Who, in the name of George Steinbrenner, would ever have imagined this? The New York Yankees, led always by the noblest statesmen, are now falling in line behind Alex Rodriguez.
That’s right, a franchise that prides itself on tradition and honor is currently in the hands of a man who wouldn’t know grace if it was hit right at him. A franchise that has been captained by the beloved likes of Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson and Derek Jeter is suddenly rallying behind the most hated ballplayer in America.
At this point, Jeter has been reduced to a cheerleader, and my, how the roles have changed in a year.
For so long in New York, Rodriguez has hugged his teammates with his tail between his legs. He always seemed to fail in the biggest moments, leaving the role of hero to be played by someone else. When his teammates picked him up – as they often did – A-Rod celebrated the win as much as his own quasi-vindication.
Thanks Jetes, I really would have been in hot water that time.
He was an outsider on those teams, a big bat and a strong arm and nothing else. A mere gadget in the Bronx Machine, A-Rod was as nameless as the clubhouse batboy. He did his job, collected his paycheck, and went his way.
And that was mainly before all of his New York sins and baseball transgressions. That was before he began lying like Pinocchio and before he began destroying the image he so desperately wanted to maintain. Yes, that was before he let down the game and slid into the role of League Villain.
So it’s all the more amazing that now, at age 38, after all he’s done, A-Rod has finally emerged as the heart of the Yankees.
It’s not just that he’s swinging a hot bat, though with a .434 average in his past six games he’s certainly doing that. It’s not just that he’s coming up with clutch hits, though with timely home run after timely home run he’s certainly doing that, too. More than anything else, it’s that A-Rod is treating this final month as the single most important thing he’s ever done.
And it’s not important for him personally. By now, he seems to have realized his legacy is beyond repair. He can try to reclaim whatever dignity may be left out there for him, but that cause was lost quite some time ago. All that’s left for A-Rod to do now is play baseball.
He’s playing it hard (if slower, than he once did) and he’s playing it earnestly, and when he’s not playing it, he’s watching it the way the team’s listed captain always has. You know, on the dugout top step, right near the entrance to the field, where he can scan the game intently and offer encouragement when he needs to. And it doesn’t feel as though A-Rod is merely trying to mimic Jeter, as he so often has in New York. It feels genuine and natural, as if for the first time we’re finally seeing the real him.
Take last night in Baltimore. With the score tied at 3 in the top of the ninth – thanks to an A-Rod homer in the sixth to bring the Yankees even – Robinson Cano launched a go-ahead blast into the right-center field seats. Just as it outran the reach of Adam Jones, A-Rod threw his arms above his head and roared his approval. His expression – ecstatic and just this side of ferocious – was an emotional outburst as pure as it gets.
He doesn’t want this for himself, anymore. He wants this for his team. And the rest of the Yankees are sensing that. What’s more, they’re responding to it.
Grown men don’t need role models. And A-Rod, given his spotted past, certainly isn’t qualified for that. But grown men do need leaders and before Rodriguez returned that was one department (of many) in which the Yankees cupboards were bare.
As much as Robinson Cano carries this team, a player of his background is limited as a leader (every one of the all-time 14 Yankees captains has been American). As much as Brett Gardner sparks this team, a player of his stature can only lift this club so high. And as much as Mariano Rivera sets a universal Yankee standard, his soft-spoken ways aren’t quite rearing to light a fire.
Thus has A-Rod emerged. He is everything the Yankees need in a leader right now, especially with Jeter on the bench. He is loud and talented enough to defend it, he is possessed with winning, and for a team with an underdog personality he is the perfect measure of brash.
Jeter will return next season, and things will return to normal in the Bronx. The perfect leader will captain the ideal franchise and this odd, injury-riddled season will be but a memory. But now, for the first time in New York, Alex Rodriguez fits the Yankees and the Yankees fit him.
Sometimes it’s fun to break the rules, anyway.