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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Won't you help to sing?

When A-Rod hit it, I thought Carlos Gomez might catch it, but as the ball carried, disappearing well into the Yankees bullpen, with it likely the Twins hopes of a Division Series upset, one thing became evident: this is A-Rod 2.0. The original A-Rod was good, even great, but he had some glitches. The most glaring of them, of course, was his modest postseason record, especially since joining the Yankees. The original A-Rod was often overcome by his own expectations. One could see the burden in his body language during critical at-bats in '06 and '07. It got so bad that in Game 4 of the '06 ALDS against Detroit, Joe Torre dropped the Five Hundred Million Dollar Man to eighth in the Yankees batting order. A-Rod responded by going 0-for-3.

He's been in the league now for 16 seasons. His numbers are awe-inspiring. A year ago he surpassed 500 HR and won his 4th MVP. His place in baseball history is assured. Some of his exploits could almost be described as epic, but he's still haunted by five failed Octobers, by his lone postseason homerun, and by the fact that, despite everything else, for the cross-section of fans and sportswriters who jealously despise him, this is the self-justifying evidence that he isn't equal to them or their idols: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Derek Jeter, etc.

To whom do I refer? Why, Barry Bonds, of course, circa 2002. That October, you may recall, Bonds silenced many of his remaining critics by going on a record-breaking playoff tear that included 8 HR and 16 RBI...despite the fact that he was walked nearly 40% of the time. His OBP in the seven-game World Series against the Angels was .700.

Unfortunately, for those of us who jealously despise A-Rod (or at least the team he represents), he looks primed for his own redemption song. Perhaps he is flourishing in the loose, jovial atmosphere created by new teammates A. J. Burnett, Nick Swisher, and C. C. Sabathia. Perhaps he is benefiting from the resurgences of Jeter, Johnny Damon, and Hideki Matsui, and the additional clout of Mark Texeira. Perhaps, after a most turbulent offseason, plagued by bad decisions, scandal, heartbreak, and injury, he no longer has any auspice to perfection.

Whatever it is, the burden has been lifted, so that, like the mature Bonds, he appears not only confident, but almost sybilline, several steps ahead of everybody else on the field. In the sixth inning of Game 2, with Nick Blackburn still on the mound, pitching excellently and cautiously, A-Rod kept things simple. He waited on the curveball, a good one, a pitcher's pitch, down in the zone, and simply drove it hard into the ground, splitting the left side of the infield. He didn't overswing, he didn't imagine the left-field bleachers, he simply tied the game and trusted his teammates to follow. In the ninth, with Texeira on first, he changed his approach. He stayed patient, worked the count, passed on a Joe Nathan offering that might've induced a double play, then, with the count at 3-1, A-Rod knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt - he knew it while he was standing on deck watching him warm up - that Nathan would do what good closers always do, especially with men on base and nobody out, regardless of the hitter at the plate.

It's what Mo would've done. It's what Eck would've done. It's the reason why we have legendary footage of Albert Pujols and Joe Carter rounding the bases while Brad Lidge and Mitch Williams walk, heads down, towards the dugout, holding back tears. It's what closers are supposed to do. They challenge. And Joe Nathan reminded himself, as he had many times before, that he was one of the best in baseball, and that A-Rod, despite all his success, had never taken him yard. Ego soothed, he delivered a challenge fastball, thigh-high.

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