I'll understand if you cringe when you read the next sentence because, quite frankly, I cringed when I wrote it. The single most under-reported story in baseball this year is the ridiculously good season being put together by Alex Rodriguez and the profound impact he's had on the Yankee franchise.
Think about it -- we've heard all about Mariano Rivera for Cy Young, Mark Teixeira for MVP and Derek Jeter for Secretary-General of the United Nations or, at the very least, sainthood by the Vatican. But there's been surprisingly little written or said about baseball's 275-million dollar man. Check that -- replace "surprisingly" in the last sentence with "stunningly shockingly and astoundingly".
Think back to the offseason and last summer. A-Rod had been outed as a cheater, having engaged 1) by his own admission, in steroid use during his Ranger days and 2) in allegedly tipping pitches to opposing players to earn favours, according to a brand new tell-all book. His five-year marriage had collapsed sending him into the arms first of Madonna and, later, Kate Hudson. Meanwhile, his ex-wife was rumoured to have had a fling with Lenny Kravitz. Forget about the sports pages...this man was an Us Weekly cover story waiting to happen!
When he reported to Spring Training, his first order of business was a tearful news conference. It so moved his teammates that one, Jorge Posada, reportedly got up and walked out in the middle of it with a disgusted look on his face.
Rodriguez spent the first month of the season on the DL, after undergoing surgery to repair his right hip.
A funny thing happened while he recovered. People around the game stopped thinking of him as the face of baseball's performance enhancing drug problem. Manny Ramirez's 50-game suspension helped shift the steroid conversation away from Rodriguez. When it was later revealed David Ortiz was on that infamous 2003 list of positive tests, people seemed to forget about "A-Roid" altogether. Imagine that -- two Red Sox sluggers lending a hand to a Yankees star.
Meanwhile, people in New York actually began to really miss the controversial star, a player that has battled for acceptance in the Bronx since his arrival in 2004.
Consider where the Yankees were without A-Rod in their lineup:
• The Yankees had played to a 13-15 record, leaving them closer to last-place Baltimore in the AL East (1.5 games ahead) than they were to first-place Toronto (5.5 games back)
• New York had lost five straight before his return, getting swept by both Boston and Tampa
• The Yankees were 0-5 against the Red Sox
• Mark Teixeira was batting .198 on the day before A-Rod's return and was struggling to get good pitches to hit
On May 8, Rodriguez made his return, homering in his first at bat in a 4-0 win over Baltimore. Now consider what has happened since then:
• The Yankees have played to 79-37 record and a 41-15 record since the All-Star break. For those of you keeping score at home, that's the Bombers best post-break record since 1938.
• New York has posted five different winning streaks of seven or more games. The last team to have that many streaks of seven or more wins in the same season was the '98 Yankees, a team that won 114 games and the World Series.
• The Yankees have won 6 of their last 7 games against the Red Sox. It's worth noting Rodriguez has an outstanding .981 OPS and a walk-off homer against the Sox this season.
• Mark Teixeira has batted .299 with 30 homers and 88 RBI since A-Rod started hitting behind him in the Yankee lineup. Many players would be happy to call those seasonal totals, but Teixeira has done it in just slightly more than four months thanks to A-Rod's protection.
Now think of the knocks on A-Rod from the recent past.
You say, "He's not clutch and puts up hollow stats"... the Elias Sports Bureau says that 13 of his 25 home runs this season have either tied the game or given the Yankees a lead. The same could be said of 41 of his 84 RBI. He's hit two walk-off homers, giving him six in parts of just six seasons with the Yankees. That's the most by any Yankee since Graig Nettles hit six over nine seasons in New York.
"Well then", you say, "He's a distraction to the team"... that may be so, but go ahead and cite the example this year. There's been nothing like the time he barked at John McDonald and Howie Clark during an infield fly, putting all his teammates in the awkward spot of having to defend him. No photos in magazines where he's kissing his mirrored reflection. No salacious tabloid stories about his personal life. No griping about how Yankees fans love Jeter more. The man's been a model citizen (at least that we know of).
Listen -- I'm not here to tell you Alex Rodriguez is the 2009 AL MVP...not when a player leads the American League in batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage all in the same season and happens to play catcher!
What I am here to say is that Alex Rodriguez has actually been the most important player on the most important team in baseball. Lost in the recent Jeter Love-In (Seriously, did anyone else throw up in their mouth when Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay talked last week of Jeter ascending to Yankees Mount Olympus?) is that the guy playing right beside him in the Yankees infield is having a marvelous campaign of his own that's going largely unnoticed...or, at least, untalked about.
Maybe what we're all waiting for is the postseason, a.k.a the bane of A-Rod's existence. The Yankees have won exactly one playoff series (2004 ALDS vs. Minnesota) since Rodriguez first pulled on the famed pinstripes. He has batted .159 with 1 homer and 1 RBI in New York's last three playoff appearances combined.
Maybe we've all become so accustomed to his pathetic postseason failures that we've stopped appreciating or caring about his remarkable regular season success. "Ho-hum, another 40-homer-100-RBI-MVP-type season! Show us something in the playoffs, Alex!" baseball fans cry. If he, too, wants to ascend Yankees Mount Olympus, he'll need to do just that. With the Yankee juggernaut heading towards another October, he'll certainly get his chance.