NEW YORK – The night was almost perfect. The old shortstop with the bum foot played like a spry kid. The slumping lefty popped a home run. The July acquisition gapped a double. The ace pitched like an ace. Nights like these make America hate the New York Yankees. In sports, excellence and villainy are one and the same, and no team is as excellent or plays the villain quite like the Yankees.
Of course, the 3-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles that sent the Yankees to the AL Championship Series, and the perfunctory celebration afterward, couldn't hide the real story of this win, this series, this postseason – the very thing that shatters the Yankees' Stepfordian existence.
Alex Rodriguez languished on the bench Friday for all of Game 5, relegated there by his manager Joe Girardi, resigned to playing a $29 million ornament instead of opposing a team whose entire starting lineup made $25.7 million this season. He sat on the bench not only because he was 2-for-16 with nine strikeouts in the series but because of how those strikeouts looked. Swinging through 84-mph fastballs, waving feebly at off-speed pitches and bringing a level of awkwardness to each plate appearance reserved for seventh graders going through growth spurts.
And so now the highest-paid player in sports history is likewise the highest-profile backup, demoted from the lineup's No. 3 spot to the No. 5 spot to the pine in a matter of three days. Not even halfway through his 10-year contract, Rodriguez's manager has declared his game dead. He may stay in New York because of the contract's size. He may leave via trade that he would approve.
Girardi's dance throughout the progressive neutering of his three-time MVP has been an object lesson in sports spin. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, after all. Girardi started Wednesday by questioning the mere idea that he would drop Rodriguez from the No. 3 hole, where he had struggled.
"Whenever you move a player," Girardi said, "it has a chance not only to affect the player, but it could affect the whole team."
That night he pinch-hit for A-Rod down one run in the ninth inning.
It didn't just have a chance to affect the player and the team. It indubitably affected them – and the entire franchise, too, in that he had sounded a horn that blared: A-Rod is washed up. Girardi cast his and the Yankees' lot by putting in Raul Ibanez, and no matter your feelings on process vs. outcome, he made the right choice. Ibanez hit the game-tying and -winning home runs, and A-Rod was there to celebrate.
For Game 4, Girardi moved him to the fifth spot. This was no demotion. Just a reshuffling.
"I believe in Alex," Girardi said.
Just not in the 13th inning, down a run again. This time Girardi pinch-hit Eric Chavez, who almost retired in recent years because of chronic injuries.
When Friday rolled around, Girardi did what just days ago seemed inconceivable. No matter how bad Babe Ruth was going, Miller Huggins would not sit him. Even in his deepest slumps, Barry Bonds never saw the bench. Yes, A-Rod is 37, and yes, his play absolutely merited a benching. To see it, though. To see Girardi ostensibly ignore every implication – personal, political, monetary, trade value … everything – to win ballgames now, future be damned. Well, it's actually pretty amazing, considering the only bench player better than Rodriguez this postseason, Stephen Strasburg, found himself there for the complete opposite reason: fear.
"I ain't worried about years ahead," Girardi said.
Girardi is worried about Rodriguez hitting right-handed pitchers. Every Detroit starter is right-handed. And so while the permanence of this benching is unclear, if Girardi's rationale remains consistent, we may be staring at, as Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones so eloquently put it, a half-billionaire pinch hitter.
Oh. And he's 0-for-14 in his career as a pinch hitter.
We knew someday it would come to this. Teams do not sign 32-year-olds to 10-year contracts and escape unscathed. It is a relatively simple equation. Starting in their early 30s, almost every player starts trending down. Long-term deals for players ride that trend. Thus, when teams lock up an aging player, they hand him a contract attached to the back of a toboggan.
A-Rod's hill just happens to be shorter than most.
"Obviously, I'm not happy and, you know, I was disappointed," he said. "You want to be in there in the worst way. But I keep telling you guys, this is not a story about one person. This is about a team. We have some unfinished business."
Rodriguez's tack throughout the most emasculative juncture of his career has been admirable and stunning. This is more embarrassing than when Joe Torre dropped him to eighth in the lineup, worse for his career than the steroid revelations. The Yankees are dumping A-Rod, and he would be the last person anyone would expect to take the news with such grace.
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"I always have to look in the mirror and do what I can do to do the best I can," he said, and his turn of phrase was rather amusing. A-Rod past has consisted of looking in mirrors, of centaur self-portraits, of Madonna and Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz, of shady steroid-peddling cousins, of yelling "Ha!" and slapping gloves, of so many assorted foibles that it's easy to lose track. In a way, A-Rod was the archetypal Yankee in that his absolute excellence made him a great villain. But he was the antithesis of the boring, buttoned-up pinstripers in that everything he did came with a caveat.
This may yet as well. October is a funny month. If a team with one of the game's best bullpens can blow a 6-0 lead in clinching games, a Hall of Famer with 647 home runs can rediscover something. The weirdest part of A-Rod, bench jockey, is what others say about him. Derek Jeter was asked how Rodriguez was handling it, and his answer was: "He's out there pulling for everyone, like everyone on our team does." And when the best thing he could say about A-Rod was the quality of his cheerleading skills, well, there was something very backward about that, something that seems even too odd for October.
Jeter not grinding through an injury was too odd. Curtis Granderson looking like an A-ball player for the first four games was too odd. Ichiro Suzuki not hitting was too odd. CC Sabathia not throwing a complete game would've been too odd. Yet all is well in the Yankee universe save for No. 13. And even he looked past his Freaky Friday to a place where the sun shines and he's got full-time employment.
"Don't assume that you've heard the last from us," A-Rod said. "Or me."
It could be for either of the Los Angeles teams, for the Marlins or White Sox – hell, for any team, really -- if the Yankees believe this is it and eat $80 million-plus of the $114 million they owe him for the next five years and Rodriguez approves a deal. While it's hard to believe, it's likelier that they try to work through the betrayal – and that's exactly what this has been to a man who has spent his entire adulthood on a pedestal – and repair the seemingly irreparable.
One of Rodriguez's teammates smirked at the idea of reconciliation, noting how many times the Yankees and A-Rod seemed on the outs. Jeter may be the lifeblood of this team, and Sabathia may be its most important piece, but the one who best personifies what the Yankees are, as opposed to what they want to be, is still wearing their uniform, still itching to forget about this miserable week and become what so soon ago they relished.
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