Commentary

Yankee behavior isn't out of character

A-Rod's lawyer's claims would fit with the George M. Steinbrenner III legacy

Updated: August 18, 2013, 12:29 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- It is yet to be determined how many of the sackful of allegations -- some of them plausible, some of them laughable and a couple of them probably actionable -- hurled at the New York Yankees by Joe Tacopina, Alex Rodriguez's new attorney, can be proven to be demonstrably false.

"The legacy of George Steinbrenner would be horrified," Tacopina told the New York Times on Saturday. "This is the New York Yankees. This isn't some thug-culture club."

Ignore the odd syntax -- how can a legacy be "horrified?" -- and focus on the intent.

[+] EnlargeSteinbrenner
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaThe Boss had more than a few instances of intimidating behavior.
And what you come away with is a sackful of something else. For lack of a term usable on a family website, let's just call it revisionist history.

For what would the legacy of George M. Steinbrenner III truly be without more than a few instances of thuggish behavior?

This was a man, after all, who was a convicted felon. A man who was known for firing employees for transgressions as serious as blowing a World Series game to as trivial as bringing him the wrong sandwich for lunch. And a man who, infamously, hired an actual thug, Howie Spira, to dig up dirt on the best and highest-paid ballplayer on his team, Dave Winfield.

So when Tacopina tries to portray what is going on right now between Alex Rodriguez and the descendants, biological and philosophical, of the often-tyrannical Boss as out of character for the Yankees, you know he is not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

In fact, this is all very much in character.

What is unusual about this is not that the Yankees and an important player are at serious odds, but the depth to which the enmity between player and front office now so obviously runs.

And the way that, in this instance, the player seems to be every bit as much at war with the club as the club is with him. And probably more so.

Among the allegations leveled at the Yankees by Tacopina on Saturday is that the club knowingly hid evidence of an injury from A-Rod during last year's playoffs, insuring he would perform poorly; that the Yankees were so desperate to get out of his 10-year, $275 million contract that Randy Levine, the team's president, told A-Rod's hip surgeon, Bryan Kelly, "I don't ever want to see him on the field again," and that the Yankees had help in the whole nefarious plot from MLB and its commissioner, Bud Selig himself.

The implications are obvious, but boiled down to their essence, Tacopina asks you to believe that the Yankees, and baseball, were more interested in being rid of Rodriguez than they were in advancing to the World Series, or selling tickets to even one more playoff game at Yankee Stadium, and the untold millions that would bring to the organization. Tacopina asks you to believe that Selig, who after turning a blind eye to the steroid plague that infected his game for nearly a decade now presents himself as an anti-drug crusader and the keeper of the game's integrity, was willing to compromise that integrity to help the Yankees save a few bucks.

And by association, he asks you to believe that Joe Girardi -- who is so notoriously cautious with injured players that long-term Yankees such as Derek Jeter and newcomers such as Kevin Youkilis roll their eyes at his reluctance -- would continue to run a player out there who not only could not help his team, but was in danger of ending his own career.

Who knows? As far-fetched as they might seem, any or all of Tacopina's allegations might prove to have at least some basis in fact. That will be decided before baseball's arbitrator, or more likely, in a courtroom.

Right now, the remarkable thing is how thoroughly Alex Rodriguez and the New York Yankees have napalmed whatever strand of bridge remained between them. I asked Girardi after Saturday's 6-1 Yankees loss to the Red Sox if he had ever seen a player of A-Rod's magnitude so at odds with his own employers. Girardi, a native of Peoria, Ill., and a Chicagoan at heart, had to think long and hard before coming up with the rocky final days of Sammy Sosa and the Cubs.

Funny he didn't mention the fireworks between Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls then-general manager Jerry Krause, and at 48, Girardi is too young to remember much about the explosive triangle that was Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin and The Boss.

Still, those paled alongside what went down between Winfield and Steinbrenner, who became so enraged by what he saw as fraud in the Winfield Foundation -- and also the postseason failures that caused him to dub Winfield "Mr. May'" -- that he decided paying Spira $30,000 to destroy Winfield was a better investment than the $300,000 annual investment to the Foundation that Winfield's contract stipulated.

That decision resulted in a two-year suspension for Steinbrenner, a period of relative peace for the franchise during which the seeds of the team that won four World Championships in five years were sown by Gene Michael.

But that was a team-on-player assault. In this one, the two sides are taking turns bombing each other, and it is hard to imagine where the next volley will come from.

To his discredit, Rodriguez hid behind his own version of attorney-client privilege when confronted with the words of Tacopina after Saturday's game, repeatedly answering, "I have to read the story first."

As if Tacopina, who joined A-Rod's legal team only two weeks ago, could possibly have known intimate details of conversations that happened between eight and 10 months ago between Rodriguez and Levine or between Levine and Kelly or between Rodriguez and Girardi, unless he was told them specifically by Rodriguez.

At least Girardi, to his credit, made direct, definitive statements when asked if Rodriguez had ever expressed being at less than full health while he was struggling through a horrendous postseason in which he managed just three hits in 25 at-bats and struck out 12 times.

"From everything I knew, he felt good," Girardi said. "The one day it came up, the day that I pinch-hit for him, he said his hip wasn't firing. So that was the first inkling for me that maybe there was something wrong. But [he said] it was his right hip."

And when it was pointed out that by accusing the Yankees front office of misleading and misusing him, Rodriguez was in fact accusing him as well, Girardi said, "I wouldn't ever want to ruin anyone's career. That would break my heart. I sometimes take some heat about the way I handle a bullpen. But I am not ruining anyone's career. That's not who I am. I never felt anyone put me in jeopardy, and I would never want to do that."

By then, it was clear that even the limitless patience of Girardi was beginning to run out with the daily soap opera that is A-Rod.

Girardi, of course, is trying to sneak into a playoff spot with his injury-ravaged team, a chore that got more difficult with Saturday's resounding loss, a defeat made worse because it came at the expense of Hiroki Kuroda, one of the Yankees' only two reliable starters.

The last thing he needs is an ongoing war between his bosses and his third baseman, a war that neither seems inclined to call a truce on until the season is over.

"I got to worry about this, about what's going on here," Girardi said. "I can't worry about that other stuff, all these accusations, and stuff flying all over the place. My main job is to manage these guys and win baseball games."

The daily tug-of-war between A-Rod and the Yankees front office is not making Girardi's job any easier or his life any more pleasant.

As Girardi acknowledged, it's a pretty unusual situation, but hardly unprecedented in Yankees history.

And, in spite of what Mr. Tacopina claims, very much in keeping with the often misrepresented legacy of George M. Steinbrenner III.

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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