Starr: How A-Rod Changed the WBC

Words I never imagined writing: what a week for European baseball! All we needed was a voiceover saying, "Do you believe in miracles?" after the Netherlands ousted the Dominican Republic from the World Baseball Classic. To boot, Italy scored six goals—uh, make that six runs—to knock Canada from the tourney, adding insult to injury by winning in Toronto's Sky Dome. I told you this WBC was going to be a hoot.

The U.S. team hasn't suffered any embarrassments yet, and ESPN's broadcasters have been raving about the vastly improved chemistry on the American team, at least compared with that flop of an '06 squad that didn't even reach the tournament semifinals. Of course, at the time there was no mention of any problems until after the U.S. team lost to Canada, South Korea and Mexico. It took three years for us to discover that the previous U.S. squad had "bad chemistry," "a country-club atmosphere" and "didn't take the WBC seriously."

That team was also saddled with baseball's most riveting psychodrama in the person of Alex Rodriguez. This time around Rodriguez opted to play for the Dominican Republic, at least before he was sidelined with a hip problem. Apparently only his curse lingered. On the American side, Derek Jeter looks a lot more relaxed playing alongside his Red Sox rival Dustin Pedroia than he ever has next to his teammate and putative pal A-Rod.

Chemistry is, of course, a group dynamic. Still the ESPN team credits Pedroia, the runt-of-the-litter second baseman who plays with a fervor bordering on rabidity, with setting the tone for this other team of Yanks. Pedroia is the anti-A-Rod in that he doesn't care how he looks playing the game—he swings from the heels and is often sprawled on the field—and worries only about the results.

Clubhouse chemistry didn't used to be a major preoccupation in baseball. Great teams like Reggie Jackson's Oakland A's of the early '70s bickered, brawled and flourished despite the clash of giant egos and disparate personalities. But of late, team chemistry is a concept that is garnering increased respect; it was considered crucial to Boston's historic 2004 championship, and since then teams have tried to replicate that level of player unity.

Which brings us full circle to A-Rod. Despite the consensus that he remains the top talent in the game, Rodriguez now bears the burden of three major raps that threaten to obscure his accomplishments. The first is, of course, the recent revelation that he cheated with performance-enhancing drugs, which at least raises the possibility that his numbers have been boosted by artifice.

The second is his glaring failure—every Yankee fan can cite chapter and verse—to produce in the clutch. Beyond the anecdotal evidence, there is his stunning string of postseason failures that contributed to the Yankees being bounced in the first round of the playoffs in three consecutive years; in 13 playoff games from 2005 to 2007, A-Rod has hit a Mendoza-like .159 with one home run and, extraordinarily, just a single RBI. In that last playoff series, former Yankee manager Joe Torre dropped Rodriguez from his customary cleanup spot to eighth in the lineup.

As bad as those numbers are, it is the final rap on A-Rod that is gaining prominence and that is ultimately the most damning: that Rodriguez kills team chemistry. The notion is that his obsessive self-absorption—his need to always command center stage—alienates teammates, undermines team's cohesion and diminishes team performance.

There is certainly a pattern that bolsters that view. Since the arrival in New York of the never-ending soap opera that is A-Rod, the Yankees have sunk from a perennial championship contender to postseason fodder to last year's third-place division finish that put them out of the postseason for the first time since 1993. As much as his arrival appears to hurt a team, his departure appears to help. After A-Rod left Texas, the Rangers went from 71-91 to 89-73 the next season. Seattle's post-A-Rod surge was even more remarkable—from 91 wins in his last season with the Mariners to 116 absent him the next.

That's a lot of baggage for A-Rod to be toting. Which is why it was clear he would opt for the quick, arthroscopic fix for his hip—six to nine weeks recovery—rather than a complete repair job on the torn labrum, which likely would have sidelined him until August. It may seem like a selfless, team-first decision. But one can always assume that whatever A-Rod does is first and foremost about A-Rod. And his decision, at a time when his reputation is at an all-time low, has the virtue of combining a hint of self-sacrifice with a ready-made excuse for any performance deficiencies.

There's no way it was dictated by team necessity. Even without Rodriguez, the Yankees—with their $200 million–plus payroll, their two new aces at the top of the rotation, a lineup filled with productive hitters and enough money to find a serviceable fill-in at third base—would figure to remain competitive. A-Rod's worst-case scenario is that the Yankees might flourish without him, assuring that any subsequent reversal of fortune would be blamed on his return.

That's plenty of motivation to hurry back, even if it means another round of surgery in the fall. Still, it's rather a shame. He missed a grand opportunity here. Last month, when Rodriguez was trying to explain what he now says was a foolish and immature decision to use drugs, the Yankees superstar lamented that he never went to college where he could have grown up. A four-month hiatus from baseball would certainly have enabled him to spend a semester there. I don't know about the growing-up part, but he could have at least taken a course in chemistry.