Saturday, October 20, 2012

A-Rod: Long a Facsimile

     By Ross Newhan

     I first met Alex Rodriguez in 1996. I was the national baseball columnist at the L.A. Times and he was 21 and in his first full season as the Seattle Mariners shortstop. He was in the process of hitting 36 home runs and 54 doubles, driving in 123 runs to finish second in Most Valuable Player voting behind Juan Gonzalez. Rodriguez had been the first player selected in the 1993 June draft, leaving the Dodgers, drafting second, to select Darren Dreifort, and wouldn't history have been different if it had been the other way around?

    I had made arrangements with the Mariners and Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, to meet with the young player early in the Kingdome clubhouse, long before batting practice started, and after first introducing myself, Rodriguez asked, "can I get you a chair and a soft drink?" I had been covering baseball for 35 years and that was a first. No player before or since had or has offered me a chair and drink in a clubhouse interview.

    Rodriguez was that nice, but he had already been prepped.

   Boras and the major league PR department had arranged for the media trainer, Andrea Kirby, to meet with the talented and touted Rodriguez to work on his speech patterns and the expected onslaught of TV and newspaper reporters.

   Over the course of his celebrated career and subsequent interviews with Rodriguez, some long and some just a question or two, I have aways tended to drift back to that first interview, to that one and only time I was asked if I would like a chair and drink before we started. The point being, the thought that has stayed with me, is that the media readied Rodriguez, now 37, a three-time MVP who has hit 647 home runs, initiated his career as something of a facsimile and has never changed.

   Does anyone know the real Rodriguez?

  Can anyone be sure how much of his otherwise Hall of Fame caliber career has been built on his admitted (for a time with the Texas Rangers) use of steroids?

   While acknowledging his baseball gifts, who can say that his mind has always been on the game, or are we apt to think more of the stars and starlets he has dated? Are we apt to think of the recent New York Post story claiming that the benched Rodriguez, during the league championship series with the Detroit Tigers, sent a baseball to a pair of attractive fans on which he asked for their phone numbers?        
   What are we to make of Rodriguez after this latest post-season failure and benching that followed an injury marred and subpar regular season with the Yankees still owing him $114 million over five more years as part of their wacky 10 year, $275 million renewal in 2007?

    Can he be the player he once was or ever was free of steroids? Would any team risk taking him even if the Yankees pick up most of that $114 million? How can the Yankees put him back at third base now that they have started Eric Chavez--his star long dimmed--in the most meaningful games of the season?

    There are no clear cut answers to any of it, primarily because no one can say they have a clear cut vision of Alex Rodriguez.

    It would take a soft chair and something stronger than a soft drink to unwind the facsimile.              

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Yankees Loss of Jeter Is Loss of Player Who Has Been Baseball's Best

      By Ross Newhan

      From the tiime he became the fulltime Yankee shortstop in 1996 until he broke his left ankle in the 12th inning of Game 1 of the American League's Championship Series, Derek Jeter was the best player in baseball.

    I say that as a writer who has written about baseball for more than 50 years, and I acknowledge, in the 16 year period before Jeter went down, that there were better power hitters, better hitters for average, better base stealers and better defensive shortstops--Omar Vizquez for sure.

        Jeter, however, has been the epitome of the complete player, the quintessential Yankee and, if not Mr. October, few players have ever produced more postseason highlights in 33 fall series.

       In an era rampant with drug cheaters, Jeter did it naturally--at least there has never been rumors or evidence otherwise.
       Smart, tough, always in the right place at the right time--or think about the 2001 division series with Oakland if nothing more, the backhanded flip as a cutoff man who saw that he had to be far out of position and which nailed Jeremy Giambi trying to score, saving Game 3, and his bloodying, head- first dive into the Yankee Stadium stands to catch Terrence Long's foul fly in Game 5.

      He has been the Yankee captain, the manager behind the scenes, the all-time hit leader (passing Lou Gehrig in 2009) of an organization whose hit list contains some of the most renowned names in baseball history.

     As the leadoff man he set the tone for a series of Yankee lineups that didn't care about newspaper deadlines or the wearying arms of opposing pitchers, always playing their own postseason game.

    They consistently drove up pitch counts as the clock ticked through the time zones, and it all started with Jeter as he fouled off pitch after pitch before looping or driving a  single to right field with his inside out swing.

   This is not meant as an epitaph. Jeter has another year left on his contract at $17 million, but at 38  it is questionable how effectively he can return at a demanding position, and this seemed to be the appropriate time to put on record my opinion that for 16 years he has simply been the best player in the game. It is also questionable, of course, if the Yankees--wtih a regressing A-Rod among other key issues--can survive Detroit without their captain.      


Monday, October 1, 2012

While the Angels Underprerformed, the Dodgers Exceeded Expectations

       By Ross Newhan

       So, the Angels and Dodgers began their final series of the year Monday night with both still alive for the playoffs (sort of) and a reader asks which of the teams should be more disappointed if it fails to qualify for the post-season.

       The answer, as I see it, is an easy one.

     The Dodgers can take a measure of pride in getter this far. Who knew what to expect entering the season? As it played out, the divorce of Frank and Jamie McCourt distracted from the field, the  owner put the team in bakruptcy, Bud Selig took control of the operation, and General Manager Ned Colletti had littrle loose cash with which to improve the product until the new owner took over.

     The Angels should be embarrassed by their failure. The signing of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the arrival of Mike Trout and the continued development of Mark Trumbo contibuted, potentially, to what should should have been the strongest lineup in club history and one of the best rotations in the big leagues.

     Yet, this was a team that left too many runners on base, failed to fulfill its rotation expectations  (aside from Jered Weaver), waited too long to find a potential closer, never turned the bulllpen into anything but guesswork and frequently sent off  whffs of internal issues, as confirmed by multiple sources within the organization. Owner Arte Moreno ultimately posted a message on the team's web site that Manager Mike Sciosica, who is signed through 2018, would be back, along with General
 Manager Jerry DiPoto, but another 8-15 start could relight the smoke under Scioscia despite the six years left on his contract.

    The Angels also have personnel problems despite the generally high level of talent.

    The bullpen needs work, the option years of Ervin Santana ($13 million ) and Dan Haren ($15.5 million) are unlikely to be expercised (creating gaping holes in the rotation unless Zach Greineke can be signed as a free agent), Torri Hunter presents a major free agent quandry after carrying the club in September, and the seldom used or productive Vernon Wells is still owed $42 million over the next two years.

    The Angels, it appears, with their $152 million payoll, are going to watch the Texas Rangers win their third straight division title and face humiliation as the Oakland A's, with their $52.8 million payroll, and Baltimore Orioles, at $84 million, both come from nowhere to capture the American League's two wild card berths. Moreno, of course, still has all that TV money with which to fill holes, but 2012 provided another example that money isn't always decisive.

    The new Dodger owners will soon sign the mother of all TV contracts, although their record $2.1 billion purchase of the team and $260 million acquisition of four players from the Boston Red Sox proved they are not operating on a shoestring. Had Matt Kemp not run into the wall in Colorado and Adrian Gonzalez not struggled intiially after his aquisition from the Red Sox, the Dodger probably would have caught St. Louis (which they still could) for the second wild card spot and, perhaps, even San Francisco for the division title.

    Depending on Carl Crawford's comeback from Tommy John surgery and Josh Beckett's reliability, the Guggehim Partners may have paid $260 million for one player (Gonzalez) but with their insurance revenues and new TV contract it is unlikely that money is a concern to them. They have a varierty of issues that have to be addressed, but what Dodger fan during the heart of the McCourt mess would have predicted the season would end this optimistically or on such a winning run? It was Angel fans, with their great expectations, who would have expected better.