For A-Rod, the downside of up

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

NEW YORK – While the rest of the room held small pockets of reporters dissecting the home runs that were hit Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium – five more by the home team, 13 in two nights against the Chicago White SoxAlex Rodriguez shrugged and explained the one he didn't.

Shelley Duncan. Check.

Robinson Cano. Check.

Derek Jeter. Check.

Jorge Posada. Check. Check.

A-Rod? Check back.

"You kind of just want to join the parade a little bit," he said.

Rodriguez spent another day at 499 for his career. That's 499 in not quite 14 years, but none in a week, and the Bronx soon will have a flashbulb crisis if Rodriguez doesn't get a little more backspin and a lot more lift on a ball soon.

After a couple years looking for reasons to denigrate one of the finest players of this generation, Yankees fans have taken to leaning into every pitch, chanting his name, howling at breaking balls that hang for a moment, doubling the flashes in hitters' counts.

They boo balls in the dirt, assuming Rodriguez doesn't swing at them. And he generally hasn't. True enough, he's gone 21 at-bats since his last home run, those same 21 at-bats since his last hit (dropping his batting average to .295, its lowest in two months), but the Yankees are winning, the ballpark is filling, and A-Rod is their best chance of reaching the playoffs. They can worry about what he does in them if they get there.

So, the Yankees are hitting home runs around A-Rod, rallying to within two games of the wild-card leading Cleveland Indians, and maybe at least amusing the folks of Boston.

"I'm focused on the way my teammates have swung the bats well and picked me up," Rodriguez said. "I'll hit it sometime."

At stake here is a club of 21 members – Rodriguez will be the 22nd – to have hit 500 home runs. This being the home-run era, like it or not, we've seen Sammy Sosa pass 600, Ken Griffey Jr. approach 600 and Frank Thomas get 500 all in the same couple months, along with whatever it is Barry Bonds might be doing. Rodriguez will join Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle as players who have hit their 500th while wearing the Yankee uniform. He will do it at an earlier age than anyone (by almost a year), and he'll reach 500 in fewer games than anyone but Mark McGwire and Ruth.

In New York, or parts of it, they've decided this prolonged layover at 499 further illustrates Rodriguez's fear of the bright-lights moment.

The headline on the front page of the Daily News – the front page – the night before, when seven Yankees hit eight home runs, was YANKS 8, A-ROD 0.

A Daily News columnist called it "another unfortunate indicator that A-Rod is still not A-Man for A-Moment. The cameras flashed. The star fizzled."

That was before another oh-fer Wednesday.

Apparently, 27 hitless plate appearances become a .241 Yankee postseason experience, becomes no World Series titles, becomes a $252 million contract, becomes an opt-out threat, and on it goes.

Such is the continuum of being A-Rod in the big city, where everything leads eventually to doom and anguish, but blond tips and flawless skin.

And such is the contrast to the sellout crowds screaming "Shell-EE!" for the new kid, who get the "Hip-hip! Hor-HAY!" thing going, who cheer an Indians deficit like they once did a Red Sox loss. For now, they're all for A-Rod, all for this thing he's going to do and the season he's having, what it could do for a season that looked over a month ago. Since July 2, the Yankees are 20-8. Looks like they'll make another postseason, whether Rodriguez goes homerless another game or not.

"I don't care if it takes three or four weeks," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "It's gonna happen. He just has to keep playing baseball."

As for the A-Man/A-Moment theory, Torre huffed.

"But this isn't pressure," he said. "This is not the pressure of winning the ballgame. The pressure is trying to win the ballgame. It really has nothing to do with hitting in the clutch."

He'll try it again today, one more against the White Sox. He promised to do just as Torre talked about, play the game, enjoy the winning, take his hacks.

"And," he said, "try not to think about 500."

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