Alex Rodriguez already has the richest contract in baseball and A-list actress Kate Hudson waiting for him after the game.
Now he’s got a chance at the last laugh, too.
“Pretty incredible,” Rodriguez said after the Yankees booked their 40th trip to the World Series and his first with a 5-2 win Sunday night over the Angels, “especially with all the stuff I’ve been through this year.”
One of the more complex love-hate relationships in sports — A-Rod and New York — is back on again. All he had to do was hit rock-bottom in February, when Rodriguez admitted using performance-enhancing drugs for some 18 months between 2001-03, then hit the Twins and Angels staffs this postseason like a tough town always assumed the store-bought Pride of the Yankees should.
“As tough a time as that was for Alex and the organization,” general manager Brian Cashman said recalling the events last spring, “it makes everyone appreciate how far he has come and what he has fought through, in life and his career.”
Five years ago, adding the best ballplayer of his generation to a lineup that already boasted a contender or two was one of those moves that sounded wonderful in theory. But like communism, it turned out not to be quite as wonderful in practice. No matter what A-Rod did, even in a town that reveres wealth, he always seemed to be dragging his price tag behind him like a ball and chain.
He volunteered to move from shortstop, where he’d already established Hall of Fame credentials, to the far side of the diamond to give Derek Jeter plenty of space. He was the first to show up for extra practice every day and often the last to leave. He tried being cocky, because he thought that’s what the town wanted. Then he humbled himself — even baring his soul about visits to a shrink — when pity seemed like the quickest way back into the city’s heart.
All the while, Rodriguez was a perennial All-Star and an MVP candidate. But the problem was always who A-Rod was never going to be: Jeter.
Never mind that Rodriguez single-handedly carried the Yankees for long stretches of every regular season and put up numbers that compared favorably with anybody in the game. What he didn’t have was a postseason performance worth owning up to, let alone even one of those signature moments that made Jeter an icon.
Until this year, in fact, most New Yorkers would have argued that A-Rod’s most memorable playoff move was getting dropped to the No. 8 spot in the order by then-manager Joe Torre in the 2006 playoffs.
“I will say that in other postseasons I failed,” he said, “and sometimes failed miserably.”
Something was different this time around, right from the outset.
Rodriguez finished the regular season with his usual flourish, then got better at-bat by at-bat. When he wasn’t crushing the ball — Rodriguez compiled a .438 average, five homers and 12 RBIs in nine playoff games — he was drawing a walk in crucial situations. Too often in the past, his confidence was a touchy subject. This time around, it was contagious.
“It all started with Alex with the home runs, the game-tying home runs,” manager Joe Girardi said. “The home runs that he hit in the seventh, the ninth or the 11th. We’ve had big players do big things.”
The funny thing is that for all of his striving, the one thing Rodriguez could never quite manage was to be just one of the guys. The big contract and the photo shoots, the tabloid headlines and celebrity girlfriends always set him apart. But all of those things combined didn’t make him feel nearly as isolated as leaving the batter’s box empty-handed time after time in the playoffs.
“I just felt very happy and very blessed, and all I cared about this year was winning games,” Rodriguez said.
“A lot of great players have never had the honor of playing in the World Series,” he added a moment later. “I thank the good Lord for putting me with the greatest organization and 24 great teammates.”
Then again, loved as Rodriguez might be at the moment, all it will take is a big drop in production when the World Series starts Wednesday in New York for the Yankee faithful to drop him like a bad memory. After all, there’s a reason people like to say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org