NEW YORK (AP) – Joe Girardi should be manager of the year just for the guts it took to sit down his $275 million third baseman and help the New York Yankees advance a step closer to the World Series.
Benching Alex Rodriguez might turn out to be the easiest move in a drama that is suitable for Broadway, but will play out instead in the Bronx. What do you do with an aging and increasingly fragile player who now threatens to be a drag on the Yankees for years to come?
The immediate answer Saturday night was to put A-Rod back in the lineup against the Detroit Tigers and hope he might guess correctly and square up on a fastball. Girardi declared him “raring to go,” relying on the same instincts that have proven remarkably successful the last few days.
“Sometimes you look at a guy’s eyes,” Girardi said. “Sometimes you listen to his words.”
Sometimes you watch him bat, too, which is how A-Rod ended up in this spot to begin with.
Girardi’s optimism aside, it got even worse for Rodriguez in the opener against the Tigers. He grounded out with the bases loaded in the first inning, struck out on three pitches with two on in the sixth and generally had another miserable night before being pulled once again for a pinch hitter in a game the Tigers ended up winning 6-4 in 12 innings.
And now, if he doesn’t somehow find a way to take over for the injured Derek Jeter, the Yankees may be out of options. A-Rod won’t be playing short, but he will certainly be playing now, and if he doesn’t step up this time Yankee fans won’t let him forget.
The day of reckoning was always going to come for the Yankees, ever since the Steinbrenner brothers caved in and re-signed A-Rod in 2007 to a pact even more onerous than the $252 million deal he brought to the team. Included were bonuses for what was going to be a series of grand days at Yankee Stadium as Rodriguez chased the biggest names in the game’s history on his way to the career home run record.
The Steinbrenners might not have known then what everyone knows now — that A-Rod was a juicer at least during the most prolific years of his career. But with Barry Bonds very much in the news during those days they should have at least suspected a player who hit home runs like no other might have had a little help along the way.
They doubled down on A-Rod because he put people in the seats and in front of their televisions. Then they tried to sell it to New York fans by portraying the self-absorbed slugger as some sort of heroic figure for sticking with the pinstripes.
“He is making a sacrifice to be a Yankee, there’s no question,” Hank Steinbrenner said at the time. “He showed what was really in his heart and what he really wanted.”
That the Yankees are stuck now with a player who can’t hit a right-hander, can’t handle a fastball, and can’t stay healthy isn’t going to win them much sympathy. At a time when they’re trying to keep a whopping $222 million payroll more manageable to avoid more looming luxury taxes, they’ve got him for the next five years at a price of at least $114 million.
This year’s tab was even more shocking: A cool $29 million going into A-Rod’s pocket plus $11.6 million in luxury tax for a grand total of $40.6 million.
All for a player who went 2 for 16 in the series with the Baltimore Orioles and looked so confused at the plate that Girardi pinch hit for him twice in game-changing situations before finally just benching him for good in the game Friday night that decided whether the Yankees would go on or go home.
It’s not just the money, though money is always mentioned every time Rodriguez becomes the subject of the conversation. Has to be, because by the time the Yankees are done paying him off, A-Rod will have made a staggering half-billion dollars or so playing baseball.
As long as he kept hitting, that would have been fine with Yankee fans. They would have continued cheering him as he continued his inexorable climb up the home run charts, ignoring the fact that many of them were fueled by steroids. By the time he finally broke the illegitimate mark set by Bonds he would have been paid another $30 million in bonuses, and work would be underway for his inclusion in monument park in the new Yankee Stadium.
Like most steroid users, though, his body is beginning to break down. He’s an old 37, and his trips to the disabled list have become commonplace. Once considered a lock to break the home run mark, there seems no way now he can hit the 115 home runs he needs to catch Bonds.
Rodriguez helped the Yankees win a World Series in 2009 — the only ring he has earned in his career. But he’s hitting .152 with no homers and six RBIs in postseason play since then, and hasn’t homered in his last 84 at-bats.
There’s not much the Yankees can do about it. Any idea of a trade is almost laughable considering his contract, and it’s hard to imagine any team wanting him anyway. He’ll likely finish his career in pinstripes as a very average and often hurt third baseman booed by home fans every time he goes into a slump.
It’s hard to imagine him ever getting a plaque at Yankee Stadium like Derek Jeter will surely get. With his admission of steroid use he’s not a lock for the Hall of Fame, either.
Nobody is going to feel sorry for Rodriguez, no matter how it ends. He isn’t a sympathetic figure to begin with, and the obscene amount of money he has made playing baseball further colors almost every impression of him, even when he makes a point of cheering on his teammates from the dugout.
The Yankees bought into him anyway. And nobody will feel sorry for them as they continue to pay the price.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.
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