By Jack Dickey
When the Yankees benched Alex Rodriguez for Game 5 of the 2012 American League Division Series -- a game, therefore a series, they won -- after pinch-hitting for him in the two prior games, it might have seemed like a turning point for the Yankees, or a turning point for Rodriguez. (Joe Girardi put Rodriguez back in the lineup for Game 1 of the ALCS against Detroit.) But Oct. 12, and the two preceding nights, were not inflection points. They were logical next steps, parts of an unmistakable linear decay with its origins in 2008 and 2009.
2008 was, it now seems, undeniably long ago. In the early days of that year, Bernard Madoff was the sharpest trader on Wall Street, Lehman Brothers remained a thriving hirer of directionless overachievers, and Alex Rodriguez was the reigning MVP of the American League and baseball's future home run king. Rodriguez had hit .314/.422/.645 with 54 home runs and 24 stolen bases in 2007. He had posted the highest OPS of his career and hit his 500th home run. After the season, he opted out of the 10-year deal the Rangers had shipped to the Yankees in early 2004, and he signed a new 10-year deal with New York. This one was for $275 million. He was 31 years old, but he was also A-Rod: He never got hurt, and he no longer played shortstop. He would defy the typical aging curve for right-handed power hitters, because why wouldn't he? Besides, memorabilia sales and inflation would offset any apparent excess in his contract.
Looking back on it, 2009 is much harder to distinguish from the present. Madoff had copped to orchestrating a great con, Lehman had vanished and Alex Rodriguez -- once our miracle of modern physiology -- had turned into a steroid cheat with a bad body and a worse contract.
So much changed for Rodriguez that year. His 2008 numbers had been worse than his 2007 numbers, but his 2009 numbers fell below those. He played in only 124 games, the fewest of his career as a starter, and hit .286/.402/.532. He missed out on 100 runs for the first time since 1995. And the pee-cup crusaders outed him as a steroid user that February. Rodriguez admitted he started using while he was in Texas but said he stopped before he went to the Yankees; Selena Roberts’ book said he didn't quit when he arrived in New York and he began using in high school. The truth about Rodriguez jarred many of us -- not our morals, but our radars. Rodriguez was the first lithe power hitter convincingly connected to steroids. McGwire, Bonds, Giambi and their ilk had ballooned when they started their regimens, and they periodically missed time with comically geriatric ailments. As far as we knew, Rodriguez wasn't that guy. But by the end of 2009, he too had a joint (his hip) quit on him 40 years ahead of schedule. His numbers and health have declined steadily since.
But Rodriguez's steroid use opened the door for a misreading of his decline. People now think A-Rod stopped being A-Rod because he stopped using performance-enhancing drugs. It makes his decline seem willful and malicious. (My Deadspin colleagues dismantled one such claim on Friday.) Years of baseball history suggest A-Rod stopped being A-Rod because he's old. Power hitters have failed in their mid-30s since the game's inception, both with and without steroids.
Rodriguez's steroid-related image problem fed a concurrent, broader Yankees image problem. The new stadium had made the Yankees improbably more capitalist and craven. Perhaps that reorientation would have passed painlessly in pre-crash America, but the cowed, bailed-out bankers couldn't buy the Legends Suite seats. So the Yankees, taking necessary cues from the national climate, tried to get leaner.
The offseason after 2009, they added Curtis Granderson, Javier Vazquez, Chan Ho Park, and Marcus Thames. The next offseason, they added Rafael Soriano, Russell Martin, Bartolo Colon, Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez and Freddy Garcia. An offseason later, they added Hiroki Kuroda, Michael Pineda and Raul Ibanez. Soriano is the Yankees' only post-2009 splurge. Compare that to things in Boston -- Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, John Lackey -- or in Detroit -- Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder -- or across town -- Jason Bay, Francisco Rodriguez. This year’s Yankees are, as a result, powered less by big-ticket free agents than they used to be. And the Yankees are planning to cut salary further next year.
So $27.5 million per year, paid to a declining third baseman presently hitting less than Adrian Beltre and David Freese, sticks out like the unfinished glass-walled wing of a foreclosed McMansion. Especially if the fans and media believe he's complicit in his own decline. Rodriguez, who was 2-for-16 heading into Game 5, was pinch-hit for and benched. Granderson, who was 1-for-16, and Swisher, who was 2-for-15, weren't. Those aren't the Yankees anymore, these are.
But it's all bad timing, really. The Yankees couldn't have anticipated a worldwide economic collapse, and Rodriguez couldn't have anticipated the leak of years-old (confidential!) steroid test results, a leak that immediately preceded his natural decline. But all that did happen. So where do they go from here? Things aren't hopeless. Rodriguez's woeful 2012 playoff performance has come in the smallest of sample sizes. There's no reason he couldn't break out Sunday afternoon and do his thing for the rest of the playoffs. He ought not worry about getting playing time. I hear an infield spot just opened up.