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In New York, he's 'Stay-Rod'

September 14, 2008|Bill Shaikin

Alex Rodriguez had a few moments to spare before the New York Yankees took the field for batting practice the other night. He walked behind the batting cage at Angel Stadium, directly toward the man wearing the red polo shirt with the Angels logo.

Arte Moreno shook hands with Rodriguez, introduced him to his wife, exchanged pleasantries. This was an L.A. power lunch, without the lunch.

In the blue, perhaps the best player in baseball. In the red, perhaps the best owner in baseball.

"He's phenomenal," Rodriguez said. "He does such an incredible job with this franchise."

Two days and two losses later, Rodriguez trudged off that field, into the visiting clubhouse, then onto a bus that would carry the Yankees to the nowhere that is the rest of their season.

And, just as that bus left Angel Stadium, the Angels players hopped, skipped and jumped out of the home clubhouse and back onto that field, in raucous celebration of the American League West championship.

The Angels clinched their ticket into the playoffs, their chance at a second World Series championship in seven years. In that time, the Yankees have none.

In his otherwise distinguished 14-year career, Rodriguez has yet to play in the World Series. And now, for the first time in 15 years, the Yankees won't even make the playoffs.

For his own good, if not for the good of the Yankees, perhaps Rodriguez should have signed with the Angels last winter.

In conversation, he is unfailingly polite. But ask him if he wonders whether he made a mistake by signing with the Yankees rather than the Angels, and he directs a steely glare at you. If a human could shoot a laser beam from his eyes, Rodriguez would have done so.

He speaks slowly, emphasizing every word, raising his voice ever so slightly.

"I didn't sign a one-year deal," he said.

The Yankees will be back, no doubt. They have money to throw at every problem this winter, millions more than the usual mega-millions, because of the grand opening of the new Yankee Stadium.

If CC Sabathia tells the Yankees he would prefer to play in California, the Yankees might try to buy California and move it to New York.

"I have tremendous faith in this franchise," Rodriguez said.

The Yankees might nonetheless endure another year without the playoffs. The Boston Red Sox spend wisely and develop well, the Tampa Bay Rays have a terrific starting rotation with no one older than 26, and one of these years the Toronto Blue Jays might hit, before Roy Halladay's arm falls off.

But the Angels have one of the deepest organizations in baseball, in the only division with four teams. They'll have the best odds of getting into the playoffs of any major league team for years to come.

You can't win the World Series without getting into the playoffs. So what better place for Rodriguez to try to shed his label -- all numbers, no rings -- than in Anaheim?

He thought about it.

"He talked to me about playing in Anaheim," said Reggie Jackson, who starred for the Angels and Yankees. "He's always liked the lifestyle in Newport Beach. He likes the weather. Who doesn't? I still have a house here."

Said Rodriguez: "This is obviously a very attractive place to play. If the Yankee thing would not have worked out, I definitely would have considered the Angels."

The Angels never got the chance to talk to him. As they staggered at the $300-million asking price -- not to sign him, just to talk to him -- Rodriguez circumvented his agent, Scott Boras, and asked the Yankees to take him back. They did, for 10 years, at a guaranteed $275 million.

"His heart was with the Yankees," Jackson said. "That's where he should be. He'll have some of the biggest numbers in the history of baseball and be recognized as one of the greatest players of all time.

"The standard he should be compared to is the standard of the great Yankees."

For Rodriguez, that's the problem. The standard of the great Yankees is not measured by home runs, even if Rodriguez eventually hits more than Barry Bonds.

"Look at Derek Jeter. Look at A-Rod," said the Angels' Torii Hunter. "A-Rod is a better player than Jeter, definitely. But Jeter has rings. He's a champion.

"A-Rod was supposed to bring them a championship. He hasn't brought them a championship yet."

Said Jackson: "In New York, it's been tough for him to fit in. The first thing they look at is, you should be X, Y and Z because of your salary."

He delivers the numbers -- two MVP awards in his first three years in New York -- but the combination of his sensitivity and his lack of a ring can make for a delicate situation.

"He's criticized and scrutinized more than any player in the game," Jackson said. "He needs to be one of our leaders. It's been difficult for people to accept him."

This is not all his fault, not when he plays third base for a team that flaunts championship aspirations but employs Sidney Ponson.

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