By Jason Keidel
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So I snapped open and smoothed out my latest copy of Sports Illustrated…

I don’t just browse the thing. I sniff it, lick it, bite it, chew it, and rip it apart, like jackals on carrion. Except I drop the carcass in the recycle bin.

Good thing, too. Because besides burying their opaque mea culpa about Joe Paterno – sadly, the best sports magazine in the galaxy instantly pandered to Paterno after his death – there was a three-inch cube on the bottom left corner of page 25, the results of recent SI/MLB players poll.

A jury of their peers anointed Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter as the most overrated players in our pastime. A-Rod, of course, led the poll with 17 percent. Jeter was a distant place in the race, at 9 percent. Nick Swisher finished fourth (5 percent). And exactly who has crowned Nick Swisher an MVP candidate? Ever?

SI was quick to add that the top six players in the poll have combined for four batting crowns, seven HR crowns, 10 World Series rings, 19 Gold Gloves, and 47 All-Star games. So while success spawns its own enemies, there’s a clear, baleful bent toward all things Bronx. Russell Martin. Seriously?

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Player haters? Maybe. A-Rod draws contempt like flies on feces, whether he’s hitting .450 or toeing the Mendoza Line. In the cold calculus of sports, where a man is measured against his stats, talent, and his paycheck, A-Rod and Jeter are indeed overrated. Combine their numbers and they may make Josh Hamilton by himself.

But that’s not what this poll is about. The small print is pulsing with haters. After Swisher, we see Brett Gardner, Russell Martin, and Mark Teixeira were on the list – what, Earle Combs wasn’t available? – meaning that any and every Yankee is overrated to the outside world.

But what about intangibles? Jeter has a surplus. Perhaps he should lend a few to A-Rod, who has none. A-Rod’s impact is strictly in his numbers. There’s no tangible group hug in the dugout or around the Big Apple to celebrate anything he does. Reggie Jackson just harpooned him in the latest Sports Illustrated (which I’ll get to tomorrow), and it seems A-Rod’s dearth of decent friends in the sport – except a microscopic membership of friends and mentors, like Lou Piniella – speaks to his persona. He’s always been more A-Rod than Alex, typecast as the young stud galloping across the grass like Secretariat. But he isn’t so young anymore, and his numbers over the last few years prove it.

Jeter isn’t worth $17 million per season. But he gets a pass because he’s Captain America, the progenitor of the Core Four, despite the fact that it’s universally understood that Mariano Rivera was the only indispensable member of the iconic quartet. Jeter gets carte blanche because he’s Derek Jeter. New Yorkers and Jeter have an implicit agreement where he can do no wrong even when he does wrong because we’ve bestowed biblical virtue upon him. It’s obvious and irrevocable. He’s earned much, but folks forget he’s been paid a quarter-billion to do it. There’s no charity here.

And heaven knows A-Rod doesn’t deserve a locker in Fort Knox ($25 to $30 million per year since 2000) to hit .270. The last four years have been a slow descent toward a roster spot on Old Timer’s Day. Only problem is he’s got another decade on his contract. (I exaggerate for effect.)

Last year I had a spat with Yankees fans over Jeter. I said he was done, and everything about his last two years indicated he was. Then he hit .400 to start this season and my inbox boiled with invectives. Now he’s dropped 100 points and nestled nicely into a rather respectable .305 going into last night’s game.

I was wrong about Jeter being finished, but since he’s the first shortstop in baseball history to do what he’s doing, I had no precedent. He’s not, however, the player he was five years ago, and only the delusional would suggest he is. Indeed, he’s on pace to have 700 at-bats and just 50 R.B.I. – a staggeringly, if not historically, low number, no matter where you hit in the lineup. For $17 million, no less. But alas, Jeter has won too much and wins too much to ever sniff the apex of any poll like this.

A-Rod, however, is on the back nine and the wind is in his face and his club selection is dreadful. And he looks up at the leaderboard and feels impotent. And that, as much as the off-field stuff, is what gets A-Rod in the scalding spiritual waters he’s always known. He’s always been about the numbers, including his contract. Joe Torre often lamented his obsession with personal production. Alex Rodriguez’s insecurity, vanity, or both compelled him to shoot equine cocktails into his tan tush, Narcissus staring at his reflection on a baseball diamond. It serves as a microcosm of his adult life. When he arrived at the intersection of me and we, he always took the wrong ramp.

Don Shula framed it best: the only stat that matters is that scoreboard, a concept that has eluded a divinely gifted baseball player who just never looked like he had a home, from Seattle to Texas to New York. A-Rod and the Yankees, A-Rod and baseball, A-Rod and fans, A-Rod and the world, always seemed awkward together: too formal and corporate, everything shaved, manicured, and scripted.

And he is the most overrated player today, at his pay. Maybe Jeter is second when salary is the criterion. But that’s not what this poll is about. Hater in the house?

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