I had my first ever semi-doubtful moment about Alex Rodriguez Tuesday night. Maybe doubtful isn’t the right word, but it is the first time I remember thinking “Hey…this isn’t working” about his performance.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written or tweeted, or heard anything I’ve ever said, you know I am one of the biggest (if not the biggest) Alex Rodriguez fans you will ever meet. There was nothing I wanted more this season than for him to come back from that season long suspension and play well. Well enough to prove my almost two decades of fandom weren’t a bad decision. Well enough for people to realize he’s more than the suspension, the bad publicity, and the very public mistakes. Well enough for people to realize he is one of the greatest baseball players most of my generation will ever see play – because he is.
But we all know the story. He came back, put up better numbers than anyone could imagine, while doing and saying all the right things. And then came August. The “dog days of summer” as he called them – when he went through a 1-for-27 slump and said “I’ve been stinking up the joint here for about three weeks now.” Then – a grand slam. A huge A-Rod moment that saved the game, maybe even saved the series, and made Alex Rodriguez look like a hero again.
Photo: Getty images
But what about the moments right before the grand slam? There were some pretty negative opinions out there. Some fans were certain it wasn’t a slump – it was the end of the road for Alex Rodriguez. Some wanted Alex benched, some wanted him moved down in the order.
I’m not ashamed to say I didn’t think it was a bad idea to bench him, and I was in favor of dropping him in the order. Obviously, Joe Girardi did not feel the same way since Alex remained in the lineup and batting 3rd. We all know now that was for the better, but I don’t regret saying what I did, even if it hurt to say it. (Also, I’ve always liked Girardi – as a player, and – most of the time – as a manager.)
Did I want Alex benched indefinitely? Absolutely not! But I am aware that he is 40 years old (that’s really old for a baseball player) and any day could be his last. I want to see this guy play every single game he can for as long as he possibly can. Quite honestly, I don’t want his career to ever end because I know I will never have a favorite player as much as he has been for all these years, and it will break my heart when the time comes for him to stop playing. (I know it’s going to happen someday, and fair warning – I’m going to be an absolute mess when it does.) When I suggest benching him, I mean only for a day or two. Not only is he ancient in baseball years, but this is the longest season he’s played in a really, really long time. Granted, he’s not playing the field anymore and DH is considerably less draining on the body, but it’s still a long season. As of today, he has played in 110 games. In previous seasons, he’s played 44 (2013, age 37), 122 (2012, age 36) and 99 (2011, age 35) games. In his entire 21 year career he has played 11,819 games including 3 seasons (2001, 2002, 2005) when he played all 162 games and 2 seasons (1998, 2003) when he missed just one game (played 161). That is a lot of baseball – especially for a man who spent all of last year out of the game. It’s perfectly reasonable that he might be tired – maybe a little slow due to fatigue – and need a day, maybe even two, to rest and recover/refocus.
As for dropping him in the order, it does not imply anything negative about his abilities as a hitter. You can’t total 3,000+ hits, 2,000+ RBI, and 675+ home runs by luck or by accident. Instead, consider the traditional batting order construct compared to a typical lineup for the 2015 Yankees. The three-hole is usually for the best all-around hitter on team who can get on base and/or drive in runs from the lead off batters, this year usually occupied by Alex Rodriguez (which, for the majority of the season, I agree with). During his slump, Rodriguez was certainly not the best all-around hitter on the team – as much as it pains me to say it – but was probably one of the worst. (Although it would take great effort to be as bad as Stephen Drew.) He absolutely has the talent to be the best and he has proved it throughout his career, and I would never doubt the mechanics of his swing.
So what’s the problem? My guess is it was more mental – the pressure of being the third man in the lineup, the pressure or being in a slump, and maybe even the pressure of his age. There have been many reports throughout his career that Alex is a perfectionist – that too causes pressure. Going into this season, no one knew what to expect from Alex Rodriguez – himself included. During spring training and the first couple weeks of the season, he batted anywhere from 2nd to 7th before proving he was every bit as good a hitter as hit career statistics would suggest and permanently being moved into the three-hole. Now that we know what he’s capable of – among the team leaders in home runs, RBI, slugging, etc – we expect that production all the time. Do we expect as much from batters lower in lineup? Of course not.
The typical batting order for this season’s Yankees has had Rodriguez 3rd, Texeira cleanup, Brian McCann 5th, and Carlos Beltran 6th (with adjustments if one has a day off). Both McCann and Beltran have recently had tremendous series and have arguably been the best hitters on the team at the time. A simple shift in the lineup – maybe for just even a game or two – could bring one or both of them up in the order, and bring Rodriguez down a little bit. Maybe with a little less pressure batting a little lower in the lineup, Rodriguez doesn’t let the slump get into his head quite as much and he focuses on better contact. With his obvious power, he could easily send one over the outfield wall with a good hit. Of course there is no way to measure the amount of mental pressure he may have experienced or what results we could have seen from a lineup rearrangement, but in my opinion, it was an idea worth considering.
Those changes weren’t meant to be. The reality is, Rodriguez broke the slump in the grandest way possible, and after the grand slam, suddenly everyone on the team could hit. Greg Bird (single), Didi Gregorius (single), Chase Headley (double), and Jacoby Ellsbury (single) all had hits the next inning, combining for 2 more runs with the help of Brendan Ryan’s sacrifice bunt. Ellsbury even stole his 15th base of the season. The grand slam not only ended the slump, but it ignited the rest of the team’s offense as well.
And it’s a moment I’ll always remember. I yelled so loud when that ball was hit, my neighbors probably thought I was being murdered. Not only was it a huge, slump-ending grand slam, but is broke Rodriguez’s own record of most career grand slams (25). Earlier this year, I was happy any time he made contact with the ball and didn’t strike out. The 25 home runs, 67 RBIs, and 2 stolen bases (yes, they really happened) are a bonus. I’ve mentioned before that someone once told me “Every at bat he has is historic” and that’s absolutely true. He’s breaking records all the time, and with as well as he’s playing right now, we have no idea how much better his career statistics will be when he does retire.
Again, I’m not afraid to admit I was wrong about resting him or dropping him in the order – but that doesn’t mean I won’t get worried again if he slumps in the future. If/when it does happen (he went 0-3 the very next day), it won’t be because of my lack of faith in him, but rather doing whatever it takes for him to be the best player he can be. I know what he’s capable of, and I want to witness as much of it as I possibly can before his career ends, even if that means he’s not the number three hitter or if he takes a few more days off.
This time, I commend Joe Girardi and Alex Rodriguez, along with the whole team that stuck with him, for getting through the slump (and hopefully there isn’t another). To me, it shows what kind of team they are to hang in there, knowing the slump would eventually end and that Rodriguez would again be a productive part of the team. At a time when my emotions and nerves got the best of me, they kept on grinding. Just the way a first place team does.