,which in Rodriguez's case would be his flameout in the ALDS last fall or hisStrangeglove adventures this year. His 2005 MVP season? It's sandwiched in theeasily forgotten middle.
None of this wouldmatter if Rodriguez didn't let it. He is famously self-motivated, a guy wholists Jack Welch's Straight from the Gut and Pat Riley's The Winner Within ashis favorite books, but he also admits to reading his own press. When askedrecently what he would change about himself, he said, "to be more contentwith where I am, on and off the field," because "I'm never happy withmy performance." He is brave enough to admit he goes to therapy--but maybesome things shouldn't be deconstructed, athletic confidence being one. There'sa reason many pros are superstitious, putting on their socks in the same orderand eating the same pregame sandwich. Despite immense skill and years ofpractice, they want to attribute success, and failure, to reasons beyond theircontrol. Strike out and it's not an internal flaw but the gyro you had forlunch.
Perhaps Rodriguez'sdownfall is that, like New York fans, he is too quick to blame A-Rod. Worry toomuch, and even throwing to first base gets hard. When Jim McLean, a respectedgolf teacher, was struggling with tee shots while at the University of Houston,his instructor, 1956 Masters winner Jack Burke Jr., told him to drive toGalveston and hit three balls into the Gulf of Mexico. As recounted in GolfDigest, McLean said the next day that he'd hit them well, and Burke responded,"Well, gawdam, that's it! You've been steering that s.o.b. out there!You've got to let it go! The Gulf of Mexico's not big enough for you! Think ofthe Atlantic Ocean--there's no way to miss it!"
If Rodriguez headedto the Hudson and started heaving baseballs, it might have little effect otherthan to make the day of tabloid headline writers (a-rod in waterworld!). Still,until he begins to see Yankee Stadium as his own ocean, it will remain a mostunnavigable body of water. Like, say, a cesspool.
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''The wonderful thing about the World Cup is that youget to be xenophobic for a week." --IAN MCSHANE Q&A PAGE 23
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO