Thursday, October 05, 2006

Birth of a Stigma

It was 5:30 in the morning. The sun was beginning to break through the curtains of my living room and my eyes had become bleary from staring at the laptop screen. 3 hours of intense concentration on the moment-by-moment drama of the second game of the ALDS had taken its toll. NHK had not rearranged their telecast schedule to carry the ballgame from 2am, instead sticking with an NFL football game. “Nice choice”, I thought, “Hideki Matsui and the Yankees are playing in the defining moments of their careers and devoted baseball fans in Japan are treated to a sport that almost no one plays or follows here, and a game which has been concluded nearly a week earlier.” Gameday was my only hope.

Johnny Damon found himself at the plate in the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs and two strikes on the leadoff man for the Yanks, but I still had faith. Matsui had singled to open the inning and was replaced by Melky Cabrera on the basepaths. There was still hope. Damon is reknowned for his ability to work and at bat, and in fact his 0-2 count had grown to 2-2 in a heartbeat. Fouling off pitches and scrapping, there was a possibility. And then it ended. 4-3 Tigers. A wasted, sleepless night.

I’m sitting at my desk now. Work is slow today, and I have some time to reflect, write, and conserve what little energy I have. I calculated this kind of opportunity before embarking on my all night affair with Gameday and Bronx Banter. It was worth it, but I’m still tired and slightly uneasy. In the end, the contest was fair, well fought, and hardly a disaster, but losing a game in Yankee Stadium is never an encouraging sign. Watching Justin Verlander escape early trouble to keep the game competitive was a pleasure from a pure baseball standpoint, but as a Yankee fan it was frustrating to watch the $200 million dollar “best lineup ever assembled” squander opportunity after opportunity. If you let a guy get off the ropes, he’ll eventually start hitting back.

Mussina wasn’t sharp in the middle innings and couldn’t finish what he started. The team handed him a 3-1 lead on Johnny Damon’s 3-run blast, but he constantly watched his pitches turn around and head in the other direction for extra base hits. One run in the fifth. One in the sixth. One in the seventh. And then there was Zumaya. Like Zeus, the young reliever came in throwing lightning bolts at the overmatched Bombers. There were opportunities, yes, but the man will make you miss by just enough to fail. That’s the key for a pitcher to succeed. It’s what has made Mariano so great all these years with only one pitch. Todd Jones is not in the same class as Zumaya, but for now he is the closer. We had our chance against him, but it never materialized. When Johnny Damon evened his count, something inside me said that Jeter would get his chance with a runner on second or third, thanks to a scrappy Damon plate appearance. You have to like the fact that, win or lose, the Yankees always seem to be on the verge of coming back in these games. Nothing.

If you look carefully at what transpired, it’s hard to complain. Two good teams met on an even playing field and one performed slightly better than another. The one run margin in the final score shows how close it was, as does my description of the bottom of the ninth. The telling story of Game 2 was one team’s collection of five extra base hits and only ten runners left on base versus the other team’s two extra base hits and twenty stranded runners. A few moments defined this game, and generally it was the same cast of characters coming up short. I want to talk about that here, but I need to preface my comments to appease the readers who won’t like the assignment of blame to certain people on the club. I need to say that failure is not an outcome that is reserved for any particular player more than another on any given night. Miguel Cairo and Derek Jeter are equally capable of putting up an 0-5 night. If you extend the analysis over the long-haul, you see the trends that show why some players are Hall of Famers and others are replacement level performers. This commentary is about the former pattern for the most part.

In the bottom of the first inning, we had Verlander on the ropes. Damon’s single set thing up perfectly. Runner on first, nobody out, and danger coming up. The only thing that worried me was Jeter (or Torre)’s love for the bunt. After all, “one run could be the difference”. Stupidly, Jeter chose to bunt after a 5 for 5 night and a .344 season. He failed miserably and popped up reducing the magic number to 26 outs. I wanted to take back all the nice things I’d said about him after his big night in Game One. So be it, there was still plenty of danger to come. Abreu did his “on base” thing, and worked a walk to bring up Sheffield. As I recall, it was a very tough curveball that struck him out. Giambi did his “on base” thing, and we had bases loaded with 2 outs. Guess who found himself in the spotlight? Alex Rodriguez.

I started a new paragraph here as a way to take a deep breath and say this the right way. Rodriguez has been a lighting rod for criticism and over analysis since the beginning of the season. I’ve tried not to be a part of it as much as possible. I know the man’s place in history. I know the kind of season he had this year, even if it was not up to his usual standards. Players don’t always come up with big moments when handed the opportunity, so it’s unfair to continually single those failures out as a way to crucify a man. A-Rod has nearly been carried off by the angry mob on many occasions this season, and only the hope of better days ahead has kept some of the fan base on his side. In this tough situation, with a very talented rookie on the mound, A-Rod went down on three straight pitches. The first was swinging. The second was a foul ball. The third was looking. The third pitch was the same curveball that got Sheffield. Is it then fair to boo Alex, where Sheff got a free pass? No. Is it fair to aim criticism at A-Rod for failing to produce in that moment. I think it is, if it is handled properly.

I want to criticize Alex Rodriguez for his failure in that moment, and a few others in Game Two. I want Sheffield, Cano, and Mussina to share in that criticism. Referring back to my introduction of this topic, I want to be cautious and qualify these remarks by saying that these guys are allowed to fail without being labeled as failures. All of them have been All Stars. At least one of them is a Hall of Famer, while another two have a shot. Cano is a tremendously gifted young ballplayer. They are in the same boat, and they are all big boys, capable of accepting their roles in the loss.

Phew. Now, after the longest massage in sports blogging history, I will proceed. Alex Rodriguez striking out on three pitches in that situation is an embarrassment. For all the defense I threw up in front of him during the regular season, I think he is deserving of some mudslinging in the post-season. You see, as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, it’s expected that you’ll put up a fight. It’s expected that you will find a way, and that your talent will win out in as many important situations as it can. When you fail, you have to pick yourself up and perform given another opportunity. The reason we think of Jeter with such affection is that he produces the same numbers in the post-season as he does every other game. You are almost prepared for guys to see a dip in their numbers in the playoffs. After all, they are facing the toughest possible opponents every time out. There are no Royals or Devil Rays to pad your stats against. When Alex Rodriguez steps to the plate with the bases loaded, you expect him to succeed at the same rate he has in all other bases loaded situations throughout his career. You expect him to produce. That’s why he gets paid what he does, and why his name is thrown around as a Hall of Famer when he’s still a very young man.

For his career with the bases loaded, Rodriguez is a .338/.406/.683 hitter, which is good for a 1.089 OPS. In the playoffs, for his career, he is .294/.369/.508, which adds up to a .877 OPS. Those are good numbers. The guy deserves a break for having accomplished so much in his career. He’s not a playoff choker, as some would paint him. He doesn’t have a long track record of wilting under the intense pressure of the October spotlight. Even considering his poor postseason last year his career playoff numbers were .305/.393/.537, mirroring his track record in the regular season when he has produced .305/.386/.523 over 11 full seasons in the Bigs. Here’s where the criticism comes into play.

Last season Rodriguez went 2 for 15 with 6 walks in the 5 games against the Angels. He had no RBIs in those games. So far in the young 2006 postseason, A-Rod is 1 for 8 with no RBIs and 4 strikeouts in two games. The key to his tarnished image and the unfair characterization of his psyche comes from a very important string of events that has unfolded in front of Yankee fans’ eyes. Understanding these events will help all of us deal with what has developed. It starts in the 2004 ALCS, Game Four.

With the Yankees leading arch rival Boston three games to nothing, and the historical precedent of no club having even recovered from such a hole, the Yankees looked to be cruising to the World Series, an unstoppable machine. The Yankees had not only beaten the Red Sox, but embarrassed them. The games were a humiliation for Red Sox Nation, and the Yankees were receiving congratulations from players on the Boston club prior to the series turning point. The A-Rod Yankees looked to be a resounding success. We had snatched him from the jaws of the Boston roster and were now waving him in their faces. It was the perfect confluence of events.

Our memories are all smeared with the pain of the following four games. Those games turned history, and left scars on the loyal Yankee army. It is still difficult to fathom how it happened and the image of Ortiz single-handedly ripping our hearts from our chests is one none of us will ever forget. In those four games, Alex Rodriguez went 2 for 17 with 3 walks, a homer, 2 RBIs, and 3 strikeouts. The team collapsed as a group and it was easy to forgive Alex for his part in the shocking conclusion to our season and the 86 year dominance of our rival. He won the 2005 MVP after all. He beat out Ortiz to take home the hardware, and all seemed to be right with the world as we also grasped the division in our clutches for yet another year. The playoffs were a bitter disappointment again, as we bowed to the Angels in 5 games. A lot of players could have shared the blame, but A-Rod’s 2 for 15 with only a double and 6 walks against 5 strikeouts and no RBIs stood out. As one of the most high profile members of the club, and a kind of figurehead for a new era of Yankee baseball, A-Rod was under the microscope.

To start the season, Rodriguez continued to perform below expectations. His April numbers were good but not great and fans became restless. Was this the greatest player in the game? In May, it appeared he was ready to allay those fears and make another run at the MVP. He took home the hardware for American League player of the month. June, however, was a dismal failure as he hit .213 and regularly was assaulted by boos from the home fans. It seemed unimaginable at the time that people would be heaping so much spite and anger at a man who had accomplished so much. The rest of the season was excellent for A-Rod, even if it didn’t match his best production. The media outlets had already picked up on the hot story, the one that titillated the fans best and sold papers, and the speculation about his postseason guts began in earnest. That brings us to today.

Rodriguez has opened the 2006 campaign at 1 for 8 with no extra base hits, no walks, and no RBIs in 2 games. He’s struck out 4 times. Dating back to the faithful Game Four of the 2004 ALCS, Rodriguez has hit .125/.265/.225 for a .490 OPS in 11 games. The Yankees are 3-8 in those 11 games, and A-Rod is the poster boy for that failure. He has only 1 home run (in Game Four’s third inning), one double, and 2 RBIs in that span and has found himself striking out 12 times against 9 walks. That’s a prolonged stretch of failure that has cost him his image and the Yankees some ballgames. He came to New York to perform in these October moments on this October stage. He said so himself. He so craved to be in the spotlight in the postseason that he accepted a position change to move to New York. I, for one, don’t believe that he’s the player we’ve seen over the last 11 postseason games. I don’t feel the link between three completely distinct series that began 3 years ago. I don’t think that fans see it as I do, however, and my hypothesis for the bitter and angry sentiment aimed in his direction is the collapse against Boston.

If we had won that series and lost in the World Series against St. Louis, you wouldn’t see the same kind of desperate angst that you see today. You wouldn’t have fans turning on a Hall of Fame player who has won the MVP in their team’s colors. If it had been any team but Boston, and if he had found a way to string a couple of big nights in the wake of that failure, no one would be booing. He’d be wearing the goat horns after Game Two to be sure, but he’d be sharing them with Mussina, Sheffield, and Cano and we’d all be ready to move on.

I wanted to aim some criticism at A-Rod for his poor play in this series, and specifically for his weak at bats in the second game. I don’t want those harsh words to be added to the chorus, however, as I know how great this man is. I know that there’s a good chance that he’ll put this team on his back and carry us to the World Series. Even if it doesn’t happen this year, it is very likely that it will happen sooner than later. He’s that good. The thing that worries me, is that this is going to eat at him and he’s going to truly wilt. Not from the pressure of the moment, but from the slings and arrows of discontent that were forged in 2004 and are shot mercilessly at him from his own fans. Go get ‘em Alex. Tonight is a new night.

Randy “Curse of the Mummy” Johnson vs. Kenny “The Gambler” Rogers
This is the make or break game. Don’t let us down big fella. Hold it together.


mars2001 said...

Excellent Post Mike...

I was a little rash with my earlier post (I feel a bit like the Sports Guy - disappointed as I may be, I'm still a bit satiated from the '04 WS & am not rabid that the Sox missed the playoffs - they'll be fun to watch)... Then again... I also have something else that I'm rooting for now...

Anyway, I wanted to mention a few things that I've thought about the last few days...

1. The Yankee lineup is beyond ridiculous... really... I'd venture to put it beyond the prowess of Murderer's Row (though I haven't run the numbers)... there's very little that can stop the jauggernaut if it starts rolling. Batting around once a game might be a regular occurance in a good number of games next year. I don't think a lineup has ever been assembled like it & it scares the crap out of me. I'm still holding on that my reverse curse (that the Yankees won't win a WS - no matter how much money they spend - for the next 86 years will actually come true (only 80 years to go!)...)... It'd be pretty amazing symmetry, require an equal number of improbable events, and is statistically possible.... It would just be amusing for me. Better would be how NY would turn on Steinbrenner, forcing him to reconstruct [old] Yankee Stadium (brick-by-brick) or move the new Yankee Stadium onto the old one's foundations - in an attempt to lift the curse...

2. ARod is an amazing player & catches far too much flak for what he does in NY. That being said, he's been toothless in the post-season (though, "small sampling sizes do apply"). With the amount of attention he's been receiving though - everything is amplified since he's a pretty stinkin' intelligent guy. The two together are threatening to instill (as you have alluded to) a wicked case of self-doubt in one of the greatest players in the game. I'm not sure if Boston would have been a better destination for him (Renteria was similarly adverse to the media) - and actually the comparison is not totally insignificant.... I'm just wondering how all this plans out (his play through the end of his contract)... The best I can see happen is that you trade him to the Dodgers - getting Andy LaRoche, and a bullpen (Kuo, Broxton, Tomko, etc) in return... [actually... Arod might fit in well with all the plastic people in LA]... I've just considered the following for a while (with ARod): 'Are some guys built just to be the big fish in a small pond' - I won't say that Ernie Banks is anything short of a legendary player - but is his legend not enhanced a bit as 'the best player never to win a WS'...?

3. I feel really bad for Melk Man (Beatles... 'ye-a-a-ah... the Melk Ma-an.... Let me tell you how it will be...'...... looking at 2007 (even without retaining Sheffield)... the OF situation is far too crowded for someone of Melky's potential. I can't see a scenario where there is sufficient playing time for him (in a late innings, etc basis) - with Damon, Matsui and Abreu roaming the OF... and going back to Trenton? Well, there's nothing to make ya'll think he'd hit an ump with a bat, but letting him rot down there is also wrong.... something should [will?] be done this winter...

4. I heard an comment that Abreu looked like he'd been in pinstripes for 10 years... and I have to agree. Maybe a new type of 'Moneyball' is being put together in New York, but the way the lineup can (and will) shred pitchers next year (avg. P/PA would be north of 3.75 for the lineup?!) frankly I agree with the guys at BP - think Abreu will be capping his career off with a trip to Cooperstown & (even as much as I don't like it personally) - think that Cashmoney should lock Abreu up in pinstripes until he gets there (Bernie Williams Jr.))

I'm losing steam - enough of the highjack... but will say that I've hung on every word, listening to the games... it's been an incredible series already (too bad this doesn't go to 7 with the ease that OAK has taken down the Twins).... I look forward to tomorrow's game.

I can't wait to see which Randy Johnson shows up.


Mike Plugh said...

Thanks man.

It's an intriguing series actually. I think we win tomorrow, and I think RJ will put together a very nice outing. People will be surprised.

Bonderman/Wright will be interesting. We need to get the bats cranked up to 6-7 runs a game, and we'll advance. If we get stuck at 3-4 we're playing their game.

Thanks as always, bro. Nice post.

mehmattski said...

Great work as usual, Mike. It's probably something wrong with my browser (I'm at work with IE), but for some reason all your apostrophies turn up as the 'ae' dipthong within your posts. Weird. Also, I just wanted an excuse to use dipthong in a sentence.

If what some who were at the game are truthful in reporting that many fans are literally rabid with hate over A-Rod, then that is a very big shame. If I weren't such a devoted fan, I might wish something bad to happen to those ungrateful pricks. Something like: trading A-Rod this off season, only to meet him in the playoffs, where he absolutely dominates. Of course, they'd spin it that he "couldn't handle New York" or something.

It will only get worse, and at this point I don't think Alex can do anything to turn it around. Even a walk-off-HR in a clinching game would be met with some "it's about time!" followed immediately by booing on his next GIDP. Meanwhile the media continue to make things worse because it's a story that keeps everyone interested. On a "30 at 30" break during the Cardinals game, Karl Ravich said "The Yankees were upset by the Tigers earlier, Craig Monroe hit a home run and Alex Rodriguez had another rough day at the plate, going 0 for 4 with three strikeouts." Never mind that Sheff was 0 for 4, Giambi was 0 for 3 and Cano was 0 for 4. Never mind that Mussina crumbled in the 7th. All A-Rod, all the time. Makes me sick.

I really hope we see Good Randy tonight. Otherwise I'm going to have a very bad weekend.

FredMcM7 said...

You want stigma? Johnny Damon is a stigma. He should wipe his smile right off his face while his team was losing, he would never have done that in Boston. Ididn't like it and I don't like him. And you don't have to stand and applaud the Tigers when they beat us and send us home you IDIOT.

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