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The (Continuing) Education of Alex Rodriguez in the School of Hard Knocks

Alex Rodriguez is one of the greatest players of all-time. In his second year in New York he had one of the ten best seasons any third baseman has ever had yet his poor showing in the ALDS will haunt him throughout the off-season. Some writers act as if Rodriguez’s lousy series is some kind of character defect or moral failing on his part, suggesting that Rodriguez doesn’t have what it takes, doesn’t have the toughness, the right stuff, in order to perform well in a pressure situation. Rodriguez’s playoff history shows that while he’s never had a career-defining monster series in October–though the 2004 ALDS sure wasn’t bad–he’s been anything but a bust (he was batting .330 in the postseason coming into this year). To Rodriguez’s many critics, it’s as if last year’s ALDS and the first three games against Boston simply didn’t exist. Or at least it didn’t fit their angle.

I don’t think Rodriguez helps himself either. When he fails, it looks as if he’s trying too hard. It feels as if he’s pressing. How else can we explain why the best player doesn’t play the best ball in the biggest spots? Rodriguez was quick to give himself the beatdown after the series ended, which was the correct move. He understands that he’s the highest-paid, most-talented and best-looking star on the most famous team in the sport. If he is anything but brutally honest and accountable, he gives fans and journalists another reason to pile on. But Luis Sojo is probably just one member of the team who thinks that Rodriguez is being too hard on himself and I agree. Had his teammates picked him up, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I don’t mean to minimize how his performance contributed to the Yankees’ loss, but I don’t think he needs to take all the heat either.

Steven Goldman, as usual, gave this issue some historical perspective earlier in the week:

The Yankees wouldn’t have gotten anywhere at all without Alex Rodriguez. The press and the fans can pillory him for his poor postseason performance, but it’s just scapegoating. A lot of Yankees didn’t hit in the Division Series. These things happen. Babe Ruth went 2-for-17 in the 1922 World Series. Joe DiMaggio went 2-for-18 in the 1949 World Series (though the Yankees won). Yogi Berra was 1-for-16 in that same series. The key for both Berra and DiMaggio is that their teammates picked them up. A-Rod’s didn’t. We could go on: Mickey Mantle, 3-for-25 in the 1962 World Series (Yankees won), 2-15 in the 1963 classic (Yankees lost).

Reggie Jackson was a homerless 2-for-16 in the 1977 ALCS against the Royals, but the Yankees covered for him and went on to the World Series. It was there that he earned the “Mr. October” appellation by hitting .450 with five home runs in six games. It wouldn’t have happened without support from his teammates. The great Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post cited the Yankees, “Dysfunctional Culture of Blame,” and called the “Are You a Real Yankee?” discussion that Rodriguez must not be subjected to “self-defeating foolishness.” He’s dead on.

I felt badly for both the team and for Rodriguez after the ALDS was over. That double play in the ninth really hurt. But as my partner Cliff mentioned to me on the phone, for the Yankees it should have never come down to that. The series should have been won already by that point. And you know what? If Rodrgiuez manages to stay healthy, and if he is fortunate enough to have some more opportunities to play in October, I think he’s going to be just fine. How long did it take Bonds to get the playoff monkey off his back? A looooong time. If he gets the chance, Rodriguez will eventually have his day in the sun. I’ve little doubt about that. In the meanwhile, he’ll come back next year more motivated than ever to prove his worth. I don’t think he needs to prove anything to anyone, but until he has a great post-season, I’m not so sure he’d agree. And there are a lot of people out there who’ll take his side in this one. So be it.

But if I ran into homeboy on the street, I’d tell him, Chill out, dog. You had a great season. It was very much appreciated. You had a forgettable playoff series. That was disappointing. Keep your head up, you are going to be just fine.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver