Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A(lightning)Rod for Criticism

The Alex Rodriguez criticism has gotten out of hand if it wasn’t out of hand already. ESPN is all but lobbying for the Yankees to trade A-Rod. New York fans boo him mercilessly during home games. His struggles on the field and at the plate this season have usurped ten years of elite play in the minds of many baseball fans and critics. A-Rod has been a lightning rod for criticism for the majority of his career. Whether it’s a quote that has been taken out of context or the fact that he signed the most lucrative contract in MLB history, A-Rod has been fodder for every talking head in sports. All of the criticism would be OK if it weren’t the most ridiculous thing this side of ESPN’s attempt to conveniently change its stance on the whole T.O./McNabb fiasco of last year in order to hype T.O. for the ’06 season.

The easiest way to address the ludicrous amount of negative attention that A-rod has unjustly received would be to break things down by the nature of criticism. Before I go any further, I want to make clear that criticizing professional athletes is fine by me. If you hate the Yankees, then rip into A-Rod for being a Yankee. There’s no problem with that. However, the acceptable methods for criticizing Rodriguez are far outweighed by the unacceptable methods. Here are the methods of criticism that are laughably incompetent at best.

1). A-Rod makes way too much money.

This criticism is about as ignorant as it comes. The Yankees are playing in Texas this week which is, of course, where A-Rod played for three years. The Rangers are the team that signed A-Rod to a 10 year, $252 million contract. Fans in the stands held up various signs disparaging Rodriguez. All he did for the Rangers in three seasons was hit 156 home runs and drive in 395 runs. Rodriguez to this day receives criticism for the amount of money he makes. Yet, the Texas Rangers receive next to none for being the idiots to give one player a quarter of a billion dollars over ten seasons. A-Rod was the best non-steroid using player in baseball for the three years he was in Texas. The Rangers spent nearly a quarter of their payroll on one player. Who deserves the blame there? Don’t hate the playa’…..

Now, even if you’re the kind of person that feels the Texas Rangers were totally innocent of any charge of idiocy and A-Rod is the one that deserves all of the criticism for simply being the best player in the game, that doesn’t make criticizing A-Rod’s contract OK.

First, you have to answer the following question; would you turn down $252 million simply because it’s a lot of money? That’s what everyone seems to have wanted A-Rod to do. I have no problem admitting that if a company offered me $252 million over ten years, I would gladly accept. His salary merely reflects the demand for a player of A-Rod’s talent. If you used to rip on A-Rod because of his salary, you’ll need a new reason but please don’t use this one…….

2). A-Rod is a jerk.

I have watched and followed tens of thousands of athletes in my lifetime and A-Rod is in the 99th percentile in terms of being admirable and humble. He has never been anything but gracious. He has never made excuses. He has taken more criticism than any other player in MLB history with the exception of Barry Bonds and still never says a controversial word. Since writers are usually looking for a lead, A-Rod’s humble nature doesn’t provide much in terms of headlines. That in itself probably doesn’t endear him to journalists. He always says the right thing or tries to. Earlier in the year, he said that he felt the American League Central was so good this season that he felt the AL Wild Card would come out of the Central. He said that as long as the Yankees take care of business like they are supposed to and win the AL East, it wouldn’t matter where the Wild Card comes from. His comments immediately drew criticism from every conceivable outlet. His words were spun to imply that the Yankees weren’t good enough to win the Wild Card. It reminds me of the movie 61* when the press took out of context virtually everything that Roger Maris said.

Last week, A-Rod made three errors in a game. Afterwards when asked about his fielding issues, he said something to the effect that “these things happen in baseball. I had a brilliant game defensively yesterday and I struggled today. Baseball is a game of ups and downs.” As one would expect, the press and fans alike jumped all over the fact that he used “brilliant” to describe his performance in the previous game. Of course, had he used “great” or “good”, nothing would’ve come of it. Over the last few years, A-Rod has been criticized by White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen for being a “hypocrite” for not being sure who he was going to represent at the World Baseball Classic, virtually the entire Red Sox roster for not being a “leader”, and various sports commentators for being a “choker” in the playoffs. All the while, A-Rod has dominated the game of baseball like no other player in the history of the game. He has more home runs than anyone before the age of 31. He’s on pace to set numerous offensive records. Yet, I can’t remember the last time A-Rod’s accomplishments were the first thing brought up when referencing him. It seems like the majority of the sports world has a fetish for criticizing him. At this point, criticizing him takes about as much cojones as stealing from the blind.

3). A-Rod is not a “leader”.

Was Karl Malone a leader? Was Dan Marino a leader? The whole “leader” phenomenon is absurd to begin with. Jason Varitek has received a lot of kudos for being the unquestioned leader of the Boston Red Sox. What, on Earth, does that mean? If Varitek were a .200 hitter, would he still be a great leader? Of course not. Everyone would be “dogging” him for being a terrible hitter. Basically, being a “leader” comes down to being a decent player or better while at the same time being likeable. Varitek’s “leadership” didn’t make the Red Sox any better than his bat already did. So, the whole “leadership” thing is just a farce anyway. Yet, many people criticize A-Rod for not being a leader in the clubhouse.

Never mind the fact that Derek Jeter was already considered the leader of the New York Yankees. A-Rod couldn’t have possibly been the leader of the Yankees even if he tried. Not even Jason Varitek could’ve been the leader of the Yankees clubhouse with Jeter already there. Yet, A-Rod was lambasted by virtually every Boston Red Sox last season for not being a leader. Many of them went on to apologize but that was enough for most fans to adopt that viewpoint as their own. It’s now chic to say that A-Rod can’t lead. If I’m not mistaken, MLB players are paid to perform. Jason Varitek has a .270 career batting average, 130 career home runs and an .801 OPS. Alex Rodriguez has a .305 batting average, 450 home runs, and an .958 OPS. The same comparison can be made with virtually every player in baseball with A-Rod coming out on top. He has hit 40+ home runs seven times in his career. His numbers are extraordinary. Yet, he is not a leader? Barring any long term mental issues that may arise from his current fielding funk, I would take this non-leader over any “leader” in baseball. If you’re looking for a “leader”, baseball is the wrong place to look. Leadership abilities are one of the least valuable commodities in MLB. It’s less important in baseball than it is in any other sport. A-Rod puts up monster numbers year in and year out. He is one of the best conditioned athletes in the sport and works relentlessly on improving his skills. That’s leading by example.

4). A-Rod chokes in the “clutch”.

Like “leadership”, the whole idea of “clutch” is a bit of a misnomer. Bill James has written extensively on the falsehood that is the idea of “clutch” hitting in baseball. He took numerous supposed “clutch” hitters and compared their statistics in “clutch” situations to their overall statistics. He found that there was no indication that any player was actually a better hitter in the “clutch”. One of his primary examples was Derek Jeter’s supposed “clutch” hitting when, in reality, it was actually worse than his career averages.

I have no problem admitting that some players make get nervous in the clutch and hit worse. That would make players that are able to hit just as well in the clutch as they do in non-clutch situations the real “clutch hitters”. So, the idea of “clutch” needs to be retooled a bit before any serious conversation involving A-Rod not being a clutch hitter can take place.

Many people point to the fact that the Mariners won 116 games the year after A-Rod left or the fact that the Rangers improved 18 games the year after A-Rod was traded to the Yankees. Is it possible the Rangers improved 18 games because they weren’t stupid enough to keep spending $22 million a season on one player? The Mariners had one of the best teams in baseball over the last 20 years. For anyone to say that they won 116 games because A-Rod left is ridiculous. A-Rod hit 52 home runs, drove in 135 runs, had a .399 OBP and had a 1.021 OPS for the Rangers the year that the Mariners won 116 games. Is there really anyone out there that’s willing to argue that the Mariners couldn’t have used A-Rod that season? His salary may have prevented the Mariners from bringing in help in deficient areas but in terms of straight up playing ability, A-Rod would’ve only made the Mariners that much better.

As far as A-Rod’s post-season play, he’s had one bad series and that was last season against the Angels. Yet, that’s the series that everyone talks about. The number of at-bats that a player gets in the post-season is such a small amount that it’s just not convincing to say certain players have choked unless they make the playoffs enough times to generate a large enough sample size. There are countless players that have low playoff numbers. Derek Jeter, for instance, has been abysmal over the last few years in the playoffs. I understand that player performances are magnified in the playoffs. It happens in every sport. Peyton Manning can attest to that. But, the problem is that even one bad series is enough to add fuel to the fire as far as A-Rod is concerned. His career post season numbers include a .305 batting average and a .927 OPS. There are countless players throughout playoff history that would kill for those numbers. Despite what the media has portrayed, the Yankees haven’t lost in the playoffs because of A-Rod. They’ve lost because they invested tons of money in starting pitching that hasn’t come to fruition. Carl Pavano and Kevin Brown added virtually nothing last season. They’ve lost because of horrendous middle relief. They’ve also lost because they’ve played against very good teams.

5). A-Rod tries to control the media.

I don’t mind Rick Sutcliffe as an in-game announcer but I certainly mind Sutcliffe as a conspiracy theorist. He wrote on ESPN.com today that A-Rod tries to script everything and that he wants to be like Cal Ripken Jr. Oh, the horror! Why would anyone want to be like Cal Ripken Jr.? At this point in time, after years and years of criticism, A-Rod would have to be the dumbest person in the universe to think that he can control the media. Is it even possible to be criticized non-stop for six years and still think you’re in control of the media? Give me a break.

Rodriguez plays in New York which is, by far, the toughest city to play in America. He has enough to worry about in terms of preparing night in and night out for baseball games. I highly doubt he’s in a lab at home plotting his next big media-controlling move. Writers ask him questions and whatever his answer is, it will be criticized.

For instance, here is an example of how things are spun with two opposite answers….

Scenario 1:

Reporter: Alex, you have struggled in the field recently, is that holding the team down?

A-Rod: Those things happen in baseball. I played brilliantly yesterday and I struggled today. Baseball is full of ups and downs. Hopefully I’ll be able to put that stuff behind me and move forward. It’s a long season and I’ve gone through rough stretches before.

Media reaction: A-Rod is full of himself. He had the audacity to use the word “brilliant” in referencing a certain performance he had. This guy is a shmuck. He’s an overpaid chump who chokes in the spotlight.

Scenario 2:

Reporter: Alex, you have struggled in the field recently, is that holding the team down?

A-Rod: Yes, it is holding the team back. I’m totally lost in the field right now. I don’t know what I’m doing at times. My footwork is all messed up. I’m rushing throws. I just can’t seem to fix the problem. I’ll admit, I’m lost right now.

Media reaction: Sound the alarms! A-Rod can’t handle the pressure. The Yankees should trade him right now because he said he’s struggling. He makes way too much money to struggle. Derek Jeter would never struggle. How can a guy be a leader if he’s not mentally tough.

Many people don’t understand that the media takes everything A-Rod says and spins it. Whether it’s the New York media or ESPN, A-Rod’s words will be twisted around or given way more attention than they deserve.

6). A-Rod can’t handle the pressure in New York.

I love this one. Some people in the media conveniently act like this is A-Rod’s first season in New York. They say, “look how bad he’s struggling. The pressure in the Big Apple is getting to him.” Need I remind those people that he won the AL MVP last season? His first season with the Yankees was below average in terms of what we have been accustomed to seeing from A-Rod. His numbers weren’t bad (36 home runs, 106 RBI’s, .286 batting average, .888 OPS) but they were lower than his career averages. However, most people took for granted the fact that A-Rod willingly accepted a change of position that year. After playing shortstop his entire life, A-Rod was forced to move to the most difficult position on the field—third base. A-Rod immediately had to take a back seat to Derek Jeter who was nowhere near the same kind of player as A-Rod.

At the time, A-Rod received criticism for having an un-A-Rod type of year. In the face of the worst year of his career, he rebounded in 2005 by dominating the American League. He raised his batting average 30+ points to .321. His OPS was through the roof at 1.031. He hit 48 home runs and drove in 130 runs in the face of the New York pressure. If there was ever a time that someone who couldn’t handle the pressure would’ve folded, it was last season. On top of the offensive numbers he put up in 2005, he was also one of the best third basemen in baseball despite being forced to switch positions the previous year.

There are a lot of players in sports history that couldn’t handle the pressure of the Big Apple. A-Rod is not one of them. The New York media is probably so full of itself that it thinks that A-Rod isn’t big enough to handle their scrutiny. Need they be reminded that A-Rod was already the most maligned non-steroid using player in the media before he ever stepped foot in New York? I get the feeling that A-Rod receives so much criticism because the media keeps waiting for him to meltdown in an interview and it never happens. Like I mentioned above, Maris’ treatment in the movie 61* is almost a carbon copy of what A-Rod is going through now. The media tries to set him up for failure. They spin everything he says. They blame him for everything including the Yankees playoff failures. If I’m not mistaken, the Yankees were bounced from the playoffs three years in a row before A-Rod ever came to New York. At the time A-Rod arrived, Jason Giambi was receiving all of the criticism. Now, Giambi hardly garners a mention. Finding the next big headliner is a never ending game that the media gets paid to play. They’re like salesmen in the sense that they get paid to sell things regardless of their value. They want to control A-Rod and they’re doing a good job of it. There are so many fans out there that hate A-Rod for the simple reason that the media has programmed them to.

7). A team can’t win with A-Rod.

I will spend the least amount of time on this criticism because this is just ridiculous. His numbers speak for themselves. If the Rangers hadn’t spent ¼ of their payroll on one player, they would’ve won. In reality, A-Rod’s time in Texas is the primary reason why people think that teams can’t win with A-Rod. It didn’t matter who was in Texas. It honestly could’ve been Babe Ruth (which A-Rod is not so far from) and the same result would’ve happened assuming Ruth was being paid ¼ of the payroll. Some people will point out that the Yankees haven’t won the World Series since A-Rod arrived. They hadn’t won the previous three years either. Does that mean that the Yankees can’t win with every other player on the roster, too? Just because a player hasn’t won doesn’t mean they can’t win. This reminds me of the Houston Rockets in the NBA. Michael Jordan retired after the Bulls won three championships in a row. The Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon subsequently won two NBA titles in a row. Michael Jordan then returned and the Bulls won three more in a row. Had Jordan not retired, the Bulls would’ve won eight in a row and the Rockets would’ve won zero championships. People would’ve said that the Rockets could not win a championship with Olajuwon in the lineup. Luckily for Houston, Jordan did retire. Now, players like Olajuwon and Sam Cassell are remembered as “clutch” players because of their rings yet the only reason why they won is because Jordan retired for two seasons. It takes more than just good play for a team to win a championship. Half of every sports league is “capable” of winning a championship. Above and beyond skill, it takes luck and good fortune for a team to win it all. If you don’t think this is true, ask yourself if a particular season was played over again, would the same team win? In most cases, the answer is no.

For many sports fans, perception is reality. This is a dangerous slope for those who try to wade through the garbage to find the truth. You won’t find the truth by reading an article in the newspaper. You won’t find the truth by listening to people talk on ESPN. The truth isn’t necessarily concrete either. Whereas I have virtually no reason to criticize A-Rod, someone else could be upset that he left Seattle for the money. That’s a valid criticism. That’s not a media-driven criticism that holds no weight. In a profession where “what have you done for me lately” is the standard motto, few people have the insight to look forward or to take information from various sources and form a personal opinion free of biased influence. Few people have the insight to see that A-Rod will be remembered as one of the greatest players in baseball history when all is said and done. Whether it’s with the Yankees or another team, it hardly matters. Yankees fans and media obviously don’t want him so I’m quietly rooting for him to go to another team. He will finish his career (barring injury and/or severe mental problems) as the all-time home run leader. He will rank in the top ten in virtually every offensive run-oriented category. People will remember him with far more affection after he retires than they ever did while he was playing. I don’t think anyone would argue that. The simple reason for that is that there won’t be thousands of media members trying to get the latest “story” on A-Rod when he’s sitting at home retired. 65 years from now, a young baseball fan will look at A-Rod’s career stats and say, “man, this guy was awesome. Not only do his numbers stand up against the best in baseball history, but he did it at shortstop/third base which was unheard of at the time.” It’s just too bad that people can’t say that right now. People want to focus on how the Yankees supposedly can’t win with A-Rod. There was a player a few years back named Ted Williams who also never won a World Series. That’s hardly the first, second, or third thing that people bring up when discussing Williams. The same will be true for A-Rod.

The New York media is littered with hypocrites who are constantly looking for the next story; contrived or otherwise. Allan Houston was the most overpaid basketball player in NBA history. He made $19 million last season for doing nothing. He made over $100 million in exchange for doing absolutely nothing for the New York Knicks. He makes almost as much as A-Rod but instead of being one of the dominant players of his era, he was an injury-prone, one-dimensional player. When was the last time you read an article bashing Allan Houston?

ESPN is in on it too in case I haven’t made that clear enough. The game recap for the Yankees/Rangers yesterday was such a hypocritical piece of writing that they ended up changing it overnight. The piece stated yesterday that “A-Rod finally broke out of his slump with a 2-5 night at the plate and an errorless night in the field but still has only hit six of his last 32.” In the same piece that ESPN states that A-Rod has ended his slump, they go on to factor his 2 for 5 effort into his previous slump to emphasize that A-Rod has struggled. We all know that A-Rod has struggled. ESPN just mentioned that his slump was over. Yet, it only made it two whole sentences beyond that without mentioning that even with A-Rod’s 2 for 5 night, his numbers are still bad over the last week. He could’ve gone six for six and his numbers over the last week still would’ve been bad.

I was surprised at how harsh the article was coming from a source as reputable as ESPN but I was not surprised that the story had been edited since the last time I read it.

There are so many confrontational personalities in sports like Barry Bonds, T.O., and Kobe Bryant that sports fans hardly need someone like A-Rod to waste criticism on. A-Rod has never let his team down. As far as we know, he has never taken steroids. He has always put his team first. He has never made excuses. He’s never been a cancer in the clubhouse. All of those are things consistent with Bonds, T.O. and Kobe. Yet, A-Rod is lumped right in with those guys. How does that make sense? The easy answer is that the media manipulates the way people perceive athletes. They’ve played the public like Liberace played the piano.

The way A-Rod is portrayed reminds me a lot of what happened to Kevin Costner. Costner was brilliant (yes, “brilliant”) in Field of Dreams, Dances with Wolves, and Bull Durham. He was one of the top bills in Hollywood. He had talent to burn and a fan-base to go along with it. He was an A-list star with “sky is the limit” potential. Costner made one bad movie (Waterworld) and his status came crashing down for good. He was never viewed in the same light as movie critics lambasted him for being in one of the most expensive, over hyped bad movies of all-time. Never mind the fact that all actors make bad movies. Costner’s perception in Hollywood became that of an unreliable commodity. People feared that his ability to draw people to the box office had suddenly vanished. The truth is that Costner made a bad movie. He has since given good performances in movies like Tin Cup, For the Love of the Game (extremely underrated movie), and Dragonfly. None of those movies were blockbusters or supposed to be blockbusters. Costner still suffers the affects of Waterworld despite being as talented as ever. The same thing is happening to A-Rod. He was a can’t miss crowd favorite in Seattle. Everyone loved him. Then, he signed The Contract which ended up being his Waterworld. The funny thing is that where Waterworld flopped after so much money was put into it, A-Rod never flopped. He continues to produce as one would expect the highest paid player in baseball to do. The sad thing is that A-Rod is in danger of suffering the same fate as Costner which is a permanent reduction in the way society views his accomplishments. If the NY media and even the national media continue to manipulate the way the public views A-Rod, his legacy will be closer to Kevin Costner’s than to Al Pacino’s.

For those of you that still want to criticize A-Rod for whatever reason, here are some acceptable criticisms:

1). A-Rod left the Seattle Mariners and the millions of fans that adored him for a few extra million per year. Fans appreciate and often expect loyalty in sports. When a player that you invested time and hope into leaves town for a few lousy bucks (or a few lousy million bucks), it hurts.

2). Anybody who hates the Yankees. Bill Simmons (the Sport’s Guy) clearly despises A-Rod. Every Boston fan I’ve ever seen or met despises A-Rod. Fans hate fans on rival teams. That’s just how it goes. If you hate the Yankees, then it is OK to hate A-Rod. However, don’t try to spin it as some sort of reasonable, fact-based hatred like Simmons tried to do when defending David Ortiz for MVP last season. Ortiz didn’t even play defense! If you hate someone because they kick your team’s rear end all the time, then admit it!

3). Suffering from Chuck Knoblach Disease. Although, A-Rod has had a fielding problem for a week. He has a LONG way to go before it can be considered an unfixable problem. If A-Rod never recovers from his current fielding funk, then, and only then, will it be acceptable to say that A-Rod can’t handle the pressure of playing third base. However, we’re still a ways from that being the case.

4). He has “sold out” by becoming a power hitter. This is the thing that bothers me most about A-Rod. I don’t hate him for it, I just dislike it when an exceptional average and power hitter like A-Rod or Giambi emphasizes the long ball resulting in a significant decrease in batting average and plate discipline. I don’t know if these were intentional shifts in emphasis or not but it sure seems like it. The one thing that Derek Jeter has that A-Rod doesn’t anymore is a knack for staying alive in an at-bat. However, both A-Rod and Giambi still continue to produce so I guess it’s six and ½ dozen the other.

Here is just a sample of what A-Rod has done over his career.

Here is how A-Rod’s numbers compare in MLB history on Baseball Reference’s Hall of Fame monitor.

Note that at the age of 31, A-Rod is already in the top 20 all-time. Ten years from now, he could very well be at the top of the list by a long shot.

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