- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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Once upon a time, Alex Rodriguez had a fantasy that did not include Madonna or Cameron Diaz. He wanted to make the New York Yankees his, all his, a virtual impossibility with a certain someone in the way.
Derek Jeter. A certain someone no longer in the way.
Actually, Rodriguez once considered taking over the big city from the other side of town. He was a Mets fan all grown up after the 2000 World Series, after Jeter proved to be the difference between the Yanks and A-Rod's boyhood team. Rodriguez wanted to be a Met, wanted to go man-to-man and shortstop-to-shortstop with Jeter in Gotham, at least until the Wilpons folded at the poker table and let the Texas Rangers slide 252 million chips A-Rod's way.
Rodriguez escaped to New York after three seasons, won two of his three MVPs as a Yankee (an award Jeter has never claimed), and even chased off his postseason ghosts and goblins with a championship run in 2009 that made his captain and former BFF proud.
But even though he won a ring, and even though he delivered a humbling confession on steroids, and even though he repaired the bridge to Jeter he'd fire-bombed with a few petty quotes years earlier, Rodriguez had no better shot of making the Yankees his than, say, Roger Maris had of making Mickey Mantle's Yankees his.
Only now everything's changed. Jeter went down in a sickening Game 1 heap, breaking his ankle and his streak of 158 consecutive postseason starts before his team spent most of Sunday searching for someone, anyone, to save them from their sorry selves.
The Detroit Tigers needed only one victory in the Bronx to win the American League Championship Series, and now they have two. They'll spend the next two or three days hosting a Yankees team of dead men walking, of accomplished hitters who act like they're seeing big-league pitching for the first time.
The Yanks have played 21 ALCS innings and have failed to score in 20 of them. A-Rod, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher represent the biggest box-office flops across the first seven postseason games, and if you're a Yankees fan looking for a breakout bat among the group, good luck finding one.
Swisher? He's the least talented of the candidates, a defensive and offensive liability and an outfielder who twice violated his unwritten pact with the fans he supposedly held so dear -- once with non-performance, and again with a public reprimand of their reprimands. Swisher needs a seat on Joe Girardi's Game 3 bench.
Cano? He's the most talented of the candidates, but it's harder to find that leadership gene in his competitive DNA than it is to find a hit in his box score. Those who maintain Cano didn't go all out when he was crushing the ball, just like he hasn't gone all out during his historic 0-for-26 slump, need to wake up. October is the time to put maximum stress on a defense, and Cano's refusal to engage in a full-court press isn't helping anyone except the opponent.
Granderson? His hit-or-miss regular season has devolved into his miss-or-miss postseason. If Granderson's best-case scenario is an occasional and accidental homer, he can't be a credible savior-to-be.
Rodriguez? He's been demoted in the lineup, pinch-hit for, and benched for a clinching Division Series game. How's that for a Triple Crown?
But despite his pathetic at-bats this month, Rodriguez happens to be the Yankees' only position player whose career measures up to the magnitude of Jeter's. It's hard to ask the likes of Raul Ibanez to fill the Jeter void, never mind the likes of Jayson Nix.
Rodriguez? Now you're talking. If he's not in his prime like Cano is, A-Rod does play and run hard all the time. Even in his diminished state he's still a better player than Granderson and Swisher, and still a guy who has three homers and nine RBIs against Justin Verlander in 30 at-bats.
Before Game 2, Girardi said it crossed his mind that Jeter's absence might inspire Rodriguez to ascend to a higher level of play. "I think it's definitely possible, yes," the manager said. "I think the great ones always want to rise to the occasion, and I think they want to show why they're considered the great ones."
Rodriguez is 3-for-23 in the playoffs with 12 strikeouts, two walks, no extra-base hits and no RBIs. He's been guessing and flailing at the plate, and pretty much looking like the last guy a Yankees fan would want trying to pick up Jeter's slack.
Only A-Rod shouldn't look at this as some cross he'd much rather somebody else bear. This is a wonderful opportunity for him, a chance to turn the narrative upside down with one swing, and then another, and then a third that announces his return as a decisive force.
It was only three years ago when Rodriguez carried his lineup to a parade, although it seems like two decades have come and gone. A-Rod is an old 37, for a ballplayer anyway, and his body is worn down from the injuries, the surgeries, the PEDs, whatever.
And yet he can summon another week or two of the old pop if Girardi's hunch is accurate, if Jeter's absence elevates a third baseman who doesn't have much to lose.
Fans are already fixing to run Rodriguez out of dodge, and praying there's a franchise out there desperate enough for star power to absorb some of the $114 million left on A-Rod's deal through 2017. He's won his championship, an essential part of his legacy, and New Yorkers still don't embrace him as one of their own.
Asked if it's likely Rodriguez will still be a Yankee at the end of his contract, team president Randy Levine told ESPN New York 98.7 FM the following:
"That's like one of those questions, where's the stock market going to be in 2017? Who's going to be president on Nov. 15? If I had a crystal ball to predict all of that stuff, I'd be a lot smarter than I am. I'm not going to go there."
Yep, sounds like he's a goner, if later rather than sooner.
So Rodriguez is a liberated soul here. It can't get any worse for him in the Bronx, so why not free-wheel it in the Motor City, step into the box with an unburdened mind, swing away, and see where the ball ends up?
A-Rod can follow the captain's lead, too. "The greatest thing about Jeter," he said on the eve of the '09 World Series, "is he treats Game 7 of the World Series the same way as the first game of spring training, literally. I've never seen a player quite like that.
"He's Mr. Simplicity. He keeps it as simple as possible. All players can learn something from Jeter, because he's a master at it."
But the master is on crutches now, and the Yankees need a leader before the Tigers sweep them into oblivion.
"There's not one guy in here that's going to take us to a world championship," Rodriguez said in the clubhouse after Game 2. "As much as (reporters) like to write about it and think about it, it's 25 guys."
Only those 25 guys weren't created equal. Drugs or no drugs, Rodriguez stands among the all-time greats, and this might be his last true shot at something everlasting.
He won't ever realize his fantasy of taking the Yankees from Derek Jeter. But if A-Rod can borrow them from the fallen captain and steer them home, this much is certain:
New York will never forget it.
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