Alex Rodriguez broke his hand at the end of July when hit by a Felix Hernandez pitch. Before doing so, Rodriguez was having the same season offensively as Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez — not great, certainly, and not up to his standards, but not as incompetent as he and the rest of the imploding New York Yankees looked at the end of their baseball apocalypse, either.
After fracturing that hand, Rodriguez missed more than a month and had all of six extra-base hits in last 28 regular-season games, only two of them homers. His power evaporated, in other words. You know who had more homers in those last 28 games than A-Rod did? Gorkys Hernandez.
A similar thing happened this season to the great Joey Votto, though more quietly. He got injured in July, returned for the last month and had all of eight extra-base hits in his last 31 games, none of them homers. Baseball is hard that way. You can’t just parachute out of the sky and start hitting.
So then the playoffs started, and Rodriguez was engulfed in that familiar noise about choking, and his alleged ally, manager Joe Girardi, fed said noise by doing something that fell between emasculation and betrayal. First, he pinch-hit for one of the game’s most expensive bats late, then he benched it altogether. What Girardi didn’t do — what nobody did, not even Rodriguez himself — was make any kind of effort to protect/defend A-Rod by saying, um, hey, uh, aren’t healthy hands kind of important to hitting?
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It is oppressive, this climate we’ve built around what are supposed to be games. This is merely entertainment, but fans, media, players and coaches have conspired to turn sports into a temple filled with moralizing and sermonizing with very harsh judgments for the confessions of the sinners. So explanations are dismissed as excuses by even the players themselves in this world, which is odd because anywhere else on the planet, in places far more serious than our arenas, explanations are allowed to be explanations.
But imagine if, while the tabloids laughed at his struggle and Rodriguez was character-smeared yet again for having a mind made of porcelain in the postseason, Rodriguez had volunteered that maybe his struggles had to do with missed time and a bad hand. I have no idea if that is factually so; I do know that it isn’t even allowed to be so. The noise would have gotten even louder than it already was had he claimed to not be healthy by way of explanation, crybaby added to his list of sports crimes even though if any of us were sick at work in a way that was impacting our production, we’d probably feel the need to tell somebody in search of compassion or understanding.
It is odd, given why Rodriguez is famous, that so many of us spend so much time questioning his strength. In suggesting that moments are too large for him, we mock him as weak, and he spent the past few weeks trying to ward us off with a hand that was broken a few months ago. He failed in a loud way, of course, and there was a celebration of that failure. But here’s where he doesn’t have a lot of precedent as an athlete: Usually, if you win just once, we leave you alone forever.
“Can’t win the big one” and “choker” are lame tags we give a lot of athletes. Then the Manning brothers and Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James win that big one, and, instead of admitting that we were wrong about them, we just shuffle off to the next smearing accusation of Tony Romo or Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony because the math to be mean is always in our favor, each sport providing only one champion a season while the factory mass produces so many more athletes every year who fail at the end.
Usually, though, when you win once, you are golden forever, never to be doubted again once you’ve provided the proof. Bill Parcells has fleeced employers this way for years, living off things done more than two decades ago. In 2009, en route to becoming a Yankees champion, Rodriguez hit .365 with six homers and 18 RBI in one postseason. He was big in big moments. We didn’t say we were wrong. We said he figured it out. Then he failed again this season, and we pounced once again. He apparently forgot whatever he figured out, and we forgot that we were already wrong about him once before. Have you seen that happen to a champion before? Ever? Heck, Tom Brady has lost a lot of close, important games since last winning in 2004, you know?
You may not have to wait long to see what happened to A-Rod happen again, though.
Heaven help LeBron James if he happens to miss a couple of buzzer beaters this season.