Friday, October 16, 2009

Pre ALCS Thoughts

Wow, the ALDS flew by. The three Yankee victories were, by turn, expected, lucky, and surprising. In Game 1, CC did what he was given the big, huge contract to do, even though he didn't have his best stuff; in Game 2, late inning heroics combined with a lucky break from left field ump Phil Cuzzi, who had one job to do, and did it poorly. Game 3 featured "Can't Pitch" Carl Pavano showing the Yankees exactly the pitcher they thought they signed the week before Christmas in 2004. He was amazing. I was watching the online feed, the center field camera view. In that view, the camera stayed focused on the pitcher after each plate appearance and time and again, the view you'd see was Pavano turning his back to the plate, another strikeout notched, another batter disposed of. It was like that until the seventh, when, with the Twins leading 1-0, Alex Rodriguez went yard to the opposite field to tie the game. More on that in a moment. Two batters later, Jorge Posada did the same. Two guys, who we didn't know what exactly the Yankees would get from them coming into the season, swung everything in the other direction. It wasn't exactly smooth sailing from that point--the Twins helped Phil Hughes survive another unspectacular outing when scrappy piranha Nick Punto got sloppy on the basepaths, and the Captain made him pay for it--but the Yanks tacked on some insurance in the ninth and didn't look back.

Just like that, the Yankees closed out baseball at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, a place hailed alternately as a blight on the baseball landscape or the ultimate home field. Lost between Pavano's performance and another A-Rod postseason homer was Andy Pettitte's performance, which was in keeping with the strong work he did throughout the second half (6-3, 3.31 ERA and a drastic uptick in his strikeout rate). In his postgame interview, Pettitte seemed not only happy to have won and pitched well, but genuinely happy that his former teammate threw well, opposing him. It was a stark contrast to how most most Yankee fans feel about Pavano's post-Yankee life, which some of us hope will be just as full of quad pulls, buttocks contusions, and non-lethal late night car accidents as his Yankee tenure was. Still, the graceful approach was fully in keeping with the person Pettitte's shown himself to be throughout the years--from the early in his career when people thought he might be too nice to be a successful pitcher, right down to the way he comforted Jerry Hairston Jr. when Hairston's defensive lapses wrecked his perfect game back in August.

Alex and Fast Eddie

"I mean, how can I lose? 'Cause you were right, Bert: it's not enough to have talent, you got to have character, too. Yeah, I sure got character now.
--Fast Eddie Felson, The Hustler

One reason that Alex Rodriguez has been almost universally disliked in baseball is because he didn't have a good story. Good stories require drama, and drama usually requires a protagonist overcome (or struggle to overcome) adversity. From the start of his career, there wasn't much adversity to A-Rod's life in baseball. He always made things look easy: picked first in the draft, got to the majors early, established himself as a star quickly. Became the highest-paid athlete in sport. Traded to MLB's perennial payroll leader, a team that would give him every possible chance to win a championship or seven.

It was all too easy. When he finally did face adversity, in the 2004 ALCS, he wasn't cast as the hero, but rather the villain of someone else's success story. The following year, he won the MVP, but the Angels wanted no part of him in the ALDS--he walked six times in five games, good for a .435 OBP, but he only got two hits in the series, and no RBI. The next season featured the one of the worst episodes in recent Yankees history. Mid-season Rodriguez got into a bad funk. In a sharp departure from his usual methods of operation, Joe Torre decided that the way to shake him out of it was public shaming. The result was a mid-September Sports Illustrated article where Torre, Don Mattingly, and various teammates (particularly Jason Giambi) spoke openly about the various things they felt were A-Rod's problems. Ironically, the article came out just as it seemed that Rodriguez had gotten things back on track. Things degenerated from there until the point where Torre batted the previous year's MVP eighth in the lineup against the Tigers in the ALDS. Another giant fiasco for A-Rod, another loss for the Yankees.

As we talked about at the beginning of the ALDS, no one feels empathy, much less sympathy, for you when you're the richest, most talented guy in the room, and you don't achieve your goals. In 2007, after the Yanks lost the Midges Series against Cleveland--after another underwhelming offensive series by the third baseman--Rodriguez cemented that lack of empathy when his agent notoriously timed the declaration that Alex would be opting out of his contract--the richest contract in sports--during the World Series. Rodriguez was able to smooth things over, handling the negotiations personally to remain a Yankee, but that was hardly an altruistic act. It was closer to corporate damage control.

Then came this past off-season, Rodriguez's first in Yankee pinstripes that wasn't preceded by postseason humiliation. The big A-Rod scandal of 2008--the bust up of his marriage, with an apparent assist from Madonna--was just winding down when news of Selena Roberts's (anonymous sources) tell-all book hit the airwaves. Now Alex wasn't just a choker, he was a steroid cheat. Rodriguez's too-smooth apologia, full of explanations that were easily shot down and relatively devoid of emotion, only stoked the anger he faced.

Then came what looked like the coup de grace that would end Alex's season before it began--the discovery that he had a chronic hip injury. Surgery was expected to wipe out most, if not all, of his season, and some had to wonder if it wasn't for the best for Rodriguez to escape the spotlight in light of the season in light of the additional revelations promised in Roberts's book. However, Alex Rodriguez--in a move that wasn't in line with his perceived character--opted for a different surgery, a stopgap, instead. He'd still need a full surgical repair eventually, but the procedure was going to get him back on the field before the All Star break.

Still, I'd written A-Rod off for 2009, and I suspect I wasn't alone. The Yanks were stuck through 2016(?) with a contract for a guy with a bad hip. Even if he could play, there were the steroid distractions, and no access to the DH spot, since the team had a lot of guys headed that way coming into the season (remember, Posada was coming off his shoulder repair, and Matsui his recurring knee troubles), and no depth in the infield. One bad slide, one dive for a ball at third, and who knew what would happen to the jury-rigged hip?

But the injury wound up doing something interesting to Alex Rodriguez. It made him human. Finally, there was a reason for him to struggle. When he came back to the Yankees' lineup in May, he looked as if he'd been aged into his mid-40s. He couldn't run, his batting average was low, and he had a hard time catching up to good fastballs (according to Baseball, he only hit .198/.343/.432 against power pitchers in 2009). Like many older ballplayers, he had to be more selective, draw walks, and wait for mistakes. Still, he provided the team an immediate boost--the team was 81-41 when Rodriguez started this season, 22-18 when he didn't.

He seemed more relaxed. This year, Alex had his best numbers when the team was within two runs of their opponent, and his effectiveness actually went down in blowouts either way. Alex had encountered adversity--divorce, the loss of his reputation with the steroids and other Selena Roberts accusations, the loss of his health--and seemed a changed man.

All of this made me think of Robert Rossen's 1962 black and white classic, The Hustler. In the film, Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) travels cross-country to play the best straight pool player in the country, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Eddie's young and extremely talented, and the first time he plays Fats he has the older man on the ropes, but he gets cocky, and drunk, and ultimately loses his shirt. At the end of the movie he plays Fats again, and the quote above is from that confrontation. In between the big pool matches, Fast Eddie is put through trials: He scuffles around trying to raise money for a rematch. He falls under the wing of a gambler who both teaches him some sports psychology and undermines his confidence at every turn. He gets injured while hustling pool, and he loses the woman he loves. The various pains and humiliations he faces along the way transform him, to the point that he's a completely different person than the guy who lost to Minnesota Fats before. As it turns out, now he can't lose, because he has nothing to lose--except his hard-earned character.

It's a classic story, one you've probably seen repeated in over a dozen sports films and at least half of Tom Cruise's filmography. Alex Rodriguez, returning to the ALCS for the first time since 2004, has a chance now to make that story his. He's eight wins, and a few more games like he had against the Twins, away. I wish him luck.

Other ALCS Notes:

  • With Joba remaining in the bullpen, the aim now is to use CC Sabathia the way aces were used in the 80s and early 90s--three starts in a seven game series, if needed. That puts a premium on the Yankees trying to beat the Angels early, since you can't pull that off two series in a row. Since I don't want to see any more of Chad Gaudin in the first inning in 2009, here's hoping the Yanks can win in five.
  • The Angels are a scary, scary team. The way they put the hurt on Papelbon at the end of their ALDS was just breathtaking. It's a team much like the Yanks of late 90s in that the lineup relies on depth more than any single peak performer.
  • I'm headed to fight the elements at the Stadium for tonight's Game One. I'll be in section 130. Updates via Twitter (@derekbaseball) as needed. Happy baseball!

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