Monday, July 27, 2015

Top 10 A-Rod Moments: A 40th Birthday Tribute

July 27, 1975, 40 years ago today: Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez is born in Manhattan.

He (for want of a better phrase) grew up in Miami. He was taken with the 1st pick in the 1993 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, by the Seattle Mariners.

He made his MLB debut on July 8, 1994, at (interestingly enough, at least retroactively) Fenway Park. He was just short of his 19th birthday. Batting 9th, playing shortstop, and wearing Number 3, he grounded to 3rd in the 3rd inning, flew to center in the 5th, and grounded to short in the 7th, all against Chris Nabholz. He was due to come up again in the 9th, but was left on deck at the last out. The Mariners lost to the Boston Red Sox, 4-3. There was a Yankee 3rd baseman who hit a home run for the Mariners in that game, but it was Mike Blowers.

He played for the Mariners until 2000, and he signed the biggest contract in baseball history with the Texas Rangers. It was in these seasons, 2001, 2002 and 2003, that we are led to believe that he first used performance-enhancing drugs.

On February 16, 2004, the Yankees traded All-Star Alfonso Soriano and a player to be named later, who turned out to be Joaquin Arias, to the Rangers for A-Rod. With Derek Jeter at shortstop, they moved A-Rod to 3rd base. Despite all kinds of crazy things happening -- some but not all of them his fault -- he's still with the Yankees, still wearing Number 13 (because 3 is retired for Babe Ruth), although he's only played 31 games at 3rd base since 2012.

His failings are well-known. His incidents, on-field and off-field, are familiar, from the PED use to the Slap Play in the 2004 American League Championship Series, from his disappearing acts at the plate in postseason play to his domestic shenanigans.

There have been many -- myself included -- who have said, on varying occasions, that the Yankees should just get rid of him, that he had embarrassed the team too many times, and that he wasn't worthy of being a Yankee.

How do we look now? I'll eat my words, if it means I can wash them down with champagne in the fall.

In 2015, with his suspension over, and without Jeter looking over his shoulder, he appears to be a new man. Yes, I know, we've heard that before -- in 2009, when his bat was a huge reason why the Yankees won the World Series. Maybe now, he can help them do it again.


Top 10 A-Rod Moments

This is in chronological order. Note that these are the Top 10. The Bottom 10 would be hard to narrow down, but would include his busts, his opt-out during the 2007 World Series, and the Slap Play.

1. September 29, 1996. A-Rod finishes the regular season as the AL batting champion, batting .358 -- a very high figure for a righthanded batter in the post-World War II era. He also leads the league with 141 runs, 54 doubles, and 379 total bases. He hit 36 home runs and had 123 RBIs.

He was 21 years old.

2. January 26, 2001. He signs a 10-year contract with the Rangers, worth $252 million -- doubling the $126 million contract recently signed by Kevin Garnett, surpassing it as the biggest in the history of North American sports.

Nobody thought a professional athlete -- any professional athlete -- was worth that much money. But, after 5 full seasons with the Mariners, including Playoff berths in 1997 and 2000, 4 All-Star seasons, and 2 near-wins in the AL Most Valuable Player voting (2nd in 1997 and 3rd in 2000), few doubted that, at 25, A-Rod deserved to be the highest-paid player in baseball.

3. July 17, 2001. Selected as the starting shortstop in the All-Star Game in his former home park in Seattle, A-Rod suggested to starting 3rd baseman Cal Ripken, once the best shortstop in the game, that they switch positions. They did. It was a classy gesture from a player who people rarely choose to cite for class.

Ripken, like Robin Yount and Alan Trammell, had "changed the game" for shortstops, making them as big and strong as 1st and 3rd basemen and outfielders, giving them the same kind of power numbers, while maintaining the shortstop's traditional mobility and quickness.

A-Rod, Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox were the key beneficiaries of this. Since 1998, the debate as to which of the 3 was the best player was like the old debate about the best center fielder in New York in the 1950s: Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Duke Snider.

With Nomar's injuries and exile from Boston, and A-Rod's move to 3rd, the "best shortstop" question was forever settled in Jeter's favor. But, statistically, A-Rod remains the best player among them.

4. October 7, 2001. The Rangers were nowhere near postseason qualification, but that was hardly A-Rod's fault. In the regular season that concluded on this date (delayed a week by the 9/11 attacks), he hit 50 home runs for the 1st time, finishing with 52, 135 RBIs, and a .318 average.

He would top that in 2002, leading both leagues by hitting 57 homers -- at that point, a figure topped in baseball history only by Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. (Ryan Howard has since been added to that list.) The 57 homers are still a career high, as are his 142 RBIs.

5. September 28, 2003. A-Rod completes his 1st MVP season, batting .298, hitting 47 home runs with 118 RBIs.

He would also win the MVP with the Yankees in 2005, batting .321, hitting 48 homers with 130 RBIs.

6. August 4, 2007. A-Rod hits the 500th home run of his career, a 375-foot (or so) drive into the left field stands at the old Yankee Stadium.

I was there for that one, sitting in the upper deck down the 1st base line, giving me a perfect view of the entire hit from takeoff to landing. This game set records that still stand, as far as my live viewing is concerned, for most runs by either team and by both teams: The Yankees beat the Kansas City Royals, 16-8.

He will finish the season batting .314, with 54 homers (the most ever by a righthanded-hitting Yankee) and 156 RBIs (ditto). The 54 homers are the most by any Yankee since 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 and Mickey Mantle hit 54. The 156 RBIs are the most by any Yankee since 1937, when Joe DiMaggio had 167. He won his 3rd MVP.

7. May 8, 2009. After missing the 1st quarter of the season with a hip injury, A-Rod plays for the Yankees against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards. On the 1st pitch he sees in the season, he swings, and hits a 3-run home run into the left field stands. The Yankees won, 4-0.

8. August 7, 2009. The Yankees had cleared just about every hurdle this season, except being able to beat the Red Sox. But tonight's game at Yankee Stadium II remains scoreless in the bottom of the 15th inning, until A-Rod bats against Junichi Tazawa, making his major league debut. A-Rod gives him quite the welcome, blasting one to left field for a walkoff home run.

After this game, the Yankees pounded the Sox the rest of the way, and even clinched the Division against them.

9. October 7 to November 4, 2009. A-Rod finally became a "Mr. October." (Reggie Jackson considers A-Rod a friend, and probably won't mind me using the nickname in this instance.) He hit game-tying homers against the Minnesota Twins in Games 2 and 3 of the AL Division Series. He tied game 2 of the AL Championship Series against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim with an 11th-inning homer, and the Yankees won in the 13th. He hit another homer in Game 4, tying the record shared by Lou Gehrig and Ryan Howard of having RBIs in 8 straight postseason games.

It only made sense that his 1st World Series home run would be controversial, and that the 1st World Series hit requiring review to see if it was a home run or not would be hit by him. It happened in Game 3 in Philadelphia against the Phillies, and it wasn't that controversial: The original call still gave him a double, and the replay showed it was obvious that it was a home run. Finally, in Game 6, he drew a key walk that was more important than any hit he's ever gotten, and he won his ring, as the Yankees beat the Phillies, 7-3.

10. June 19, 2015. After his season-plus suspension for PED use, it began to look like, even if he came back, his bids for milestones such as 3,000 hits, 2,000 RBIs, and 660, 700, 715, 756 and 763 home runs were finished.

But A-Rod started 2015 strong, and, on this date, A-Rod hits a home run against Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium II. It was the 667th home run of his career -- and his 3,000th hit.

He now has 677 home runs (4th-most all-time behind Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth), 2,027 RBIs (3rd-most all-time behind Aaron and Ruth), 3,028 hits, and a lifetime batting average of .299 -- well, .29865. He's not that close to .300. (He'd have to get 13 straight hits to get his average over .2995, to round it up to .300; and 20 straight hits to get it actually over .300. The record for consecutive hits is 12.)


Perhaps A-Rod's biggest moment is yet to come. Winning the 2015 World Series, as the most-tested-for-PEDs player in baseball history, would be, if not exoneration, at least full redemption, validation of his greatness, and a giant middle finger to those who cannot bring themselves to forgive him.

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