With a new stadium and a newly expanded payroll, this was supposed to be a joyous season of rebirth for the New York Yankees. But it has begun ugly.
Management failed to gauge the impact of the recession and now sees its most expensive seats in the new Yankee Stadium empty. The new stadium has so far proved to be a home-run paradise, an engineering blunder for a team with bullpen weakness. To date, New York's glittery free agents, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, have provided little bang for their very big bucks. And the team is muddling along, playing .500 ball, and has lost all five games against its archrival Boston Red Sox.
As if that weren't bad enough, the circus is now back in town. Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees superstar who has been sidelined following hip surgery, could rejoin the lineup this weekend. And his return coincides with the publication of a new book—"A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez," by Sports Illustrated writer Selena Roberts—that presents the most unflattering portrayal yet of the game's highest-paid player.
Roberts is the SI writer who earlier this year broke the story that A-Rod had tested positive for steroids back in 2003. It led to a bizarre press conference in which he confessed to a youthful indiscretion of haphazard use of steroids during his three years with the Texas Rangers. Roberts now contends that Rodriguez is not only a cheat, but a liar, too. She writes that his use of performance-enhancing drugs in Texas was extensive and regimented, and that he may have used them as far back as high school and as recently as his tenure with the Yankees.
Nobody who has followed the perpetual soap opera that is A-Rod will be surprised by a portrayal of the Yankee slugger as an emotionally needy and narcissistic young man. In his memoir earlier this year, former Yankee manager Joe Torre covered much of the same ground, describing A-Rod as something of an emotional basket case. He saw Rodriguez as a "me-me" guy who—despite the money and awards lavished on him throughout his career—craves all the attention and winds up buckling under the weight of it.
What's new and different in Roberts's book is the devastatingly unflattering portrayal of A-Rod's life beyond the baseball diamond. In Roberts's view, he is not a remotely sympathetic figure, not simply a confused, immature and perhaps misguided man, but instead … well, kind of a crud. His sins, according to Roberts, are too numerous to list here. She characterizes him as a relentless womanizer who flaunted his infidelities; an overeager poker player who hung out in joints where he never should have been in the first place; a rude man (and often a crude one) with women; a stingy man, be it tipping a waitress or making donations through his charity foundation; a two-faced backstabber who, from Junior Griffey to Derek Jeter, resents more-popular teammates; and a man who has no real friends, only lackeys who shield him from inconvenience—from the smallest errand to the smallest fan. Oh, yeah, and he's a slumlord to boot!
The book has a rather strange title, with its suggestion of Sybil-like disparate personalities, Yet according to the book, A-Rod has been pretty much a version of this same person since he first attracted the limelight as a high-school star in Miami. From his rookie season on, A-Rod was billed as "The Natural," a talent of mythic proportions. He would eventually become baseball's white knight, the one player who could save the game from itself.
A better title might have been "The Unnatural." That would reflect more than just his now being lumped with an increasingly long list of cheaters who have dominated the game in recent years. It would also give a sense of how A-Rod has been obsessed with crafting his image and how badly he has failed at that.
But off-field behaviors, however convoluted and crass, won't render the final verdict on A-Rod's career. The on-field performances will. The judgment on that is turning harsh as well. His failure to hit in the clutch has moved beyond the anecdotal; he has gone 9-for-56—or a .161 batting average—with 18 strikeouts and just a single RBI in his last 16 postseason games. And all those MVP awards can't disguise the absence of a championship or the fact that the teams he left immediately improved, while the teams he joined got worse.
Given that history and his urgent needs, A-Rod couldn't have asked for a better situation right now. He is perfectly positioned to play the role he covets, that of team savior. If he can reverse New York's course and deliver the championship that Yankee fans think of as their due, then everything else will be—if not entirely forgotten—certainly forgiven.