NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The New York Yankees have been there before.
And Alex Rodriguez vs. Pinstripes is nothing like the bad ol’ days of Reggie Jackson vs. Billy Martin vs. George Steinbrenner.
“I don’t even know where to start with you. It was just a different social time with my issues of speaking out,” Jackson said this week. “So to pick up the phone and compare it to the Bronx Zoo where it was when I played is such a lack of understanding.”
Mr. October is correct. For long-running soap opera, Rodriguez has a ways to go to match the Yankees of four decades ago, a tempest that prompted this observation from Graig Nettles: “When I was a little boy I wanted to be a ballplayer and join the circus. With the Yankees I’ve accomplished both.”
But for a two-month summer miniseries, A-Rod has made a quick impact and even helped boost ESPN’s baseball coverage and the Yankees’ YES Network to their highest ratings this season. One could even call it: “Real Ballplayers of the Bronx.”
Thirteen other players accepted their drug suspensions quietly and are serving their penalties. Rodriguez appealed his 211-game ban, then appealed to fans in a public-relations battle against the Yankees and Major League Baseball.
The sniping began June 25, when Rodriguez tweeted that his surgeon, Dr. Brian Kelly, gave him the go-ahead to play injury rehabilitation games. Feeling the third baseman was challenging the team’s authority to set the schedule for his return, general manager Brian Cashman told ESPN: “Alex should just shut up,” underlining his comment with a profanity.
That was just the start. Two months later, Cashman and Rodriguez won’t even have a substantive conversation without lawyers.
Rodriguez challenged the team’s diagnosis of his quadriceps injury, retaining a doctor to say he wasn’t hurt, even though the physician never examined him and gave his opinion solely on the basis of a scan. He twice went on WFAN radio, intimated that Yankees President Randy Levine and Major League Baseball were in cahoots to keep him off the field and hired a blustery attorney to go on national television and accuse the team physician of misdiagnosing his hip injury
Makes the conflicts of 1970s seem downright pedestrian.
“This is uncharted territory. That was baseball. Whether you liked it or not, it was all about winning and what it took to win,” longtime Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman said. “George and Billy fought because Billy didn’t win, or Billy did win. Or Reggie and Billy fought. It was always baseball. Nobody signed up for this.”
Lou Piniella says his 1970s Yankees didn’t have this kind of prolonged quarrel between a star and management.
“I’ve never heard of a situation where a player is playing on the field and the team he’s playing with, they’re bickering back and forth,” said Piniella, now a team broadcaster. “We had some problems here and there, but no, this is a totally different story.”
Martin and Jackson nearly brawled at Boston’s Fenway Park in June 1977 when the outfielder didn’t hustle after Jim Rice’s bloop that became a double, and Martin replaced him immediately with Paul Blair. When Jackson got back to the dugout, the two jawed at each other, and coaches Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and Dick Howser were needed to separate them.
Thirteen months later, they were at it again. Jackson bunted against Kansas City when told to swing away, and the Yankees suspended him for five days. By the end of the week, Martin had uttered the famous line about Jackson and Steinbrenner, “one’s a born liar, the other’s convicted,” and the first of his five terms as Yankees manager ended the next day.
Rodriguez’s return nearly led to a brawl. Benches and bullpens emptied at Fenway Park on Aug. 18 when Boston’s Ryan Dempster threw a pitch behind Rodriguez’s knees, threw two more inside and struck him on his left elbow pad with the 3-0 offering. Dempster earned a five-game suspension.
It’s been a different kind of kerfuffle for the Yankees. For some, the alleged cheating by Rodriguez makes this more significant than Steinbrenner’s decision to pay gambler Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. That malfeasance led the to the owner’s 2 1/2-year suspension from baseball that began in 1990.
“This adventure is unique because many of A-Rod’s teammates are put off by what he’s accused of, so while they have his back on the field, they are hardly rallying behind him in the feud with management,” said Marty Appel, author of “Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss.”
“For national attention, this one may outdo Reggie, but media is more expansive and more competitive today and loves celebrity scandal,” he added.
Imagine Steinbrenner, Martin and Jackson taunting each other with tweets, Facebook campaigns and Instagram photos. Each would have been talk-radio staples, trying to get in the final word. Competition among the three for the most “likes” would have been fierce.
“It would be sort of completely of the charts, wouldn’t it?” said Sandy Padwe, former deputy sports editor of The New York Times and former acting dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where he still lectures. “Multiply it by about 50, I think. George Steinbrenner in the era of social media, that would have been a phenomenon. We thought it was crazy then. I can’t imagine.”
Jackson, a Yankees special adviser now living in Southern California, maintains Rodriguez has been scrutinized more than any other player in New York since, well, Reggie Jackson. He has acted as a mentor to A-Rod, yet he also said last year that Rodriguez’s statistics were tainted by the admission of PEDs use while with Texas from 2001-03.
But don’t try to compare the tumult of the Reggie years with the current turmoil.
“I’m embarrassed when you include me in that kind of stuff,” Jackson said during a telephone interview. “I’m offended. I’m hurt by it.”
Appel believes one ingredient is missing from the current brew. There may be nastiness, but there’s no Steinbrenner.
“For national attention, for the issue and for the money involved, this current one may be No. 1,” he said. “But it does lack the big personality of The Boss as a party to the action.”
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