There’s been lots of talk here and elsewhere about Mark Teixeira’s painfully slow start this season, but I always felt like the most interesting angle had nothing to do with his hitting. The only question worth asking, I think, was why didn’t anyone care that he wasn’t hitting? Every Yankee has heard the boos cascading down at one point or another, even the legends. Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Paul O’Neil, Alex Rodríguez — and even Derek Jeter — were all booed during slumps. But why not Teixeira?
Even as his average hovered in the low .200s, Tex could pop up with a runner on third, strike out with the bases loaded, or ground into a rally-killing double play, all with relative impunity, as evidenced by his jog back to the dugout beneath a cloud of indifferent silence. Analysts would say it was because the true fans understood that he was still helping the team with his on base percentage and stellar defense, but that’s not it at all. Mark Teixeira is vanilla. He hits for a decent average, slugs thirty to forty homers a year, drives in a boatload of runs, plays Gold Glove defense, and helps the team win — but no one cares. We have no expectations for him, so we can’t be disappointed when he fails, even when it’s happening for weeks and months at a time.
Alex Rodríguez, of course, is different. His at bats stop conversations and delay trips to the concession stand because we expect greatness each time he steps to the plate. He could be mired in a slump and facing, say, Roy Halladay, but we don’t wonder if he’ll succeed, we wonder how far the ball will go. Sure, there are a lot of other variables here — the steroid issue, the enormous contract, the opting out of the enormous contract, the social awkwardness, the shadow of Jeter — but the main thing is the great expectations.
All of which brings us to Tuesday night’s game in Oakland. The Yankees had just tied the score at one in the top of the third when Teixeira came to the plate with runners on first and third, and that’s when the idea of an A-Rod grand slam first popped into my head. Three pitches later Teixeira was writhing in pain after being plunked in the back by an errant fastball from Trevor Cahill, and the bases were loaded for Mr. Rodríguez.
Any base hit would’ve been fine, but I expected more. After getting the benefit of the doubt on a check swing call that pushed the count to 3-1 instead of 2-2, A-Rod jumped on a flat sinker and banged it off the bleachers in left center field, 423 feet away. A-Rod’s response to these no-doubt home runs has always been interesting to me. Reggie would pause for a second or two, and then take a few deliberate steps towards first before breaking into a Cadillac trot around the bases, all designed to give everyone — Reggie included — ample opportunity to admire what he had just done. A-Rod instead bolts from the box and immediately turns his head towards his teammates, none of whom are looking at him. They’re celebrating and following the flight of the ball, and when A-Rod looks into the dugout he seems to be channeling Sally Field: “You like me! You really like me!” He needs their approval and can’t wait to get around the bases and into the dugout so he can accept their congratulations. You could psychoanalyze this all you want — or maybe I just did — but all it really means is that he wants to be loved, and I love him for it.
A-Rod’s slam gave the Yankees a 5-1 lead, and that was more than enough for CC Sabathia, who has been pitching like CC Sabathia for the past six weeks. Following his start in that disaster game in Cleveland on May 29, CC’s record stood at 4-3 with a 4.16 ERA. Since then he’s rattled off seven straight wins and lowered his ERA with each outing, dropping it to where it now stands at 3.19. He was dominant again on Tuesday night, striking out ten in seven and two-thirds innings and never really allowing the A’s a look at the game. He gave up a couple of singles and a walk to the load the bases with two outs in the fifth, but recovered to strike out Daric Barton, who slammed his bat down in disgust at the call and was instantly tossed by home plate umpire Mike Winters. (And is it just me, or are a lot of opposing hitters getting run lately?)
If all that wasn’t enough to crush the Athletics’ spirit, A-Rod added a second home run (and an second glance into the dugout) with the next half inning, and that was pretty much it. Yankees 6, A’s 1.
[Photo courtesy of US Presswire.]