The 800 Pound Gorilla Has Left The Room

Everybody is asking who is that masked man wearing No. 13 in New York Yankee pinstripes?  That can’t be Alex Rodriguez can it?  Isn’t he the guy who has proverbially choked in the playoffs since coming to the Bronx?

Well look again.  It is a new A-Rod.  One who is delivering timely hits in run scoring situations.

Ever since Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS when the Yankees became the first team in sports history to blow a 3-0 series lead losing to the Boston Red Sox in 7 games A-Rod’s numbers had dwindled in the post season to microscopic proportions unfitting for a talented player of his magnitude.

Since signing on with the Yankees in 2004 Rodriguez has been a player of two seasons.  In the regular season A-Rod has been a tiger.  From 2004 – 2007 Rodriguez averaged  a .303 BA, 42 HR and 123 RBI.  His average on base percentage was .4004 and his slugging percentage was .5736.  Add those two figures together and Rodriguez’s on base + slugging was .974.  Lofty numbers indeed.  Those numbers helped Rodriguez secure two MVP trophies in 2005 and 2007 to become only one of six players in Yankees’ history to win the MVP trophy.  The others were Joe DiMaggio (3), Yogi Berra (3), Mickey Mantle (3), Lou Gehrig (2) and Roger Maris (2).

However, once the regular season ended and the calendar flipped to October those regular season heroics didn’t translate into post season magic.

In the 2004 ALDS against the Minnesota Twins Rodriguez amassed a .421 BA, a .476 OBP, and a .737 SLG%.  He hit one home run and drove in 3 RBI.  In the first three games of the ALCS, against the Red Sox, A-Rod hit .428 with one home run and 3 RBI.  The Yankees won Game 3 19-8 with the offense collecting whopping 22 hits along the way.  What flew under the radar at the time was the fact the Sox scored 9 runs of their own, next to 15 hits.  Not exactly a pitching gem by the Yankees pitching staff either.

The roof caved in on the Yankees after that.  It was like the well suddenly dried up and no more water was to be found.  This was especially true in A-Rod’s case.

In the next 4 games Rodriguez batted a dismal .118 with one home run and two RBI.  He wasn’t the only one.  It was a total team collapse.  It began back in Game 4 when the Yankees, leading the game 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th inning, brought in Mariano Rivera to shut down the Sox and lead the Yankees to their 40th World Series appearance.

Rivera did the unthinkable.  He walked Kevin Millar to open the frame.  Sox manager Terry Francona immediately sent in Dave Roberts to pinch run for Millar.  Roberts then stole second to put the tying run into scoring position.  The next batter, Bill Mueller, hit the first pitch he saw from Rivera into center field, scoring Roberts, and forever changing the course of baseball in Boston and the Bronx.  Three innings later, after Manny Ramirez singled, David Ortiz sent a 2-1 pitch from Paul Quantrill into the night securing a 6-4 Red Sox victory in front of the Fenway faithful.  Three nights later the Red Sox exorcised the so-called “Curse of the Babe” by beating the Yankees at Yankee Stadium 10-3 before a stunned home crowd of 56,129.

After that series things went totally wrong for A-Rod.  Not the most liked person in the press or in the dugout A-Rod always tried to give the answer he thought people wanted to hear.  He tried to say the right things, but often times it came out the wrong way, which just gave the press more fodder to write about.  Rodriguez quickly became his own worst enemy.  Both on and off the field, drama followed him everywhere.

During the next three season’s A-Rod’s individual numbers continued to flourish.  Between 2005 and 2007 Rodriguez hit .321, .290. and .314 respectively.  He knocked in 407 runs and sent baseballs over the wall 137 times.  However, one of the continual knocks on A-Rod was, yeah he got his numbers, but rarely in key situations.  He’d hit home runs if the Yankees were six runs up or down, but never when the game was on the line.

Not all was negative press in that time period for Rodriguez.  On August 4, 2007 Rodriguez hit his 500th home run over the left field wall at Yankee Stadium to become the youngest player in major league history to reach that milestone.  Statistically, 2007 was a monster year for him.  Rodriguez finished with a line of .314 BA, 156 RBI and 54 home runs.  His numbers were good enough for A-Rod to garner his second MVP trophy in pinstripes and third overall.

What happened to Alex Rodriguez during post season play was something out of the Twilight Zone.  Inexplicably A-Rod would just stop hitting and driving in runs.

Over the three year period covering 2005 to 2007 the Yankees were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.  Three different teams sent the Yankees packing.  The LA Angels in 2005, the Detroit Tigers in 2006 and the Cleveland Indians in 2007.  In that time Rodriguez’s numbers were appalling to say the least.

In 55 at bats A-Rod had 7 hits for a .127 average with one home run, one RBI and he had struck out 15 times.

Last year was another good year for Rodriguez.  He hit .302, plated 103 runs and knocked out 35 home runs.  However, for the first time since 1995 the Yankees missed the playoffs under new manager Joe Girardi, who replaced the iconic Joe Torre.  In fairness to Girardi, he was dealing with a lot of issues and injuries, but still managed to win 89 games.  In other seasons that might have been good enough to make the playoffs, but unfortunately for the Yankees an upstart Tampa Bay Rays team won the division 8 games ahead of the Yankees, followed by the runner up Boston Red Sox who made it in as the wild card entry.  The Yankees 3rd place finish was their lowest since the team came in 4th in 1992 under Buck Showalter.

It was embarrassing, nonetheless, for a team accustomed to playing in October.

Off the field, Rodriguez’s life was full of tabloid exploits well documented in the New York press, on sports talk shows and in the scandal rags.

In January of this year news leaked that the aforementioned Torre had written a sort of “tell-all” book about life behind the closed clubhouse doors of the New York Yankees.  Rodriguez was prominently referred to by Torre.  Torre said A-Rod’s teammates called him “A-Fraud” behind his back and he described the third baseman of having a “single white female” fixation on Derek Jeter.  He also described Rodriguez as stat driven, not getting a job done in a particular situation.

Of course, this caused teammates to become involved in defending A-Rod, which they did.

Torre’s expose was barely out of the box when the next big bombshell hit.  In February Sports Illustrated published that A-Rod’s name appeared on a list of 104 players who tested positive in 2003 for steroid and/or human growth hormone use.   Once again, the Yankees were thrust into a negative spotlight because of their embattled third baseman.

Doing the right thing, A-Rod, in an interview with ESPN’s Peter Gammons,  admitted he had taken illegal substances in 2001 – 2003 while a member of the Texas Rangers.  He told Gammons he stopped prior to joining the Yankees in 2004.  Without rehashing all of A-Rod’s excuses as to why he went down this road suffice it to say there has been absolutely no proof to this point to refute A-Rod’s statements.

Rodriguez private life became public as well.  Allegedly, A-Rod was cheating on his then wife Cynthia while traveling around the country with the Yankees.  He was photographed with a mysterious blond when the two of them entered the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto.  There were reports this same woman was seen at various other spots around the country with Rodriguez going to dinner and high end strip joints.

He was also romantically linked to singer/actress Madonna.  Both denied any involvement, however, both parties were divorced from their spouses within a short time of each other.

And just when you think you had seen and heard it all another A-Rod left hook came out of nowhere flooring his teammates and Yankee fans alike.

A-Rod’s name was associated with well know madam, Kristin Davis, the lady who had supplied fallen New York Governor Eliot Spitzer with hookers.  Email exchanges between A-Rod and Davis were published in the NY Daily News.  One had to wonder how long a proud organization like the Yankees were going to put up with these continual embarrassments.

On top of all of that in the beginning of March, Rodriguez learned he was going to have to have surgery on his right hip to remove a cyst and repair a torn labrum as well.  Initially it was thought that the injury might cost A-Rod the 2009 season, but after an examination by Dr. Marc Philippon in Vale, ,Rodriguez was told he could have corrective surgery done initially and he could play after a period of rest.  He would need another surgery to complete the repair after the season was over.  (Recently, A-Rod learned that he would need no further surgery after the playoffs.)

A-Rod opted for the surgery and was told he would be out of action between 8 to 10 weeks.

In the meantime, the Yankees opened a new stadium in the Bronx, but the 2009 campaign hardly started the way the organization had pictured it.  With A-Rod out of the lineup the Yankees struggled to a 15-16 record after the first 31 games.  Girardi’s name was continually being bandied about as a guy who was going to be fired at any time.  However, the front office kept mum, apparently content to let Girardi, with the team’s help, hang himself.

On May 8, all of that changed.

A-Rod returned to the lineup after his recovery went much faster and better than predicted.  His presence immediately helped a struggling Mark Teixeira, who had been signed in the off season to an 8-year, $180 million contract.  Prior to Rodriguez’s comeback Teixeira was hitting a woeful .192.  He had generated only 5 home runs and 15 RBI.  Afterward, and until the end of the season Teixeira’s numbers took off like a meteor.  He ended the season tied for the American League home run lead with Carlos Pena of the Rays with 39 bombs and led AL with 122 RBI.  He also hit a very respectable .292 to put him in the hunt for his first ever MVP trophy.

A-Rod’s return also re-energized the team as a whole after going 15-16 the Yankees went on a tear compiling a winning record of 88-43 (.693 winning percentage).

What was significant about Rodriguez’s season this year was, not only did he miss the first 30 games due to his injury, but he sat out an additional 8 games for rest.  That was almost 25% of the 2009 campaign.

Even more amazing was A-Rod’s deportment after returning to the lineup.  He appeared more relaxed, and a lot less wooden in the clubhouse.  In interviews, instead of giving company type answers to questions, he just talked.  Everyone around him noticed Rodriguez was more at ease with everything and that translated into one of the most enduring seasons of his career.

Rodriguez hit the first pitch he saw of his new season for a home run off Jeremy Guthrie of the Baltimore Orioles and he also hit the last pitch he saw of the season for a home run off Andy Sonnanstine of the Tampa Bay Rays.  In that last game Rodriguez had 28 home runs and 93 RBI.  Dating back to 1998 A-Rod had hit no less than 30 home runs or driven in less than 100 RBI for 11 straight years.  No one in their right mind thought he had a shot at reaching 30 and 100.

A-Rod proved us all wrong.

With the Yankees trailing 2-0 in the 6th inning Rodriguez hit a 2-run home run off the Rays Wade Davis to start the Yankees scoring and to make his numbers 29 and 96.  Then, in what I consider a gutless move, Rays manager Joe Maddon walked Teixeira in what would prove to be his last regular season at bat so he wouldn’t have the chance to break his home run tie with Pena.  That move loaded the bases and it also brought Rodriguez to the plate.

With the bases juiced Sonnanstine pitched to A-Rod and in a scene that only Yankee lore is made of Rodriguez made Maddon and the Rays pay for walking Teixeira by blasting a grand slam home run over the right-center field wall.  The Yankees scored 10 runs in the inning and Rodriguez set a new American League record by being the first player to plate 7 men in one inning.  He also set a new major league record for being the first player to hit at least 30 home runs and driving in 100 runs in 13 seasons (he also accomplished the feat in 1996).

With the regular season over the playoffs began against the Minnesota Twins who barely made it to the dance.  They ended the season in a dead heat tie with the Detroit Tigers and the teams were forced to play one more game in Minnesota to determine the AL Central Champs.  Minnesota took the game and the title to New York where they played the Yankees the very next day.

So far in the two games played against the Twins in the ALDS Alex Rodriguez has delivered in the clutch.  On Wednesday in Game 1 A-Rod was 2-for-3 with RISP.  On Friday he was 1-for-1, but even this statistic is misleading.  A-Rod delivered a game tying single in the 6th inning to tie the score 1-1.  After the Twins got to Hughes in the top of the 8th, taking a 3-1 lead, the Yankees got busy in the bottom of the 9th inning.

With super-closer Joe Nathan on the mound Teixeira singled giving the Yankee faithful a glimmer of hope.  That brought Rodriguez to the plate.  Nathan threw A-Rod a fastball down the middle of the plate and Rodriguez hit it over the right field wall, over the Yankee bullpen and into the seats adjacent to Monument Park.  Rodriguez dropped his bat and as he was running toward first looked into the Yankee dugout and pumped his fist.  A-Rod rounded the bases and headed back to an ecstatic Yankee dugout and a curtain call.

The game remained tied until the bottom of the 11th when Teixeira faced Jose Mijares and hit a 1-1 pitch which skipped off the top of the left field wall and into the seats for Teixeira’s first career walk off home run.  Teixeira rounded the bases and as he approached home plate tossed aside his batting helmet and jumped into a pile of celebrating teammates.

Said Teixeira after the game, “I don’t think there’s anything better in sports. Best place to play in the world.”

Rodriguez was also asked about his heroics and he told reporters, This whole year I’m playing with no expectations.”  A-Rod added this. “The fun part is I was just thinking base hit,” he said. “Hit the ball hard somewhere. And it went to the seats.”

Although it’s only been two games there appears to be a calmness in Alex Rodriguez’s approach to his game.  His teammates have responded as well.  So far A-Rod has a home run and 5 RBI, and has delivered in 3-of-4 in run scoring opportunities.  However, given the power of this club I would put his 2-run home run in the 9th inning of Game 2 in that category.  That would make him 4-for-5 in scoring chances.

How the rest of the playoffs go for A-Rod and the Yankees is anyone’s guess, but for now it seems that A-Rod is finally shedding his demons and that 800 lb. gorilla that he’s been carrying around for so long has finally jumped off his back and left the room.

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