Commentary

Playoff monkey on A-Rod's back again

Since redemptive run in '09, slugger has struggled in October, and fans let him hear it

Updated: October 2, 2011, 11:39 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- There are some people in this world whom the failure monkey will simply not leave alone.

For those unfortunate souls, the monkey may hop off for a while but it never strays very far. It sticks close by, follows them around, and stays ready to jump back aboard at a moment's notice.

A.J. Burnett, for one, is so accustomed to his eternal membership in the club that he went through the pain and trouble of having a hideously grinning chimpanzee tattooed on his back, in lurid colors. Little-known but true fact.

Consider, also, Alex Rodriguez one of those people, although unlike Burnett, far less accepting of his fate.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireA-Rod is hitting just .179 in 39 playoff at-bats since his Herculean 2009 postseason.

"There's no need to get emotional,'' a philosophical A-Rod said after being booed in his home ballpark Sunday as though he were wearing the colors of the enemy. "One big hit can really change this season around, and you really got to stay in the moment. Like Phil Jackson, a little bit of a Zen mode.''

In reality, A-Rod was having more of a Stonewall Jackson moment, building a fortress around himself to conceal the pain of the realization that somehow, he had returned to square one with a fan base he thought he had won over.

After the 2009 postseason, in which he hit .365 as the Yankees swept through the Minnesota Twins, the Los Angeles Angels and the Philadelphia Phillies on their way to a 27th World Series championship, it seemed as though the pesky primate had been permanently banished from Planet Alex.

No longer would he have to wear the label of October Choker, nor hear himself referred to by snide nicknames such as "The Cooler,'' a cruel reference to the chilling effect he seemed to have on teams once he joined them.

But now, less than two years later, the monkey is hitching a ride on his back again, and if A-Rod doesn't shake him over the next three games, he might be around for a long time.

If the Yankees wind up losing this ALDS to the Detroit Tigers -- a prospect that became a lot more realistic following Sunday's 5-3 loss to Max Scherzer, Miguel Cabrera & Co. -- there will be plenty of made-to-order culprits, from the manager on down.

But judging from the reaction of the 50,000-plus patrons in Yankee Stadium on Sunday, who saw Freddy Garcia allow a first-inning, two-run homer to Cabrera, who scratched their heads over Joe Girardi's decision to remove Brett Gardner from the game in the seventh inning and no doubt puzzled over his decision to go to Luis Ayala in a close game rather than the reliable tag team of So-Ro-Mo, there will be no more deserving whipping boy for a Yankee collapse than Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez.

A-Rod had four at-bats in Sunday's game. He made out in three of them. And after the last two, he was booed heading back to the dugout as if the game were not being played in Yankee Stadium, but Fenway Park. Or just about any other ballpark in the major leagues.

It isn't fair and it isn't right. The Yankees managed only five hits all day, two of them in the ninth inning off Tigers closer Jose Valverde, who somehow kept his record intact for not having blown a save all season.

Derek Jeter, for instance, went 0-for-5, with two K's. Mark Teixeira went 0-for-4. Until his solo home run in the eighth inning brought the sleepy crowd to life, Curtis Granderson had had a quiet day at the plate.

Not one of them got booed, or heard even a grumble on his way back to the dugout.

Only A-Rod.

Of course, he who cashes the biggest paycheck always wears the biggest target, and over the next six seasons, the Yankees are committed to paying Rodriguez another $143 million, with the possibility of $30 million more if he breaks the all-time home run record, a prospect that seems increasingly remote.

But it can't just be the money that causes the fans to turn so quickly on A-Rod. After all, who's to say that $30 million a year is too much to be paid to play baseball, but $23 million (CC Sabathia's paycheck, pre-opt out this winter), or $22.5 million (Teixeira's paycheck) or $17 million (Jeter's paycheck) is not?

It is something else, either the level of expectations that go with a $30 million paycheck, which of course no player could ever live up to, or the lack of production from the cleanup hitter for the New York Yankees, which A-Rod would be the first to admit has been unacceptable this season, or just something about his face or demeanor that makes people want to turn on him at the slightest provocation.

In a country in which no one can seem to agree upon anything anymore, everyone seems to agree on this: Whatever goes wrong with the Yankees is Alex Rodriguez's fault.

It is not true, of course, although there can be no argument that not only is Alex Rodriguez no longer a $30 million ballplayer, he isn't even really worthy of being a cleanup hitter.

Neither of those situations are his fault. Blame Hank Steinbrenner, Randy Levine, Scott Boras and Warren Buffett for the former, and Joe Girardi for the latter.

Clearly, Robinson Cano is the best and most feared hitter on this team, as evidenced by the way clubs now routinely pitch around him, and having Alex Rodriguez hit behind him has been less protection than exposure.

This was never more obvious than in the second-to-last game of the regular season, when Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon walked Cano to get to A-Rod in the third inning of a game he could not afford to lose.

And it was evident Sunday when, in a must-win game for the Tigers, manager Jim Leyland made no attempt to have his pitchers work carefully to A-Rod; in the sixth and the eighth innings, both Scherzer and reliever Joaquin Benoit threw him nothing but fastballs, and both times Rodriguez flied out weakly, once to right field, once to second base.

Rodriguez is now hitless in the first two games of this series, 0-for-8 with a walk, and has stranded three runners in scoring position. Since the 2009 playoffs concluded, he is hitting .179 (7-for-39) with no home runs and just three RBIs in the postseason.

"To look up on the scoreboard and see that you're hitting zero, that's not quite fair because he did have good at-bats [Saturday],'' hitting coach Kevin Long said. "If we want to beat him up over two games, certainly people have the right to do that. But I just don't think it's fair.''

But it's not just two games, it's an entire lost season, lost to injuries and the inevitable effect of aging and the unknowable long-term effect of whatever performance-enhancing substances A-Rod put into his body during that "loosey-goosey era,'' in his phrase, when to guys like him, the prevailing philosophy wasn't Zen, but Anything Goes.

Now, he is 36 years old but sometimes moves like he is 50, in the field and on the basepaths. The numbers he put up this year -- .279-16-62 -- are hardly acceptable for a mid-range corner infielder, let alone the highest paid player in baseball history.

And for Rodriguez to fall apart after the wildly encouraging spring he enjoyed, during which many of his teammates were predicting a fourth MVP, it makes you wonder if he will ever approach even the diminished numbers he put up in 2010 -- .270-30-125 -- ever again.

"I thought I had some pretty good swings [Saturday],'' Rodriguez said, parroting Long's main talking point. "But today, not so good. I was swinging at some good pitchers' pitches. One thing about the playoffs is one at-bat, one pitch can make a big difference. I'm assuming over the next day or two or three there's going to be some big at-bats that I'm going to be ready for. Two outs, scoring position all over the place, and that's something that I relish.''

But watching him in the on-deck circle Sunday, having endured the boos and seeing Cano with a chance to win the game right in front of him, you wondered if he really wanted that opportunity or would be relieved to be excused from the responsibility.

This is a tough, sometimes unforgiving place to play. And another Rodriguez failure, considering what was on the line and the accompanying implications for the team once the series resumes, tied at 1 and with Justin Verlander pitching at spacious Comerica Park on Monday night, would not have been treated with much sympathy, let alone Zen-like tranquility.

Both A-Rod and Long refused to discuss the effect any of Rodriguez's injuries -- shoulder, thumb, knee and hip -- were having on his play, but Long admitted that A-Rod's bat has looked slow of late.

"He got some fastballs today and I would certainly think that's he's gonna get more of them,'' Long said. "He's a tick late on them and we'll address that. But this is not just about Alex. It's about all of our guys, and getting good at-bats.''

That's where Long is wrong. It's always about Alex, whether it's fair or not and whether he wants it to be or not.

Once again, Alex Rodriguez is carrying a passenger on his back every time he goes to the plate.

And he's got three games, at most, to shake him off.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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