By Sweeny Murti
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Alex Rodriguez as a Yankee was never boring. He was great at times and he was ridiculous at times.
But A-Rod delivered drama that no one could match. He was probably the best player I’ve ever seen, but I won’t be able to say that without adding a qualifier of some kind. A plaque in Monument Park? How could it ever be big enough to sum up this career?
I met A-Rod in 2001, his first year in Texas and my first year on the Yankees beat for WFAN. I met him during an awkward media gathering as he discussed his infamous and disparaging comments about Derek Jeter in Esquire Magazine. As it turns out, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
He arrived in New York in 2004 and over the next 13 years No. 13 filled copy and airtime like no one else. There were times I liked dealing with Alex and times I didn’t. Here are some of the things that jump out to me when I think back on 13 years of The A-Rod Experience.
2004: It was an eventful first year in pinstripes. From the rock star introductory press conference to the superb season for anyone except the highest-paid player in the game. From the Jason Varitek fight at Fenway Park to the embarrassing ALCS collapse against the Red Sox. Imagine social media reaction today if A-Rod slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove?
His on-field struggles included a season-long failure with runners in scoring position. He had 73 RBIs in the first 121 games, but more was expected of him and A-Rod’s insecurities — which were plenty for a man of such talent — started to show.
During batting practice before a late-August game in Toronto, A-Rod was talking about his RISP problems around the cage when Gary Sheffield offered some blunt advice. “You’re Alex ******* Rodriguez,” Sheffield told him. “Take the bat and swing it like a ******* man!”
A few hours later, A-Rod’s ninth-inning single drove in two runs and broke a 4-4 tie, and the Yankees went on to a 7-4 victory. Alex went on to drive in 33 runs in the final 34 games, then had six more RBI in the first seven postseason games before … well, you know what happened after that.
2005: He was fun to watch when you believed he was the best hitter in baseball. This was one of those years as he produced 48 homers, 130 RBI, and played in all 162 games. He won the AL MVP. We were all still naive.
Few players ever talk about the history of the game the way Alex does. Those too-rare, lengthy clubhouse conversations turned one day to Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and their chances for the Hall of Fame. I don’t recall exactly what we said during that talk, but I can recall now that only one of us had taken PEDs then and the other didn’t know it.
2006: Another disappointing year for everyone else but A-Rod (.290-35-121) got worse with another playoff debacle. He followed a 2-for-15 showing in the 2005 ALDS loss to the Angels with a 1-for-14 in the ’06 ALDS loss to the Tigers. In both years Randy Johnson laid an egg in Game 3 of a tied series, but A-Rod drew the headlines.
Talk of the Yankees perhaps trying to trade him and of A-Rod opting out after the next season were topics that lingered into the following year.
2007: I can’t say I’ve seen a finer offensive season (.314-54-156). And clutch? He hit two walk-off home runs in April that seemed a signal to everyone that he was a new man. He won the MVP again, by a landslide.
When A-Rod hit his 500th career home run in August, I was a bit surprised that it wasn’t an even bigger deal than it was. Mike Mussina told me that was because “500 is just a stop along the way for Al.” It was around that time when I started to believe — like many others — that we were going to see the home run record obliterated in our lifetime.
As I watched Game 4 of the World Series between the Red Sox and Rockies, I got a phone call from a friend who told me A-Rod was about to make some major news. I turned up the sound and heard he was officially opting out of the last three years of his contract.
You might remember that he signed another one.
2008: He somehow made it back. The Yankees were ready to kick him to the curb, or so it seemed. The opt-out the previous winter was equivalent to filing divorce papers. The Yankees took him back after A-Rod realized he’d made a mistake and crawled back. And then the Yankees dropped the biggest bag of money in history at his feet.
Mistake, forgiveness, reward. This is a pattern we would see again.
It wasn’t his best season, due in part to his first DL stint since 2000. This — Year 1 of his new 10-year contract — began a streak of six consecutive seasons with DL time.
2009: It all changed here. The PED bombshell hit in February. Hip surgery in March. A glorious return in May with a three-run homer on the first pitch he saw, a 95-mph fastball. He hit two homers and drove in seven runs in one inning of the last game of the year to push him to the 30-homer and 100-RBI marks, even after missing the first month of the season.
A-Rod finally got to own October. He batted .365 with six homers and 18 RBI in the postseason. Eight months after all his personal statistics were called into doubt, A-Rod finally got to call himself a world champion and was not just a small part of it; he was a huge part of it.
A-Rod was later seen on the parade float with Jay-Z, just soaking it all in. The longer it takes for the Yankees to win another World Series, the more that team and A-Rod’s place on it will stand out.
2010: He hit 30 homers and and drove in 125 runs. A-Rod was still putting up numbers, and it was clear how much better the lineup was with him in it. That would become even more evident in the coming years as he missed more games. He passed 600 home runs, but now that he was lumped in with Barry Bonds, the idea of “A-Rod the home run king” became less appealing.
There was no repeat of playoff magic. There was something cosmic about A-Rod making the last out in Game 6 of the ALCS that sent the Rangers to their first World Series.
2011: He suffered a knee injury, thumb injury, and spent more time on the DL. He only played in 99 games, a number Alex said was unacceptable. But it was starting to look like his body wasn’t going to be able to keep him on the field. And he must have thought the same thing, based on what we now know of his relationship with Tony Bosch.
2012: You could always have great baseball conversations with A-Rod on the days he was willing to give his time to you. They didn’t appear often enough for me, even after all that time I’d spent around him and the team. I recall one day during batting practice in the summer of ’12 and we talked about the dynamics of the Yankee lineup.
A-Rod began to quiz me. “Who’s the best fastball hitter on this team,” he asked?
I said Nick Swisher.
“He’s really good, but our best fastball hitter is Curtis Granderson,” A-Rod answered. “Who’s the best off-speed hitter in our lineup?” he continued.
I guessed he was.
“Robby Cano,” A-Rod said.
It led to a discussion on the way hitters were positioned, how Granderson occupied the best real estate in baseball as the two-hole hitter for the Yankees, and how Cano had such power, balance, and bat control that he could adjust to any pitch.
I later looked up and confirmed what A-Rod told me had played out statistically — the vast majority of Granderson’s home runs were on fastballs and the majority of Cano’s home runs were on sliders and change-ups.
It was educational when a conversation like this took place. But then he’d walk by me a day later without even making eye contact or saying hello. It was disappointing not to have more real conversations with him as opposed to the “interviews” that so many times seemed packaged.
It was just strange to have a guy who would compliment me about a TV appearance or congratulate me on getting married, and then look right past me the next day.
The Yankees’ last trip to the ALCS was in 2012. A-Rod went 1-for-9 in the four-game sweep by the. Tigers. That 2009 postseason seemed like a long time ago.
2013: A-Rod went off the rails here. The Biogenesis scandal plus another hip surgery took their toll. There were lawsuits everywhere, headlines blaring he would never play for the Yankees again. He took the gloves off and torched almost everybody at MLB and the Yankees after a Friday night rehab game in Trenton, which also featured one of the longest home runs ever hit in that Double-A ballpark.
After the season he dug in for a long fight and lost.
2014: A-Rod was suspended for the entire season and was guilty as charged. He was working out and preparing to come back, but who knew what that would look like when a 39-year-old, who went a year without facing big league pitching, would try to compete at the highest level again.
2015: It was a comeback in almost every way. His legacy as one of the best players of all-time was shattered by all that went on, but he was still something to marvel at. There was still drama, like the legal battle over his home run marketing bonus for passing Willie Mays or his comically ridiculous tug-of-war with a professional ball hawk who happened to catch his 3,000th career hit, which was one of 33 home runs A-Rod would belt that season. Comeback of the Year? More like Comeback of The Century!”
But something happened after he turned 40. He looked 40. He suffered a major dropoff in production the last two months of the season, leading to legitimate questions about what he had left. Besides two years and over $40 million on his contract, that is.
2016: The end came in the most A-Rod way possible — a few long home runs mixed in with too many at-bats that simply showed there was not enough left in the tank. That happens to almost all the greats, doesn’t it?
But after all the hand-wringing over what to do with that player and that contract, the Yankees began down a path with A-Rod being benched in July. It became so uncomfortable that it took a summit with Hal Steinbrenner last week to come to one of the most unusual agreements we’ve ever seen. He was granted one more home game, but until then would be a dead man walking. Joe Girardi awkwardly tripped through a truncated retirement tour for a player that, in reality, had already been released.
Maybe there will be some final drama worthy of The A-Rod Experience that began here in 2004. This was the best reality show the Yankees ever presented. But like most TV shows, by the time you get to Year 13, you know that it’s time to start watching something else.
Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN