An overpriced, underperforming team turned its lonely eyes to a three-time MVP on Monday, hoping that after six weeks on the DL he would ride into the clubhouse on a white stallion, praying that he could at least roust them with some encouraging words, and this is what he said: “I’m not here to save the day.”
Then Alex Rodriguez, a man of his word, went out and walked the walk, striking out swinging in the ninth inning, with the gasping Yankees down a run in a game they would lose to the Rays, their AL East lead slipping away.
A few months ago, the Yankees controlled the division by 10 games, feeling higher than their payroll, just passing the time until October. Then a slow crumble became a mini collapse. And here they are, trying to fend off a threat from a team that hasn’t inhaled October air in 15 years. The Orioles -- the Orioles! -- are now a game away from catching the Yankees, words that haven’t been typed this late in the season since Derek Jeter was coming off his Rookie of the Year award.
“I think we are right where we want to be,” Rodriguez said. “We’re in first place. That’s the bottom line. Hopefully the bad baseball is behind us.”
OK, there’s still plenty of September left. And the wild-card relief system virtually assures that the Yankees' playoff hopes won’t die along with the leaves this autumn. But there’s a larger issue here. What does it say when an all-time great, after mending from a broken hand, returns, and the immediate reaction in the Bronx is: Are Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson right behind him?
It says that A-Rod is no longer a force by his lonesome. It says that he cannot change the direction of a flailing team with a few mighty swings, especially not coming off an injury. What it really says -- and this frightens the Yankees -- is that A-Rod may never turn back the clock in the final five years of his Hindenburg contract.
It says that A-Rod at age 37, even when healthy, is just a pretty good third baseman, a player with a history of performance-enhancing drugs who now appears too weak to carry a team. It has reached the point where nobody bothers to heap that burden on him anymore -- not Yankeeville, not his teammates, not manager Joe Girardi, not even the man himself.
“We have a couple of other brothers who are coming back,” said A-Rod, meaning the injured Teixeira and Granderson, players who have overtaken A-Rod in the clout department. “I’m here to be part of a winning team.”
He isn’t the centerpiece anymore; he’s just a piece, and it’s both disturbing and understandable that Rodriguez is fine with that. Teixeira came to the Yankees four years ago, in another high-priced free-agent deal, and has actually put up better power-hitting numbers than A-Rod since. Then Granderson arrived and finished fourth in the MVP voting last year with a very A-Rod-like 41 homers and 119 RBIs. Perhaps the Yankees knew that A-Rod’s best years were behind him, that he couldn’t meet the demands of New York or the Steinbrenners anymore.
We do know that he can’t seem to stay healthy, although getting plunked on the wrist back on July 24 was hardly his fault. If his body doesn’t cooperate, if his skills keep eroding, can you see a scenario where A-Rod doesn’t catch Barry Bonds on the all-time home-run list? That’s the main reason why the Yankees gave him 10 years and $275 million -- because having a player retire in pinstripes as the home-run king would enhance the Yankee brand.
A-Rod hasn’t played a “full” season since 2007, his last MVP year, when he had 54 homers and 156 RBIs and hit .314. Over the next three years his numbers stabilized in the 30-homer, 100-RBI range, but this season, with all the DL time, he’ll fall short of both.
He’ll be 42 when that contract is up, having banked $28 million, $25 million, $21 million, $20 million and $20 million over the next five years. Not to mention $6 million bonuses for reaching 660, 714, 755, 762 and 763 homers, the benchmarks of Mays, Ruth, Aaron and Bonds, respectively. He's currently sitting at 644, with Mays and Ruth in reasonable sight; beyond that, who knows?
That’s all secondary in the larger sense. The Yankees print enough money to pay him, and reaching the home-run mark has nothing to do with winning championships -- which brings us to where the Yankees are now, perched precariously atop the AL East.
“Who’s panicking?” said Jeter. “I’m not. You’re going to have highs and lows, but you’re still going to have confidence.”
While he did hit respectably, and even homered off Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver, before taking a fastball to the left hand, A-Rod could barely match Jeter in terms of production in what is both players’ twilight. Jeter is winding up a terrific season, batting .317, leading the Yankees in hits, and will reach 600 at-bats. And he’s doing it at the endearing age of 38, further proof that A-Rod, even if he claims the home run title, will never claim Mr. Yankee.
At this point, the Yankees will love for him to claim Mr. September. They’re below .500 since the All-Star break and searching for a savior, something A-Rod insists he’s not. He still has a presence, though. He can help the hitters around him in the order, can still be a threat, and some nights he may even flash back to 2007. But he’s not Teixeira, not Granderson and certainly not feared like before. He’s just a piece, and the Yankees had better make peace with that. Because A-Rod already has.