He’s the youngest player in history to reach 450 home runs in his career. He’s won eight Silver Slugger awards, two Gold Gloves, two American League MVP awards, has movie-star looks, and is in the middle of a contract that pays him a quarter of a billion dollars. So how come I feel sorry for him?
When Alex Rodriguez first signed his $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers before the 2001 season, I felt no compassion for the man’s “plight.” In fact, I joined a chorus of critics who charged that he cared more about his record contract than he did about the record of his team. In taking advantage of Texas owner Tom Hicks’ lunacy, A-Rod left Hicks with no money to improve the rest of his team. He was content to languish in last place, it appeared, as long as he got his cash.
Now in his third season with the New York Yankees, however, everything’s changed. Playing on a team with a $200 million-plus payroll, his contract is no longer an issue — everyone is overpaid on the Yankees. But in the course of these 2½ years in pinstripes, arguably the most talented all-around player of his generation is about as popular in New York as President Bush.
Yankees fans have been riding A-Rod since he arrived in the Bronx, charging that he wasn’t a “true Yankee,” and their criticism was only intensified by poor playoff performances in his two postseasons in New York. The New York media, feeding on the fans’ frenzy (or is it vice versa?), have been merciless, and even Rodriguez’s own teammates won’t come to his defense.
The constant negativity being thrown at this guy — at home, on the road, and in his own clubhouse — has finally taken its toll, as A-Rod has slipped into the kind of funk that has ruined the careers of lesser players. Suddenly he can’t field his position, with 18 errors at third base and a Chuck Knoblauch-like inability to throw the ball to a stationary target. And worse, his magically sweet swing is in danger of disappearing, as evidenced by his four strikeouts against Toronto on Saturday.
Last week, with his own fans taunting every swing and miss at the plate, Rodriguez suffered through the first three-error game of his career, prompting pitcher Mike Mussina to publicly rip his teammate for not playing the way he has to. Yankee captain Derek Jeter, the man who refused to give up his position when the Gold Glove shortstop Rodriguez arrived, has been given numerous chances to defend his teammate, but has refused. He has, in fact, even argued with Rodriguez, through the press, about the importance of winning the AL East and not being part of the wild card chase.
The mental fatigue of dealing with incessant criticism is taking its toll on A-Rod on the field, which has to make him wonder if his fans and teammates have some sort of masochistic tendencies. They need his bat and his glove in order to win their division, yet they’re doing everything they can to destroy his psyche.
A-Rod has become something I didn’t know existed: A multi-millionaire that I wouldn’t want to trade places with.