NEW YORK - Haters, like hitters, have bad nights.
As October baseball opened on its brightest stage, Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees made Wednesday one of those nights for pinstripe-haters everywhere.
There’s no way to know if Rodriguez can make this a bad month for those who consider him a slicker version of Barry Bonds – the guy they love to hate – but at least he’s started down the right road in New York’s 7-2 victory over Minnesota.
Remember back in February, when Sports Illustrated reported Rodriguez had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in 2003? He was reviled and ridiculed throughout the sport. The Yankees tried to close ranks around him – a development essentially required by the 10-year, $275 million contract he signed after the 2007 season – but no one knew how fans would react, even at Yankee Stadium.
But when Rodriguez took his position for the start of the American League Division Series opener against the Twins, moving the rich, red dirt around with his spikes as he awaited CC Sabathia’s first pitch, his was just another name in the roll call taken by fans in the bleachers.
“A-Rod, A-Rod,” they cheered, a joyous serenade to a slugger who delivered 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in even though hip surgery compressed his season. Rodriguez raised his hand, and the postseason – one the three-time MVP must pray will end with him wearing a World Series ring for the first time – began.
When Rodriguez flied out with a runner on second in the first inning, it was a reminder of Octobers past, but maybe not a bellwether for this one.
Something feels different about this Yankees team than recent ones that froze in the playoffs. Nothing would signal a change more than for Rodriguez to play as well in October as he has in the preceding six months.
He was 2-for-4 in the Yankees’ victory. His run-scoring single shot into left-center field in the fifth inning to end an 0-for-19 stretch with runners in scoring position in the playoffs, and he followed it with an RBI single lined off the base of the right-field wall in the seventh. The two RBI were one more than in his previous 16 playoff games.
The meaning of such a nice start?
“Nothing,” Rodriguez said. “One RBI, two RBIs ... for me the story is CC and (Derek) Jeter. He’s our captain, he’s our leader.”
Jeter’s two-run homer was his 18th in the playoffs.
Rodriguez had hit only .200 in his last four postseason series, suffering the ultimate embarrassment when Joe Torre hit him eighth in an elimination game at Detroit in 2006.
It could be a while before Rodriguez is tested like he was in that series, when the Tigers’ starters included Justin Verlander and Kenny Rogers. Fresh off Tuesday’s tiebreaker victory over the Tigers, the Twins started rookie lefty Brian Duensing in Game 1 and have Nick Blackburn (5.47 ERA in 15 starts since the All-Star break) lined up for Game 2 Friday.
The Twins look like little more than sparring partners in this quarterfinal. After all, the Yankees have nine players who make more than the highest salaried Twin, including three (Rodriguez, $32 million; Jeter, $20 million, and Mark Teixeira, $20 million) who make more than the entire Minnesota payroll ($67 million).
“Once you get out on the field, no one plays with a billfold in their pocket,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said Wednesday. “It’s all baseball players. ... (But) you know what? The Yankees are the most professional team you’ll ever see. ... They don’t get enough credit for that.”
Rodriguez doesn’t get as much credit as he once did, but there’s nothing wrong with his paychecks. He could buy all the jewelry he wants but not the ring that would provide some vindication.
“Some people like to focus on individuals,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t work that way with us. We have a goal to have 10 more wins.”