Once you get pinch-hit for, it is like a patch of poison ivy that starts spreading on your manager's arm. He itches it and it just comes back bigger and redder. No matter what you do in the time after you were first called back from the on-deck circle or told to sit tight on the bench by your manager, it is a lot easier for him to keep scratching.
Confidence in baseball is a two-way street. You can feel like the king of the world or have the résumé of a Hall of Famer, yet one's belief in you as a performer is always temporary, especially in the playoffs. For the most part, it isn't personal, it isn't someone saying they don't like you, they just don't like how you are playing or looking in a certain situation. Unfortunately for you, that situation may come up again and again once the manager had a taste of good things happening when you are on the bench. And when it does, it is a lot easier the next time to replace you, especially after someone else answered the team's call on your behalf.
Alex Rodriguez is in unchartered waters. He has been legendary for his entire career, even with the PED scandal that went down so publicly. Statistically, he is walking among giants and he has been walking with them since he came out of high school. Yet after the Raul Ibanez show in Game 1 of the Division Series, Rodriguez doesn't know if he will complete a game that he starts or if he will start at all.
But I know these waters well. As a free agent, I had left Philadelphia for Texas for many reasons, but one big reason was because I was put on the bench the season before and I didn't like it very much. I wanted to earn the opportunity to play every day again. Like Alex Rodriguez in this postseason, the slow eating away of being pinch-hit for began for me in that 2002 season in Philadelphia. During that time on the bench, my new status made me the pinch hitter from time to time, where I quickly learned that coming off the bench against the setup man or closer is a nasty business. You have to start getting ready in the first inning and deal with false alarms the entire game. It was a taste of a future I did not want.
Certainly, my manager that year, Larry Bowa, was well within his right to change things up. I wasn't hitting much of anything, and I was navigating my father's illness -- which does not make your opponent hang you a curveball out of sympathy. Managers need to win, and I was not helping at that time, even though going into that season I was a lifetime .290 hitter. Of course in baseball, I could have gotten hot at any time, just like I did in July 2003 in Texas, but you can't get hot when your manager doesn't let you see the sun.
In spring training of 2003, Alex's locker was next to mine. We talked every day and I appreciated that he took the time to do that. I saw a super hard-working, talented player at that time. He was in the cage hitting curveballs, and he was one of the best shortstops to go with his amazing offensive capability. I also saw someone who tried hard to fit somewhere, to fit in, which for most mega-stars is unusual. They usually expect everyone to bend around them. He sought the statesman status of a Cal Ripken Jr. He worked to command an aura of baseball to emulate the most respected in the game but, probably frustratingly, he mostly found people unmoved.
It was hard to imagine someone so good being so worried at the same time, but I came to understand that he was a star with the same insecurities of a player fighting for that 25th roster spot. Knowing that in the end we were all renting time in the game, taking out a lease from the great history and future of the game.
Just as success leads to more success, lack of confidence in your performance breeds more lack of confidence, and if you do not find a way to turn it around quickly and regain the decision-maker's faith in you, you could find yourself in a new role permanently. Or on a new team.
Keep in mind Alex Rodriguez is learning these lessons at the tail end of his career, in front of the world. Lessons that were usually reserved for the typical player, who would have long since learned them along the way. So many players break in this way, starting out as the pinch hitter, the emergency outfielder. Then without the coverage of a long-term deal, your struggles are rewarded with learning all the non-starting ways to be a team player -- the fourth outfielder, the double-switch guy, the utility infielder -- and without the contract coverage or the cheapness of being a young player, there is less incentive for a team to let you work out your kinks.
With Alex and many others who may choose to do so, I often wonder about the fallout of trying to make amends and to play it straight after the experiencing the Superman ability that PEDs provide. Even Rangers owner Nolan Ryan acknowledged that Josh Hamilton quitting smokeless tobacco during the season will take away an edge, and was less concerned about the health risks that increase every day he is using it.
We know PEDs provide a wide range of benefits and pitfalls, but the devil in disguise is that it gives you a false sense of your ability to cope with failure. Then if you try to play without it, all of a sudden, you hear the boos, you feel the pressure, you realize you are mortal. Medicated coping is probably as addictive as seeing a ball you hit land in the parking lot, and after going back to the well over and over to avoid dealing with who you are without it, you may not be sure of much of anything, especially with the stinging new reality that your manager can pinch hit for you on the very biggest stage the game offers.
It would appear that with PEDs, home runs go farther, but so does the self-doubt. And self-doubt in baseball is as much a part of playing as the rosin bag and the foul pole. It is going to be there, like it or not, shortcut taken or not. Eventually it finds every single player.
Sure, Rodriguez made certain choices and there came accolades and MVP trophies, batting titles and multiyear deals. It would seem on the surface that he paid no price at all other than being in the crosshairs as the one who is obligated to perform well in the best and worst of team times.
On paper, it should be the best of baseball times for Alex Rodriguez. He is a Yankee during the postseason, with time on his contract, but to learn the hard lesson that most players learn before the twilight years of their careers in a New York public minute is a nightmare, especially when he has lost as much as he has gained (ie family, asterisks).
So he may be the happy-sad guy now. He is in the postseason, he has made a country's worth of money, he is a New York Yankee, he has 647 home runs, he has enjoyed every individual accolade on baseball earth, he has a ring, he gets fed popcorn by Cameron Diaz. But now that he has gotten a taste of life on the bench, he has doubts that he cannot mask, he's lost a ton personally, yet he cannot get the world to embrace him like the world would embrace such a lifelong super performer. Now he knows there may be days when he has to cheerlead, and he has to deal with the painful realization that the game keeps moving with or without him in the lineup.
This is what every player inevitably faces: the decline. And before you are actually declining, you get the label slapped on you that you are on your way. Even with your best efforts to script your own ending, you find out it will have another writer writing it anyway. A-Rod will still get opportunities -- more than most given that he has five more years left on his contract -- but there may come a time he will know that he is not at his best or his best only buys him a ticket to get loose in the first inning in hopes for a pinch-hit appearance against a closer. Maybe that is unlikely for someone making $20 million a year, but in New York, if anywhere, they may just try it. In fact, they already did.
He may win a ring again in 2012 but I get the feeling that even with the joy that must come with such a result, even with his maturing to embrace the team concept more than ever, he will still wonder if this is the beginning of the end. And in the end a player is just a newspaper, a hot story on the Web, then when his day is over, the screen is refreshed, the paper recycled, and in an instant, what comes next is here and there is nothing you can do about it.